Hope and disappointment: Bridging two realities in Paris climate deal

LE BOURGET, France – They did it. The world came together here at the United Nations Climate Change Conference and on Dec. 12 agreed that each nation has to play a role in saving humanity from climate change by cutting their carbon emissions.

The agreement is many things. It’s historic. It’s a giant step forward for humanity and world cooperation. It’s inadequate. It’s missing many things that science suggests need to be agreed to in order to prevent the Earth’s temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius or the more ambitious 1.5 degrees – a provision the Pacific Island nations, like the Marshall Islands, insisted upon including.

The agreement says the nations of the world pledge steps aimed at “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change,”

Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum called anything over 2 degrees fatal for island nations.

“We cannot be expected to sign off on a small island death warrant here in Paris,” said de Brum. “Anything over 2 degrees is a death warrant for us. It means the sea level will rise above … our level of the islands. It means the islands go under.”

My sense of the climate change agreement is it’s a giant step in the right direction by the 195 countries at the table. To get all these countries involved in the process is a testament to our president. I know many of my left friends will roll their eyes at me when I say President Barack Obama played an outstanding role in trying to broker an accord everyone could agree to.

Given the vociferous Republican opposition to anything remotely reducing carbon emissions, how the president and his administration worked to make progress, starting with the breakthrough U.S.-China deal, despite the GOP’s lock-step obstructionism, is to be commended.

The United States, because of our history of militaristic and Cold War/imperial foreign policy fueled by Big Oil and other political-economic interests, often plays a negative role in world forums. That was true to a certain degree in Paris as well. References to human rights and a “just transition” were scuttled in some sections of the agreement apparently from U.S. concerns.

But let’s face it, national politics is the starting point for foreign policy, and to find ways to get an agreement among 195 nations and shield it from Republican attack is no easy feat.

That said, scientists, environmental and Indigenous groups, trade unions and social justice activists are quick to point out the numerous deficiencies in the agreement.

In a statement, the International Trade Union Confederation called the deal “a first step,” while at the same time “weak” and “compromised.”

“The Paris deal recognizes the reality of the climate threat, but only takes us part of the way,” the ITUC said.

“Climate change is already destroying lives and livelihoods with more than 2.6 million people displaced by extreme weather events and changing seasons. This will only get worse,” the statement reads.

Rainforest Action Network said in an email it viewed the agreement “with both hope and disappointment.”

“We are encouraged at the recognition that deforestation and forest degradation play a critical role in the climate crisis, yet greatly disheartened at the lack of binding inclusion for Indigenous and human rights in the agreement.”

Like the ITUC, the network said the protection of people and the planet will “ultimately” come from “people power.”

“The past few weeks in Paris have presented a heartening display of the unity and solidarity of an ascendant global climate justice movement with Indigenous community voices and voices from the global south at its core,” the network said. “Frontline communities, Indigenous communities, and everyday activists who are willing to stand up to those who place profits before people and planet will force the change we need to see. And that will allow us to keep forests standing, to keep fossil fuels in the ground, to protect human rights and to create a just and sustainable future.”

The Paris deal included text on developing “policy approaches and positive incentives for activities relating to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests.”

Scientists and climate experts also responded in similar ways, welcoming the agreement and “worrying” about the lack of clear and strong timetables for carbon emission reduction.

But some condemned the agreement. The man called the father of climate awareness, former NASA scientist James Hansen, called the Paris talks a “fraud.” In a media release from Indigenous Environmental Network, 350.org and No Tar Sands, Indigenous activists condemned “the failure of the UN to achieve an agreement at COP21 that takes meaningful action on the climate crisis” and its “false solutions.” They pledged to continue to give leadership on “keeping highly polluting fossil fuels in the ground and meaningful climate adaptation strategies.”

The agreement’s many shortcomings are apparent. Even President Obama, in his remarks on the Paris deal, agreed with critics, “Now, no agreement is perfect, including this one. Negotiations that involve nearly 200 nations are always challenging. Even if all the initial targets set in Paris are met, we’ll only be part of the way there when it comes to reducing carbon from the atmosphere. So we cannot be complacent because of today’s agreement. The problem is not solved because of this accord. But make no mistake, the Paris agreement establishes the enduring framework the world needs to solve the climate crisis. It creates the mechanism, the architecture, for us to continually tackle this problem in an effective way.”  

The planet works on its own timetable and not the human political one. In other words, while we may be happy today that the human world is recognizing the existential threat, the planet doesn’t care one bit. Global warming and extreme weather events are objective reality. It doesn’t stop because there is an agreement. The trajectory of global warming will only change if human – and capitalism’s – behavior changes.

And there’s the rub. Politics change human behavior and human behavior changes politics. The political and educational work to broaden and deepen the climate justice movement at the grassroots, to reach out and motivate all Americans to get involved, has to continue in order to make the agreement and more ambitious agreements or goals realizable.

Big jobs lay ahead. It means curbing Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry, including natural gas from fracking – curbing both the use of these fuels and their stranglehold on U.S. politics and economy. It means electing a president and Congress in 2016 that will continue the hard but necessary work of building an economy based on clean renewable energy, not fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas emitting sources.

You can donate to continue bringing climate coverage for the 99 percent here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/climate-coverage-for-the-99-percent-paris-cop21#/

Photo: Banner translates to: Agribusiness disrupts the climate,  peasant/family farmer agriculture protects the planet.  |  Teresa Albano/PW 


Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.