Real progress possible at coming Paris climate summit

Breaking news for readers: Peoples World will be on site in Paris, France at the 2015 Climate Summit. PW reporters Teresa Albano and Blake Deppe will be there filing live reports for our website and on social media outlets. Keep posted to these pages for reports and updates.

There are five interacting factors which have set the stage for significant progress at the UN-sponsored climate change negotiations (COP21)  in Paris-Le Bourget, Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. Hopes for a meaningful treaty and aggressive targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases are growing at the same time as the need for such action becomes ever more clear.

Those five factors are:

1.      The science

2.      The growing people’s movements for climate action

3.      The pressure from bilateral agreements and commitments in advance of Paris

4.      The falling economic cost of renewables

5.      The need for even more fundamental change

First, the science relating to climate change, and the growing dangers from the changes already taking place, are more certain than ever. The oceans are acidifying, affecting fisheries, dead zones, sea level rise, and decreasing the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. Forest fires and droughts are increasing in number and intensity. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and massive flooding are intensifying. Glacial melt, and the potential for a catastrophic collapse of parts of the Antarctic ice sheets are growing.

All this means that the case for taking action is becoming harder to ignore, harder to deflect. Republican obfuscation and denial are even more obviously out-of-touch with reality.

Second, people’s movements demanding action on climate change are growing. The Peoples Climate March from September 2014 set the tone, with over 400,000 gathering in New York City, and around 200,000 participating in support actions around the world. There are demonstrations planned in the U.S. on Nov. 9 and after. There are plans for a massive march in Paris to coincide with the negotiations, along with large-scale civil disobedience actions. Struggles for divestment from fossil fuel corporations are occurring at universities, in cities, and directed at public funds. Future demonstrations are being planned as well. This street heat is a crucial element of the pressure building for a serious agreement in Paris, often downplayed in the attention to governmental negotiating positions.

The movement is multifaceted. Divestment from fossil fuel companies is being tackled by student groups, progressive church communities, good government groups tackling the investment of public fund, and even by some investment advisors. Climate change demonstrations are growing in number and size. Creative coalitions are being built, such as those which successfully opposed the Keystone XL pipeline project, and other creative forms of struggle. Indigenous communities worldwide are playing a leadership role in demanding an end to projects which would despoil their land, as well as demanding cultural changes to better adapt ourselves to the laws and needs of nature. Links are being built between labor, community, environmental, tribal, peace, and good government organizations,

Voters are demanding that candidates address climate change, especially young voters. Bernie Sanders is campaigning on his stance on global warming, and pressure from his campaign and the public forced Hillary Clinton to commit to killing the Keystone XL pipeline (a few weeks in advance of the Obama administration decision rejecting the project on environmental grounds).

Also, there is new pressure from the leaders and members of many religious communities, from the Pope to Islamic leaders to the Dali Lama, and from parts of the U.S. evangelical movement and other religious forces.

Building this public demand for action are the revelations that Exxon Mobil (and likely other fossil fuel companies) knew about and understood the implications of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change for decades, while funding climate change denialists.

The people’s movements are already having an impact on state and local governments. Mayors from around the world met with Pope Francis to talk about their role. California, facing a disastrous multi-year drought, his taking action on its own.

Thirdly, there is pressure from governmental negotiating positions and bilateral agreements already in effect. The landmark agreement between the U.S. and China was a crucial step in breaking old log-jams in the process. Since then, China and France have also signed a bilateral agreement, and many countries have announced ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals in preparation for the Paris meeting.

Related is the pressure governments are feeling to be able to claim they are taking action. They will likely exaggerate the effects of the negotiations, and try to convince people that those actions are enough by themselves-even though the science says otherwise (see point 5).

Fourthly, the economics of renewable energy are changing rapidly. Costs of production are falling as manufacturing gets to scale, and scientists and engineers are making the process more efficient, turning more latent energy into usable energy. This is true of solar, on-shore wind, off-shore wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal processes, and new products that use less energy and use it more efficiently are rapidly becoming available. As well, progress has been made in the affordability and practicality of small-scale installations bringing power to many poor areas and making it possible for them to skip the stage of fossil fuels.

This combines with the latest studies which show that the impact of climate change on our economies and health will be worse than previously thought.

Lastly, even as the hopes for a major agreement in Paris grow, the awareness of scientists and citizens alike is growing that whatever comes from the Paris negotiations will be insufficient to keep global temperatures from rising past levels that will be catastrophic for human civilization.

These five factors are not separate and distinct-they are integrally connected, and each of them impacts the others. For example, the falling cost of renewables makes it possible for countries to adopt more stringent goals for greenhouse gas reduction. At the same time, pressure from the street heat of the climate movement forces governments to consider more public and forceful goals and actions. For example, the actual experience of some countries as they transfer away from fossil fuels successfully, such as Germany, gives the lie to right-wing claims that action on climate will destroy economies. Instead, renewables often provide new jobs and cheaper power.

And the growing body of scientific knowledge and collection of data feeds the realization that, while we need an international binding agreement as one key element of the steps needed, it will not be enough. More and more people understand that capitalism itself is on trial, that it is a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions and the major obstacle to the fundamental change required by this crisis facing all humanity.

The key element in this struggle is the growth of the people’s movement. We need more science, we need more technological change, we need more aggressive national goals for greenhouse gas reduction, and we need technology to be implemented on a massive scale-but without the pressure of mass political consciousness and action, the forces opposing progress will have an easier time throwing up smokescreens, delaying decisions, creating false hopes that change is not needed. Breaking the power of the fossil fuel companies in the U.S. electoral system, exacerbated by the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision allowing limitless campaign contributions and “dark money” PACs, requires citizen involvement before they destroy the future of our children and grandchildren in the name of short-term excess profits.

To sum up: Science continues to prove climate change and its impacts, and public pressure is building to demand an international agreement to tackle climate change; there is real hope for a serious agreement in Paris; renewable energy is becoming cost-effective making an energy transition possible; and the Paris agreement and changing energy industry will by themselves be only a step in the right direction.

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Photo: “Paris Climat” (Paris Climate)  |  COP21 website


Marc Brodine
Marc Brodine

Marc Brodine is a former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change