COP21: Halfway Through

Today marks the halfway point of the COP21 United Nations Climate Summit, a multinational effort–including some 30,000 delegates and diplomats from 195 countries–to produce a global accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, slow and eventually stop human-produced global warming, and begin to alleviate environmental problems associated with the industrial-scale burning of fossil fuels. Because the climate negotiators are taking today as a break, I felt it a good time to offer my summary and assessment of how matters have progressed in Paris.
Reason for Optimism
Overall, I have been heartened by a number of the advancements made. The discussion at the conference has, in large part, served to validate the optimism that columnist Mark Hertsgaard showed in his critical piece that appeared in The Nation last month. There, Hertsgaard made the case that “popular pressure” ahead of the COP21 has actively moved policy makers towards positions that would increasingly “leave fossil fuels in the ground.” This represents a major departure from the failed talks in Copenhagen in 2009, when public opinion had not yet turned in favor of policy-based action against global warming to the extent it has today. This shift is borne out by recent polling: two-thirds of Americans now believe that the US should join an international treaty to stop global warming.
One Week In, We Have a Text
Departing from previous conferences, delegates to the COP21 met a key deadline and produced a draft agreement of a clear and concise 21 pages (down from the 50 page text, linked here) within the first week of the conference. As Lenore Taylor and Suzanne Goldenberg reported in The Guardian, this comprises a major change from the Copenhagen conference, where the draft text at the halfway point was 300 pages. Excitingly, the 2015 text–even in brackets, in the draft currently available–signals a commitment to precisely the egalitarian ideals that ought to inform the world’s way forward in meeting with the challenges climate change poses. I believe this direction to be no doubt informed by the location of the conference and in keeping with an extension of the French precept of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to the world’s people and the earth. Climate is precisely the domain that connects all. “The Parties of the Agreement,” the text reads, apprehend that the movement must proceed according to “principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities [in the light of different national circumstances].” Delegates are forging an agreement that takes into account both the necessity of a new multinational solidarity, and the profound asymmetries between developed and developing countries (largely split between the Global North and South) involved in access to the resources needed to act on global warming.
We’re Seeing a New Movement toward the Local
On Friday, I was fortunate enough to find myself, alongside a number of my international graduate peers in residence at the Cité Universitaire, representing our respective continents in attendance at the Summit for Local Elected Leaders in Paris. The event was principally comprised of mayors from around the world, who held a dialogue about what can be accomplished at the community and city level to more rapidly build decarbonized economies than slow-going national and supranational political progress can frequently allow. There, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon observed that it is local elected leaders “who will help turn this global agreement into a reality on the ground.” I found this to be empowering. Even if one finds oneself with elected representation at the national level committed to climate denial, and in opposition to action, we can ensure we are engaged with our local leaders to make sustainability initiatives vital and ongoing in our communities.
What I’m Not Seeing: The Global South & The Need for Equitable Investment and Labor Practices in Infrastructure Transformation
One among several major points diplomats will debate this week, involving bracketed components of the draft text, includes the necessary transfer of aid and free technologies from developed countries, the carbon footprints of which have most contributed to global warming, to the developing countries with the most need of infrastructure development and fewest resources to meet with the manifestations of climate change now becoming evident. $100 billion has been promised annually to help countries largely located in the Global South to adapt to, and mitigate, changes in the environment and develop the technologies and infrastructure for confronting climate change. My principal concern in this regard, following Karl Mathiesen’s piece that ran in The Guardian on Friday, is that it be ensured that this capital represent direct aid, and, to the greatest extent possible, be free of loans that would pose an additional financial imposition on nations whose economies have historically contributed the least to global warming. As a corollary of this–and as something I have yet to see written about, anywhere–I believe it is most critical that new infrastructure development towards a decarbonized future be connected integrally with fair and equitable labor standards, practices, and compensation, worldwide. A just and sustainable future for the global environment, whereby the world’s people rethink the exploitation of natural resources, should begin by strongly affirming a commitment to a living wage and conditions for the workers that will make it possible.
All in all, I am very optimistic for the week to come at COP21, though I recognize compromises will be necessary to make a global accord possible. Yet, what is most important, is that we acknowledge that any agreement will be an essential step, but an incremental one. Already, we know that the pact will be insufficient as a final framework to fully mitigate climate change. Current, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (the oft-cited “INDCs” central to the accord) regarding national projections on carbon emissions add up to an estimated increase of 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels, over the 2°C stated aim of the conference. However, this is only the start. In his short essay that ran in the November 5 issue of the London Review of Books, the scholar of economic and social law and regulation David Campbell presented a strong though pessimistic argument for the irrelevancy of COP21. “By insisting once again that they don’t have a responsibility to reduce emissions,” Campbell concludes, focusing on China and India, the two countries “have ensured that the Paris conference will not reach the hoped-for agreement. Global emissions reductions have been impossible for more than a quarter-century and will continue to be impossible for the very good reason that this is what was agreed in the original convention. Numerous near irrelevant agreements and declarations of intent will no doubt be made in Paris, obscuring the failure to reach any agreement on global reductions” with the corresponding implication that, as Campbell forcefully argues, “it is time for those committed to environmental intervention to abandon the idea of mitigation in favour of adaptation to climate change’s effects.” The points Campbell raises are smart, but I believe short-sighted, given that they were made a month before the conference had begun, without knowing what final compromises nations at the conference might make (including India and China), and without the acknowledgement that we cannot know what future possibilities the COP21 will create–Keats’s idea of negative capability, and embracing uncertainty as the space of creativity and potential may apply here. I remain positive, and committed to the idea that to abandon the mitigation and reduction of greenhouse gas pollution now would be to give up ten seconds before midnight. In Paris, this week, our world stills stands to be changed, our solidarity declared, and our shared sense of responsibility for protecting our environment affirmed.