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COP-21: Hold the Applause

By Stuart Scott
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The cheering and congratulations over the ‘climate agreement’ in Paris has hardly died down. But truth be told, there is little to applaud. The precise language of the agreement was not predetermined, but the essence of the agreement was predictable.

Developed nations forced through a sufficiently weak document that a climate catastrophe is more likely than ever. They succeeded in kicking the can way down the road (multiple decades and multiple election cycles), much past the point where many scientists tell us that tipping points will lead to an irreversible, runaway (self-amplifying) condition.

Business-as-usual prevailed with loose, voluntary, non-binding targets that bear little resemblance to the strong scientific imperative. The so-called INDCs (Independent Nationally Determined Contributions) of GHG reductions that most nations offered before COP-21 range from inadequate to woefully inadequate for the major industrial nations (think US, EU, UK, etc.) and industrializing nations (think China, India and Brazil). What’s more (or less), they can be weakened, amended, forgotten, or simply ignored by subsequent governments and even by the very governments who issued them. Pure and simple, they are lip service not climate action; political and diplomatic double-speak. There is nothing binding the INDCs, and there is nothing binding about the overall agreement. Not even the 1850 baseline is respected in most nations’ characterizations of their supposed GHG reduction ‘targets’. These INDCs cannot even be called ‘promises’, and we are well aware of the historically low regard that politicians have for their promises.

The most frightening aspect of the Paris climate agreement, complete with its celebratory sound bites and handshakes, is that it leaves us on course for the climate chaos predicted by the most conservative science, the IPCC report. Even if all the ‘commitments’ were lived up to, we would move to a 3 to 4oC hotter world. It’s estimated the worlds tree cover will burn at a level of about 2.5 oC. And a world of 3 to 4oC hotter average temperature will already have passed tipping points that will commit it to additional heating that it is beyond human capabilities to stop. The agreement in Paris is an invitation to conditions of runaway climate change, it is an intergenerational crime, as Dr. James Hansen has been saying. This is the dark underbelly that lies behind the celebration of the ‘Paris agreement’.

So why was there so much celebration applause? For leaders of nations, it’s easy to explain. They all needed a success to point to after the embarrassing collapse of COP-15 in 2009 where nothing was accomplished despite great expectations. The press dutifully picks up and parrots these statements, largely without critical analysis or commentary. We live in a world dominated by celebrity, and if Barack Obama and John Kerry are willing to call Paris a success, well the press is more than ready to print those assessments.

But why then did some environmental groups find cause for celebration? This is a more difficult question. I believe it’s because they also needed to project ‘success’ as well as to project hope to their followers. Politicians needed to avoid the opprobrium, and more so needed to not commit to anything that would slow down their economies. Environmentalists needed to claim some relative success and point to a long awaited stick in the sand, even as they gear up for what is called the ‘ratcheting up of ambition’ in UN-speak.

But there are nations and individuals who are not cheering. Those who are at the front of climate change; low-lying island nations already inundated by rising oceans and overwhelming storm tides; subsistence farmers experiencing crop failures from the unpredictable alternation of flood and drought; coastal communities in poor nations unable to rebuild after already weak economies are devastated by tropical cyclonic storms; and many others. These communities are being sacrificed to the false god of economic growth in the major developed and developing nations of Earth.

So what would have been an agreement to celebrate? First of all, inclusion of the simple words ‘legally binding.’ But those words would certainly have rendered any agreement ‘dead on arrival’ in all industrial nations, to employ a colorful political metaphor.

A definitive cap on greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 2020 would have been worth celebrating. A goal of ‘zero emissions’ by 2035 or 2040, rather than language about ‘net zero emissions by 2050,’ those would have been worth celebrating. The difference between ‘zero’ and ‘net zero’ is huge. The former is a true limit. The latter allows for rampant cheating where a nation can continue its carbon emissions as long as it can find some other nation to promise to reduce its emissions by a commensurate amount. As experience has shown, there will always be a national government willing to promise the required reductions for adequate cash payment, but the promises are easily forgotten or broken.

In summary, there was enough wiggle room and ambiguity in the Paris agreement to sneak a herd of elephants through, if any remain alive in the wild by 2050. In order to celebrate the Paris agreement one either needs to be ignorant of the facts about climate change and our present catastrophic trajectory, deluding oneself or intentionally deluding others. In the words of Aldous Huxley, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

In closing, let me champion one of the rays of hope on the horizon. It is a proposal for a comprehensive and universally equitable plan for limiting carbon emissions. It has already been developed, presented publicly, researched for its economic, health and climate impacts. It passes with high grades on all scales. It is commonly known as ‘Fee and Dividend.’ It involves placing a fee on all carbon fuels at the well-head, mine, or port of entry for imported fossil fuels. There are border equalization fees for goods coming from nations that do not have their own Fee and Dividend program. Were, say the US, EU, and China to institute such a program every nation on Earth would follow suit, since otherwise their fees would be collected at the border by one of the major trading partners that has the program.

Carbon Fee & Dividend is fair since the per capita distribution of 100% of collected fees would make the overwhelming majority of citizens winners. Only the wealthiest individuals whose carbon footprints are large to start with, would spend more than they collected from the dividend. Of course those wealthiest individuals also have the most influence in politics so instituting the Carbon Fee & Dividend will not be a ‘cake walk’, as the saying goes.

The first step is to understand the proposal. And here is a good place to go for that purpose.

Dr. James Hansen, the ‘Paul Revere of the climate change movement,’ proposes and endorses this approach at every opportunity. This is not a so-called ‘cap and trade’ system. Those approaches when viewed from an overall global perspective do not reduce collective emissions. They benefit no one but the traders who are skilled at a profit from any market, be it petroleum, pork bellies, or ‘carbon credits,’ which are really just easily gamed, tradable licenses to continue business-almost-as-usual.

Climate change is a complex subject. It is easy to hide a lot from the public with simplistic overviews. And the public is eager to have the truth hidden from them when the truth is so scary, and real solutions are so hard to sell… like the simple notion that slowing down our economic juggernaut might actually save our children’s world.

If we want to leave a livable world to our children, then we’d better start paying attention, and not be taken in by the politically convenient sound-bites coming out of the official sources.

Stuart Scott
Honolulu, Hawaii

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