The Paris Agreement: A huge step forward?

Chloe Aldenhoven

From Chain Reaction #126, April 2016, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia www.archive.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

Last December, 196 countries signed an agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – something the climate movement had been hoping for since the UNFCCC process began in Kyoto in the early 1990s.

But on the ground in Paris during the final day of the negotiations, rather than popping champagne, 10,000 climate activists from across the world held an illegal protest. In defiance of the French government, they took over the Champs Elysees and blockaded streets outside the Eiffel tower. Their message: this agreement is not what it looks like.

George Monbiot neatly summed it up in The Guardian: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

The agreement is undoubtedly a feat of diplomacy. For the first time in history 196 countries have come together to acknowledge the science: any target more than 1.5 degrees would set us up for serious environmental collapse.

And many have celebrated the outcome, saying that while the agreement is not binding, and does not set up a solid pathway to 1.5 degrees, the acknowledgement of the target itself is a huge step forward.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz for instance, says the deal has sent a strong signal to the world that “fossil fuels are over”: “By itself, the agreement is far from enough to limit the increase in global warming to the target of 2ºC above the pre-industrial level. But it did put everyone on notice: the world is moving, inexorably, toward a green economy. One day not too far off, fossil fuels will be largely a thing of the past.”

What about the science?

Tempting as it may be to join the celebrations and trust that the new international climate pact will hold global warming to 1.5 degrees, the world’s ability to address climate change depends on science at least as much it does on politics. So what do the climate scientists say?

Most eminent climate scientists have made it clear that while the Paris agreement talks the talk, science suggests it simply can’t walk the walk.

As they currently stand, the nationally indicated targets proposed by the 196 nation states (a kind of ‘what are you willing to throw into the hat’ approach to national contributions to emissions reduction) won’t meet the 1.5 degree target. Instead, they will commit the world to approximately 2.7 degrees: still an incredibly dangerous amount of warming.

But wait, there’s more. UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson says that this 2.7-degree estimation may not even be an accurate estimate of how much countries can scale down and phase out fossil fuels with existing technologies over the coming decades. The figure also includes significant emissions ‘reductions’ from technologies for extracting carbon from the atmosphere that may not come online until 2050-2070.

If you take out these ‘fairy godmother’ technologies, the warming predicted from the Paris agreement increases to 4 degrees. And 4 degrees is what will trigger runaway global warming as various climate ‘tipping points’ accelerate warming beyond 7 degrees.

So, it’s difficult to see what the on-the-ground effects of the Paris agreement will be. It may or may not initiate a shift in the political and business consciousness around the transition to renewable energy that will get us somewhere near under 2 degrees. In the meantime, it creates an interesting dilemma for the social movement.

Social movements and institutional failure: Don’t we need hope?

Many commentators have praised the Paris agreement as a sign of hope: hope that we can keep warming under safe levels, and that we can change our societies fast enough to avoid the worst-case warming scenarios.

But history suggests that big institutions are rarely capable of drastic change, and that it is not just hope that draws people into social movements, but an understanding that action is your only option.

Bill Moyer, veteran American civil rights and anti-nuclear activist, is also famous for writing a useful analysis of social movements called the ‘Movement Action Plan’. The plan, or ‘MAP’, outlines what he has observed are the 8 ‘stages’ of successful social movements.

One absolutely essential initial stage is a widespread recognition of institutional failure. A recognition that the institutions that are supposed to protect our basic safety have let us down. And a realization that, now, it is up to us.

The anger that comes with this recognition gets people to stand up, get out of their comfort zones to seize power, or risk all they have trying.

While the Paris agreement may look like the UN is finally realizing its potential to bring all nations together to act in their collective self-interest and protect humanity, unfortunately it’s not that simple. The task of phasing out fossil fuels and moving our society towards sustainability remains momentous.

The illusion of the Paris agreement as a savior, the simulacrum created by the states, journalists, commentators and some NGOs, will most likely hit the wall over the coming decades as the reality of climate change hits us hard.

So how do we take this knowledge on, as the climate movement?

The challenge ahead

First of all, it’s important for us to be real about the challenge. We need to be real with our communities, and ourselves, however scary the situation looks. As a movement we have the responsibility to reflect the reality of the situation, while at the same time giving people a course for action.

Luckily, we already know what will give us our best chance for a safe climate. Community movements can achieve amazing things. They’re already achieving exactly what we need them to.

At Friends of the Earth, we have already had significant wins from developing community power – just in the last year. Here are some highlights:

Keeping it in the ground: In the coming months, the Victorian Government will be making a decision whether or not to ban unconventional gas. After a 5-year community campaign we have managed to keep this potentially climate devastating fossil fuel in the ground.

Growing renewables: Communities across the state have successfully come together to reverse the worst anti-wind farm laws in the world, and in their place secure a state-based renewable energy target. They were fighting not only for climate solutions, but also for stable employment in their communities.

Alternatives to growth: If we’re going to ensure a safe climate, we need to change our existing capital and growth based economy to one that respects environmental systems, as well as the needs of workers and their communities. Alternatives to growth already exist. Eight out of 10 Australians are a member of a co-operative of some kind. Our own food coop serves as a model for providing local, organic food at reasonable prices. The Earthworker cooperative is leading the way for creating green manufacturing jobs in communities previously reliant on the fossil fuel industry.

Phasing out coal fired power: As renewables grow, we need to shut down existing coal-fired power stations. Last year the community of Anglesea and Surf Coast Air Action showed how a determined local campaign for the health and safety of the local community can shut down existing coal fired power infrastructure.

Fighting false solutions: Geoengineering and Nuclear Energy, for instance, are not the solutions we need. Australia does not need to provide Uranium for the third world; we need to provide affordable renewable energy. For more information see FoE’s Anti-Nuclear and Clean Energy and Emerging Tech campaigns (www.archive.foe.org.au).

Whatever the effects of the climate agreement, and however you may want to celebrate or condemn it, it is no excuse for complacency. The Paris agreement is not a roadmap to a safe climate. Only a social movement can create that.

Chloe Aldenhoven is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth's Quit Coal campaign. www,quitcoal.org.au