Beyond the Climate Summit
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
During the 20 years since the first United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as Conference of Parties or COP, emissions have risen more than 60 percent.
But such dismal failure doesn’t appear to be motivating attendees at the ongoing COP21 meeting in Paris to reach effective agreement on standards that would prevent global temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. In response to the lack of ambition, UN Secretary-Gen. Ban Ki Moon has expressed support for an even lower target—a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius—being pushed by countries most at risk in the global south. Meanwhile, voluntary national pledges, widely touted in advance, would allow for up to 5 C.
“It would be sad, and I dare say, even catastrophic, were particular interests to prevail over the common good,” said Pope Francis before COP21 began on Nov. 30.
But that’s exactly what all signs indicate, which is why climate activists only see it as one stage in a much larger struggle—though some say an inadequate deal should be rejected outright.
“Governments come to the table at summits like this with what they consider to be politically possible,” author and activist Naomi Klein recently said on the radio program Democracy Now! “Social movements exist to change what is politically possible….We move the bar so the next time they come to the table, what is politically possible is aligned with what is physically necessary. Because right now, what is considered politically possible is deeply out of alignment with what is physically necessary.”
Indeed, the drift of policy has been in the wrong direction. The current round of negotiations originally intended to produce a binding agreement that would force climate polluters to make deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, and would obligate rich countries to provide resources for poor ones to deal with the damage already caused. The guiding operative principle, “common but differentiated responsibility,” meant that those who have put the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere should carry the main burdens of reductions and payments to mitigate damages.
But at the end of COP20 in Lima l, a bilateral deal between China and the United States undermined that principle with additional obfuscatory language: “and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.” The language was then injected into the COP20 call for action. The voluntary emission pledges offered in advance of Paris fall far short of what’s needed. Climate activists around the world have been pushing for much stronger action.
Instead, on the day before the conference began the French government rescinded the permission it had granted for a protest rally that was expected to draw 200,000 people–and placed 24 climate activists under house arrest for the duration of COP21. The cancellation was announced in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris on Nov.13, but after the conference began, the demonstration ban was extended past the end of the conference—a full month after the attacks.
Activists responded to the suppression on Nov. 29 by installing thousands of pairs of shoes—symbolic of their desire to march—in front of the Place de la République, which is just a few blocks away from the Bataclan theater, a primary target of the terrorist attacks. Among the shoes was a pair donated by Pope Francis and other religious leaders as well.
As demonstrations went on worldwide— 2,200 events in 150 countries, coordinated in part by 350.org—tens of thousands of people formed a human chain, stretching for blocks through downtown Paris. Afterward, thousands of people defied the protest ban and began marching through the streets, where they were met by hundreds of riot police, using tear gas, sound bombs and pepper spray. More than 200 protesters were arrested.
Earlier, on Black Friday, Nov. 27, the British-based Brandalism project hijacked 600 outdoor advertising spaces, filling them with so-called “subvertisements” by 80 artists from 19 countries.
“We’re sorry we got caught,” blares a bus-stop display ad, mocking Volkswagen’s lead role in falsifying diesel emissions on some of its cars. “Now that we’ve been caught, we’re trying to make you think we care about the environment…. But we’re not the only ones.”
“Tackling climate change?” the Air France subvertisement asks itself. “Of course not, we’re an airline.”
Bill Posters from Brandalism explained the campaign in a press release. “Following the tragic events on 13th November in Paris, the government has chosen to ban the big civil society mobilisations—but big business events can continue,” he said. “The multinationals responsible for climate change can keep greenwashing their destructive business models, but the communities directly impacted by them are silenced. It’s now more important than ever to call out their lies and speak truth to power.”
Added Joe Elan, also of Brandalism: “By sponsoring the climate talks, major polluters such as Air France and GDF-Suez-Engie can promote themselves as part of the solution—when actually they are part of the problem,”
Along similar lines, two French organizations joined forces to produce a report, “Can Transnational Companies Save The Climate?” It examined the practices of 10 of the 40 corporate sponsors of COP21, exposing a dismal record.
Companies were rated on three criteria. Four companies met the standard for data transparency, while one met the standard for emissions in line with European Union objectives. But the report stated that when the ratings took into account the full impact of all the businesses that constitute each company’s complete value chain, “none of these companies…seem capable of reducing its global carbon footprint in line with EU objectives.”
The rating system was not an idle exercise. According to the report, the shortfall in voluntary commitments needed to meet the emission targets means “governments and international institutions are increasingly turning to the private sector, particularly big transnational corporations, in an attempt to find the solutions and investments required to evolve towards low-carbon societies and economies,” the report explained. “As host to the COP21, the French government has chosen to give corporations a special role, making forty of them the official sponsors of the event and giving them a large place in the ‘Solutions Agenda’ (or Lima-Paris Action Agenda) which is to be appended to the international draft agreement.” The approach has been highly criticized by civil society organizations—with good reason, according to the report’s results.
But activists aren’t limited to criticism regarding the business sector. The past few years have seen the wildfire growth of the carbon divestment movement, which reached an historic milestone on Dec. 2.
“More than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment commitment,” 350.org stated in a press release.
Kevin De León, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, was one of the speakers at the press conference that 350.org hosted. De León authored legislation, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, promoting disinvestment by two of the world’s largest pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, which together represent almost $500 billion in assets—and which lost $5 billion this past year in its oil and gas portfolio.
More focused actions of this kind—holding more and more people responsible for the tight connections between carbon and its costs— are part of the cutting edge of climate activism. Closely related is a new focus on the connection between carbon emissions and economic inequality, which has been the subject of two recent reports.
A report from Oxfam released on Dec. 2 found that the world’s richest 10 percent produce half the global carbon emissions, while the world’s poorest 50 percent produce just 10 percent of emissions.
“Climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality: it is a crisis that is driven by the greenhouse gas emissions of the ‘haves’ that hits the ‘have-nots’ the hardest,” Oxfam said on its website.
The results were strikingly similar to those reported one month earlier in paper by Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel of the Paris School of Economics. Their figures showed that the top 10 percent of emitters contributed 45 percent of emissions, while the bottom 50 percent contributed 13 percent of emissions. Divisions between the highest and lowest one percent are even more extreme. The top 1 percent richest Americans, Luxemburgers, Singaporeans, and Saudi Arabians have carbon emission 2,000 times that of the lowest income groups of Honduras, Mozambique, Rwanda and Malawi.
The Piketty-Chancel study suggested three different strategies to increase global climate adaptation funding, using individual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions as the basis for contributions. The first, would tax all emitters above the 50 percent threshold in proportion to how much they exceed the threshold. The second, would use the same formula, but with a top 10 percent threshold. The third strategy would use a top 1 percent threshold. All three strategies represent a significant departure from earlier ideas, which have gotten bogged down in various dead-end disputes.
There’s bound to be opposition to these ideas as well, but they greatly clarify issues of responsibility, making it harder and harder for “particular interests to prevail over the common good,” as Pope Francis put it.
Along those same lines, Oxfam’s report noted that those blocking progress represent a tiny minority:
“Between the Copenhagen and Paris climate conferences, the number of billionaires on the Forbes list with interests in fossil fuel activities has risen from 54 in 2010 to 88 in 2015, while the size of their combined personal fortunes has expanded by around 50% from over $200bn to more than $300bn.”
Similarly, a September 2015 report by the Institute for Policy Studies, “Money to Burn,” gave a detailed analysis of the ways fossil fuel CEOs are rewarded for sticking with the status quo rather than transitioning to clean energy sources. These include common corporate practices, such as stock-based CEO compensation that encourages a focus on driving up share prices in the short term, regardless long-term costs— including those for the environment.
But there are also some industry-specific dysfunctions. For example, IPS noted:
“All 13 oil producers on our list of 30 major U.S. fossil-fuel corporations reward executives for expanding carbon reserves. The report also found that all of the top oil producers link annual bonus payments to expansion of carbon reserves.”
It’s now well understood that most oil reserves will have to be left in the ground. So these CEOs are being rewarded for wasteful, if not destructive behavior.
The coal industry is already collapsing, but IPS noted that the “top 10 publicly held U.S. coal companies have also been increasing their cash-based executive pay as their share prices have been plummeting. When paychecks grow even as businesses sink, executives have little incentive to shift to a new energy future.”
In short, on an ever-growing multitude of fronts the dividing line Pope Francis referred to between particular interests and the common good is growing clearer and clearer. The particular interests still hold the most power, but things are shifting rapidly.
“This event is not the game; it is the scoreboard,” said 350.org founder Bill McKibben, about the Paris climate summit in an interview with Democracy Now! “Before Copenhagen, there was no climate movement, so there was no pressure on anyone there. Barack Obama could come home from Copenhagen with no agreement, Hillary Clinton, no agreement, and pay no price. But that’s no longer true for them or almost anybody else. So, we’ll get something out of here, but it won’t be enough. We’ll probably be on a path that heats up about 3.5 degrees Celsius instead of five degrees.”
In itself, that’s terrible news. It would mean “an uninhabitable world,” McKibben said. But that’s not the end of it, by any means. “What it tells us is what the score is now and how much work more we have to do.”