Against a backdrop of shoe protests: Low expectations as the climate change conference gets underway in Paris

Global Day of Action Climate March
Teaser Image Caption
Global Day of Action Climate March

Last night proceedings of the COP 21 got underway in Paris as scattered demonstrations were held in various locations over the globe with the exception of Paris itself, the city where the conference was being held, due to the security measures put in place following the recent attacks in the capital. Making up for the lack of demonstrations individuals formed a human chain outside the conference headquarters which led to a collection of some 22,000 shoes laid out in the Place de la Republique. This action was undertaken by those who would have demonstrated in support of an ambitious climate change agreement had the terrorist attacks not taken place.

Previous experience shows that one cannot take the presence of heads of state and prime ministers as any reliable indication of serious intent or a basis on which to build hopes. Nor can one rely on leaders’ speeches, which usually make clear pledges to solve the problem while making no effort in reality. For although some 150 heads of state and other leaders are due to attend the proceedings of the Paris conference, the odds of reaching a new, comprehensive, and binding agreement (or a new protocol to replace the Kyoto Protocol)—a legal tool which applies to all parties and aims to check climate change, limit the rise in average global temperature to no more than two degrees centigrade (and which will start to be implemented from 2020 onwards)—suggest that the world is still a long way from achieving its goals. This is particularly the case in the protocol’s demand for large reductions in emissions, something that will not happen unless our dominant civilizational model is abandoned.

The question that we might pose as these historic climate change negotiations are about to get underway in earnest is: What reason do we have for believing that any Paris climate change agreement—should one be reached—would be a success, given the failure of the Kyoto Protocol? And is it really the case that the only reason Kyoto failed to limit harmful emissions was that it didn’t apply to all nations, its initial phase limited to developed countries, which allowed certain developed countries like the United States to refuse to implement it on the grounds that it would harm both the US and world economies and give emerging nations, China in particular, an advantage in the marketplace? And can the participation of heads of state from the most influential nations in these Paris negotiations—most notably the US, China and Russia, plus a strong contingent from the EU—in this round of talks, guarantee that a new comprehensive and binding international agreement be reached?

It is clear from the preparations leading up to the Paris conference and the progress of international negotiations overseen by the UN in recent years, that nation states operate by making promises and pledges rather than by acting according to their obligations. While it is true that the US has taken this issue more seriously under Barack Obama’s leadership than at other time in the past, we all remember Al Gore’s role in producing an accord which mooted the idea of carbon credits, right at the end of the 1997 Kyoto conference, thus saving the negotiations (but not the planet!) and neutering the Kyoto Protocol from the outset. The concept of carbon credits, after all, indicates a lack of any real desire to move away from our current civilizational model, which has caused the crisis in the first place. It is true that Al Gore reviewed his stance, looking deeper and deeper into the issue of climate change and receiving a shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his film on the subject as well as writing a number of books on the subject, the most important of which, The Future, came out in 2013. But if the above shows us anything, it is how difficult it is to reach a binding international agreement that can save us from the effects of climate change without making structural changes to the world order, and this is something that climate negations never address.

In his 2013 book The Future, Al Gore discusses what he terms “six drivers of global change” and issues a call to take back control of our destinies and the power to shape our future. These six drivers include the emergence of a profoundly interconnected global economy, different to economies of the past, the creation of a worldwide communications network, and new balances of political, economic and military power in the word that differ from the balance provided by a US-led world order in the second half of the twentieth century, and this, following a shift in global influence from political regimes to the markets, and from UN-affiliated organizations, to new structures such as the World Trade Organization. The fourth driver is the rapid and unsustainable growth in population and cities, and the depletion of resources, topsoil, potable water sources, many animal and plant species, and a dramatic rise in levels of consumption and pollution, and approaches to economic output that privilege production over negative consequences of said production. The fifth driver according to Gore is the emergence of a revolutionary new group of powerful biological, chemical, and genetic technologies, effective control over the evolutionary process, the ability to transcend the old division between species, and the creation of new strains in nature that were previously unimaginable. Finally, he points to a new and radical relationship between human civilization and the forces at its command, and the planet’s ecological systems.

Though we may conclude from Al Gore’s theses, and his sixth and final driver in particular, that climate change is essentially about reestablishing a “sound and balanced relationship between human civilization and the future,” it is by no means clear how this is to be achieved. Which global body will oversee these revolutions, after we have witnessed so many revolutions that now seem nothing short of destructive, such as the agricultural, industrial and genetic revolutions? And who will ensure that scientific inquiry will not cease to be funded by ever-dwindling investment capital? Yet all these problems and many others, which touch on the new ethical approaches and philosophies of science that the looked-for global changes will require, are never debated in international climate-change conferences! It is left to the individual states to draft a few pledges regarding emissions, without ever touching on the underlying structure of the world order and the market economy.

After the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was given the task of preparing a draft agreement and arranging a number of meetings in advance of the Paris conference—a treaty which made its first appearance at the Geneva meeting in February this year, weighing in at approximately 86 pages—concerns were raised that this lengthy document did not have the force of an agreement, or any binding legal authority, and that abridging it (which is the most likely option, and one that renders it more ambiguous) would provide signatories a way to escape their obligations through the loophole of legal interpretation. Previously of course, Canada backed out of the Kyoto Protocol without there being any suggestion that the agreement’s (toothless) text contained a single legally binding paragraph or any penalties for signatories who failed to live up to their obligations. This point is of the utmost importance when evaluating what the Paris conference will be able to produce in terms of appearance versus legally binding documents.

On the eve of the Paris conference, a new report from the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction states that 90% of major disasters over the last twenty years have between them produced 6,457 floods, storms, heat waves, droughts, and other weather -related phenomena.

The report, entitled The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters concludes that five nations have suffered the highest proportion of disasters (the US, China, India, the Philippines and Indonesia) which shows that climate change does not differentiate between rich and poor, and can make its impact felt anywhere in the world. It is a truly global phenomenon.

In a newspaper interview, the head of the Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlstrom, said that, “weather and climate are two of the main drivers of disaster-related risks, and this report shows that the world is paying a heavy price in terms of lives lost.”

She continued: “Economic losses constitute a major challenge to growth in less-developed countries and hinder their struggle against climate change and poverty.”

The report and analysis prepared jointly by the UN office and the Belgium-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, explains that since the first climate-change conference in 1995, there have been 606,000 fatalities and 4.1 million individuals injured or harmed, deprived of shelter, or in need of emergency assistance, as a consequence of weather-related disaster.

The report also sheds light on gaps in the data, suggesting that economic losses due to weather-related disasters are much higher than the official figure of 1.891 trillion dollars (itself 71% of the total losses attributed to natural risks and dangers over the last twenty years). The Un office estimates the true value of such losses (including losses resulting from earthquakes and tsunamis) to be between 250 and 300 billion dollars per year, making it imperative that the Paris conference is able to reduce emissions and contain harm and losses over the long term.

According to the report, Asia has suffered the lion’s share of losses from these disasters, with 332,000 fatalities and 3.7 million individuals otherwise affected. The fatalities include 138,000 individuals killed during Cyclone Nargis, which struck Manila in 2008.

An average of 335 disasters per year were recorded between 2005 and 2014, an annual increase of 14 over the period between 1995 and 2004 and nearly double the average of 1985-1995. Overall, heat waves have caused the deaths of 148,000 of a total of 164,000 killed as a consequence of extreme rises in temperature, with 92% of these deaths occurring in countries with high income levels.


Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger