Climate Talks at the 1.5 Degree Crossroads

Activists at COP 21 in front of mock Eiffel Tower. Photo credit: SBS TV/Radio Australia
John Foran, 08/12/15

There’s an interesting story developing at the Paris COP 21 UN climate summit that may have more to it than meets the eye.  It’s the momentum that has been growing in week two for a threshold target of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

Going into the COP, over 100 countries of the 195 at the table had affirmed that 1.5 degrees should be adopted instead of the 2 degrees that has been a non-controversial ambition for the past several years of the talks.  Leadership on this change has been exercised by a new grouping, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which insisted on it in a declaration signed by forty-three countries just before the COP started, as well as by the more than forty nations in the Alliance of Small Island States.  For these nations, it is their very survival that is at stake, and one of the global climate justice movement’s rallying cries is “1.5 to stay alive!”

Against this bloc, none of the wealthy countries, who are responsible for most of the historical emissions so far, had endorsed 1.5 on the tacit grounds that they would then need to rapidly and radically transform their energy systems to renewable sources, flying in the face of the powerful corporations who have influence on these governments – especially the United States – and who argue (with some accuracy) that it would spell the end of the high (and wasteful) consumption, high mobility lifestyles of much of their populations.

A Bombshell, or, Something New under the Sun

This picture changed in the course of the negotiations last week when host country France, together with Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, came out in favor of enshrining 1.5 degrees in the text.

It changed even more on Monday of week two when Canada, U.S., and China unexpectedly joined them, according to an article in The Guardian:

“We are working with other countries on some formulation that would include 1.5C,” Todd Stern, the State Department envoy, told a press conference.

China said it was supporting a 1.5C target and for rich countries to accept the principle that they are responsible for long term and irreversible damage done by climate change.

“There are some things that you cannot adapt to. We need to see something to address permanent losses,” said a spokesman for the G77 and China group of 132 countries. A Chinese spokesman said: “We stand with other developing countries.”

Canada, regarded as a climate villain for the last decade, also came around with Catherine McKenna, the new environment and climate change minister, embracing 1.5C in closed door sessions.

The EU spokeswoman Carole Dieschebourg said ministers were “open” to a 1.5C target. “The difficult issues will be finance and differentiation,” she said, referring to the idea that rich countries should do more than poor countries. “We have a difficult week ahead. All the major issues are unresolved.”

This surprising development has generated some pushback, from both expected and unexpected quarters:

But there were some prominent hold-outs. India said the 1.5C target raised immediate issues of fairness because it would put greater limits on capacity of developing countries to grow their economies.

“Why not 1C, why 1.5C,” Ashok Lavasa, India’s lead negotiator, said. “The moment we are talking about target we are also talking about carbon budgets. We need to look at the development space that is available and therefore those who are eager to maintain it below 2C should actually be working to maintain that carbon space so that they don’t compromise the needs of developing countries.”

Campaign groups meanwhile said the aspiration to 1.5C was far-removed from reality. The current pledges from 185 countries won’t even restrict warming to 2C.

Erich Pica, the director of Friends of the Earth US, accused the rich countries of backing vulnerable states on the 1.5C goal to crowd out bigger developing countries.

“There is a dangerous push that developed countries are using on this push to 1.5C to blur the lines,” he said. “The US and European countries are adopting the idea of 1.5C as a mitigation target but they are blurring of the lines on what has to happen to have a just and fair sharing of the 1.5C equation.”

It also raises the question:  why would some of the biggest contributors to global warming be making these statements?  These are the same countries who have given past COPs the nickname of “Conference of Polluters,” so why would they advocate an ambitious new goal and stand with countries whose need for massive adaptation support they should be funding with the Green Climate Fund and funds for recovering from extreme weather events like the cyclone Yolanda that killed 10,000 people the day before COP 19 began in Warsaw in 2013.

The Science and Politics of 1.5

Let’s step back for a moment from these negotiating maneuvers and take a sober look at the climate crisis we are in.  Climate science, of course, is one of the ultimate arbiters here.  We have currently warmed the Earth 0.85 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial level around the year 1800, and put enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for this to rise to 1.4 degrees in due course, owing to the lag effect between rising CO2 levels and actual surface temperature warming (a lag partly because the oceans have been absorbing so much of the increased carbon dioxide at the expense of their ability to sustain life).  So we will eventually reach 1.4 degrees even if we stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow.

With 2015 set to be the warmest year in recorded history (beating the 2014 record), we will soon enough reach the 1 degree threshold.  In fact, Hoesung Lee, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the COP on Monday, that by the end of this year, average global temperature “could reach” 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The dangers are obvious:  if less than one degree is bringing with it the extreme weather, loss and damage, slow-burning drought, and other calamities that are already killing people and forcing people to leave everything they know, then every increment above that makes life on Earth more miserable and dangerous for millions of people. Or as Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows put it, 2 degrees now marks the difference between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” climate change.

The window to transforming our energy, agriculture, and lifeways in time to stay under 1.5 degrees is obviously closing fast, and there are studies on both sides of the question of whether it is still technically possible.  I’m not saying that it is.  Some of the best science on this has been done by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows above, and some of the renewable energy engineering and policy side has been provided by Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford and Berkeley.

We understand the crisis we are in.  We have human ingenuity and desire.  We need to forge the political will to undertake something on the order of a Marshall Plan-level mobilization of government and people in the United States and to facilitate local versions of comparable efforts everywhere.

What’s going on?

Let’s move on to the political implications of adapting 1.5 instead of 2 degrees as the agreed red line on global warming.  It would certainly be a blow, however symbolic, to the fossil fuel industry worldwide, and to the corporations that have brought us industrial agriculture.  The carbon footprint of these corporations is all over the COP.

And it would, at least at first, be symbolic, and words only, yes.  But we need powerful stories and arguments to use as wedges to pry away the powerholders’ deadly grip on the world.  Chevron, Monsanto, ExxonMobil, Cargill, Shell, DuPont, BP, and other corporate giants would be placed on the defensive vis-à-vis the movements calling for their dismantling.  Big fossil fuel producing and exporting countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States, Australia, along with Ecuador, Venezuela, Nigeria, and others in the global South would see their economies in critical condition.  So, as Erich Pica and Ashok Lavasa caution above, going to 1.5 degrees would lead to a discussions about climate justice in the equitable distribution of what atmospheric space remained, and huge commitments to transfer wealth and technology from the North to the South.

And this is why it seems so improbable that 1.5 degrees could end up in the final treaty text.  Maybe it’s just a publicity stunt, a calculated bluff, a gesture toward the global South with no chance of succeeding under the consensus rules of the COP.  The US et al. can look good at no risk to themselves or the corporations whose backs they watch.

And maybe it’s a maneuver to force greater commitments and draw attention to the lack of ambition of India, as suggested above.  But it highlights just as much the utter inadequacy of the pledges of the United States, China, and all the top emitters as well.

It’s also entirely possible that the big emitters are covering their inadequacies and deceptions on every other issue at stake in the negotiations with this one grand gesture, thinking it the key to getting an agreement that fails the world on adaptation funding, loss and damage assistance, and the weaknesses of the INDC pledging system itself, which after all, puts us on a path to 3 degrees.  Maybe it could be “the great bargain” that unlocks the stalemate in the bracketed text, where North and South are clashing without resolution in sight, thereby permitting the powerful to claim victory at the end of this COP, a COP with zero prospect of fulfilling its promises in any meaningful way, as Walden Bello has just pointed out.

But to imagine this is to discount the determination and vision of the other countries calling for 1.5 degrees – the small island states, the coastal countries, the countries already subject to drought and water problems.  So, maybe this issue, and the unwillingness of the COP to consent to it, will be the spark that burns the disastrous treaty in the making, and forces the transformation in the rules of the COP that is needed for a fair, binding, and ambitious global climate treaty.  Could it be another way, perhaps our best chance, to say “No” to the Paris COP?

The End of Capitalism (as We Know It)

The great irony is that staying under 1.5 degrees at this point would surely mean the end of capitalism as we know it, since the degree of economic transformation it requires completely contradicts the cruel imperative of profit-making based on endless, wasteful growth and the breakneck speed at which nature is being depleted – our civilizational overshoot of the Earth’s carrying capacity at the cost of obscene inequality and at the expense of future generations. 

The only true carriers of a 1.5 degree future are the people of the world, organized into the most powerful and loving network of movements ever seen, what Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs the Climate, has called Blockadia and what the global climate justice movement aspires to become by linking together all the great liberatory movements for social justice that are underway among students, workers, indigenous people, people of color, women, all genders, young and all ages.  Everywhere.

Because the unprecedented interlocking crises we now face – caused by capitalist globalization, militarism, and the exclusion of real challengers from political systems everywhere – are linked and exacerbated by the most urgent crisis of them all.  And this means that finding ways to address them synergistically could take us closer to rolling back all of these systems and opening paths to the worlds we want.

I have no hesitation in supporting the goal of 1.5 degrees, both for the climate justice movement and in the treaty text.  I will fight for it, wherever it presents itself, and if that means arguing that it is the one thing that could come of this COP that we could be proud of and to build on for the coming struggles, so be it.  It doesn’t mean we accept the rest, but it could mean that the treaty contains an Achilles heel that might bring down the entire edifice, if we know how to put it to good effect as a rallying cry against the corporations and governments.

And of course, by the end of the week, 1.5 could very easily have been swept away from the agreement, like the waves beating on the shores of many a small island state.

But it’s time for the world to wake up to the fact that this is what we must aim for, if we are serious about our children’s futures, and the dignity of humanity itself in coming decades.