(Audio of my introduction of this topic at Sechelt Regular Council Meeting Dec 16 2015)
From Nov 30- Dec 12 2015, 195 Delegate countries met in Paris at COP21 to attempt a multi-lateral solution to the world’s largest and most complex emerging issue: anthropogenic climate change.
The ‘Paris Agreement’ (full text) coming out of the COP21 Summit has been hailed both as a stunning victory for the climate change movement, and also a disaster that will ensure world calamity in the years ahead.
Renowned climate scientist James Hansen has denounced the outcome as “a fraud” and “just worthless words”.
Global climate activists Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben have chastised the outcome, in attempts to double-down on COP21 targets, and hasten the resolve of global climate mitigation.
Alternatively, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has hailed the agreement as “a monumental triumph for people and our planet”.
US President Barack Obama agrees, calling the agreement “the best chance we have to save the one planet we’ve got”.
Amidst overflowing rooms of joyous and tearful delegates, the UNFCC Executive-Secretary Christiana Figueres declared “we did it!” to thunderous applause and an outpouring of emotion.
I tend to agree with that sentiment.
Upon reviewing the text, I’m prepared to accept the ‘Paris Agreement’ as a watershed moment for humanity and life on earth.
Seen from a viewpoint of physics, ecology or even climate science, I can understand how an argument can be made that Paris was an abject failure.
The ‘action’ commitments made by participating countries, in advance of Paris, do not in fact add up to an aversion of the worst climate impacts by limiting global temperature increases to 2C. So why am I hopeful?
I’m looking at the ‘Paris Agreement’ through the lens of international diplomacy and multi-lateral relations. From that viewpoint, COP21 exceeded all expectations.
Effective international diplomacy has been the key missing ingredient in the global climate struggle to date.
At Paris, world leaders finally showed that they understand the severity of our collective situation, and the need to work together to address it.
Without this collective understanding, we didn’t have anything to work with. With it, we begin to have something that may evolve into a solution.
It’s a common saying among diplomats at the cafeteria at UN HQ: “the devil is in the details”.
What this really means is that it’s the language that matters; in multi lateral negotiations the language is the most difficult part. What words are used and how? What is the overall interpretation? How does this wording affect other commitments that have been made at a national and international level?
In order to understand the magnitude of the ‘Paris Agreement’ I feel it’s important to compare the language contained in two other key, multi-lateral agreements: the Kyoto Protocol and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
Firstly, the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s best attempt at a climate agreement pre-Paris, is a document largely devoid of any urgency. It is a flat and administrative document that, although acknowledging climate change as an issue, lacks the overall seriousness of the Paris wording.
Kyoto was, in hindsight, clearly not a document that adequately addressed the severity of the climate situation by its very language.
To understand what language is fitting for the severe situation we now face, we need to look to the most serious situation the international community has ever faced, which is WW2.
In the wake of nearly 100 million people dying and ten years of global war, the UN adopted the Declaration of Human Rights as its founding instrument.
The language of this watershed document, although very strong by the standards of international diplomacy, would not have impressed all human rights activists today, or then. It is in fact the strongest and most widely reaching of any multi-lateral agreement to date.
International agreements are imperfect, and will always be open to criticism: what matters most is the collective national intent behind them. These are not documents developed in a haphazard or ad-hoc manner. Each word is meticulously picked apart and agreed upon by all parties (that’s why it takes so long).
Wording signals intent.
By this measure, Paris has achieved high levels of agreement on intent among many disparate global nations to work together to tackle climate change.
This language, as I read it, shows that global leaders have a new understanding of the severity of our current situation, and that may be all that matters.
In response to the critics like James Hansen, the issues around solving climate change are largely political and economic (not to do with an understanding of natural science). After Paris, it is clear that we now have these people on board in a serious way.
Widespread structural changes to the economy, of the scale required by this undertaking, have never been attempted before. The closest parallel we have is the re-tooling of large-scale economies for arms production in WW2.
Although agreements happen at an international level, the rubber hits the road through national policies, enacted by the government houses of each signatory nation.
This undertaking is going to require massive amounts of political will, at a national level, to make major structural reforms to both society and the economy.
In the months ahead I’ll be watching for a smooth ratification process in key countries, and domestic action plans aimed at meeting the requirements of the ‘Paris Agreement’.
Although I acknowledge that COP21 is an imperfect document, to me it shows the upper envelope of the cooperation that is possible in a multi-lateral system.
For me, it has lived up to the billing.
We need to celebrate it for what it is, and get to work at a national level to see our commitments through.
– Noel Muller