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Paris climate summit: Not saving the world

Alex Scrivener explores why excessive optimism in the run up to the coming summit in Paris ignores the voices of those most affected by climate change

October 25, 2015
7 min read

climatejusticeThe People’s March for Climate Justice: 1,500 people turned the streets of Cancún green outside the 2010 COP. Photo: Ivan Castaneira/Project Survival Media

Over the past few months, attempts have been made to present COP21, the ‘landmark’ Paris climate summit to be held in December, as an opportunity to ‘save the world’. The people behind these appeals appear to believe that if only we had a big enough petition or an impressive enough march, the political elite might be persuaded to use the Paris COP to take serious action on climate change.

This may sound harmless, if a bit naive, but the rush to endow the Paris summit with such importance is not just a recipe for disappointment. This message, disproportionately voiced by big organisations based in the global North, also risks drowning out the voices that really need to be heard: those of the biggest victims of climate change, who disproportionately live in the global South.

For many years, the UN process and the annual COP summits were a source of hope for campaigners in the global South. After all, the UN is, on paper, far more democratic than the alternatives such as the World Bank, where voting rights are heavily skewed in favour of a few rich industrialised countries. And the UN process did produce what is, to date, for all its serious flaws, the only legally binding climate change treaty: the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

But as the years since Kyoto have turned into decades, it’s become clear that the UN process has failed to deliver. Ultimately, Canada, Australia and Japan joined the US in ignoring Kyoto and pursuing business as usual. The EU only succeeded in meeting emissions targets by effectively fiddling the numbers through dodgy carbon trading schemes and the collapse of the industrial sector in east-central Europe.

A defunct process

The UN process, far from being the democratic alternative, is becoming more like the hated World Bank, with powerful countries using underhand negotiating tactics and their vastly superior resources to railroad their agenda through. They are assisted in this by the ever more powerful presence of corporate lobbyists, who have been remarkably successful in diverting attention away from their own unsustainable business practices and towards false solutions. The influence of the fossil fuel sector reached its apogee at the Warsaw COP in 2013, where the coal industry held a conference on the sidelines of the climate summit singing the praises of the completely fictitious ‘clean coal’. Poland’s environment minister was sacked halfway through the summit because he was too slow to promote fracking in the country.

And it’s not only fossil fuel companies whose influence is growing. The financial sector has gained a stronger role in the disbursement of climate finance. The UK government, ever in thrall to the interests of the City, has been the leading force in pushing for the UN Green Climate Fund’s private sector facility to channel more money through financial intermediaries and corporate fund managers. The agribusiness lobby is active in promoting schemes such as the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, which aims to present these companies’ unsustainable intensive industrial methods as some sort of solution to climate change.

This toxic combination of naive hope, power politics and corporate lobbying means that while there is plenty of hype, every year very little happens at climate summits, as the big emitters succeed in kicking the can down the road.

Dangerous delusions

So let’s be clear: there is almost no chance of a deal in Paris that will make a significant difference to the climate crisis. The talks will follow the same pattern we see every year: two weeks of deadlock and backroom talks excluding critical voices, followed by a last-minute compromise deal that ‘saves’ the summit at the expense of actually taking any action. The need to sign a deal that includes hard-line climate laggards such as the US, Canada and Australia will mean an unambitious agreement that countries of the global South (with the partial exception of big emerging economies such as India) will have almost no influence over. Those NGOs who whip their supporters into a frenzy (and take their donations) encourage their constituencies to believe they can put pressure on governments to come up with a deal. The same NGOs then feel compelled to pretend that the pressure has worked and progress has been made.

Paris is not going to save the world. And those who pretend that it will are deluded at best and downright dangerous at worst. Dangerous because while we continue to waste time hoping for a miracle in Paris, the resulting inaction risks becoming a death sentence for a number of countries, especially small island nations such as Kiribati, which will disappear under rising sea levels. Other countries will see falling crop yields and rising drought, which promise to kill millions of people.

What’s the alternative?

So what’s the alternative? It’s a question with no easy answer. Merely retreating into a subcultural activist comfort zone and pretending that going on the occasional march is going to change things is not the way forward. Conversely, engaging with the process in the hope of avoiding the worst possible outcomes at the summit risks reinforcing the narrative of the two-weeks-to-save-the-world brigade. Ultimately, aspects of both of these approaches remain necessary, but they are not enough.

Part of the answer lies in reframing the debate as it’s currently perceived among the general public. Climate change is still widely seen as being about polar bears and the environment and it still has a reputation as a middle-class concern. There is a need for new ideas to solidify the idea that it is actually about global justice. There must be a greater willingness to listen to a range of voices from the global South.

And the Paris summit is a great opportunity to do this. It is one of the few occasions when activists from both the South and North get together in sufficient numbers for this sort of cross-fertilisation of ideas. Of course, there is a large range of opinions within the climate movement in the global South, just as there are in the North. But generally speaking there is a much clearer vision among activists of climate justice as something that involves challenging power relations and addressing the economic underpinnings of the climate crisis.

We could do with a lot more of that here, where environmental campaigning is all too often focused on exhorting individuals to make ethical choices (usually to give up stuff), a message that doesn’t appeal to the poorer sections of society, who after years of austerity have had quite enough of doing without things. The narrative needs to be about systemic change and creating a world that is at once more equal and more ecologically sustainable, and in which the majority of people are better off than they are now.

Some of this more positive vision can be seen in the calls for green jobs and there are a lot of people who have been campaigning for global climate justice for years. But Paris is an opportunity for this alternative to gain more mainstream attention and acceptance. The radical, globally aware part of the climate change movement must win this battle of the story against some of the big players pushing the well-meaning but ultimately damaging narrative of false hope. There is hope to had in Paris, but it lies outside the security fences and conference centres of Le Bourget.

Global Justice Now is arranging Eurostar tickets and cheap accommodation for people to go for the final weekend of protests at the end of the climate talks, from 11 to 13 December.

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