A global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? So what.
Beginning on November 30, 2015, world leaders and government delegates will gather once more to discuss climate change and what to do about it. This upcoming meeting in Paris will be the 21st time that parties (now numbering 196) in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will convene.
Along with official delegates, there will also be media representatives, civil society groups, and other interests in Paris in the thousands.
Ostensibly, the goal in Paris (not unlike the goal in Copenhagen at COP 15 in 2009) will be to get all countries to commit to targets for reducing their emissions via a global agreement.
And that is a nice goal. Sounds great on paper, but with respect, I ask so what?
While much work still needs to be done, the climate movement has seen great strides in many areas. Examples of climate progress can be found throughout the world whether at the individual, local, regional, state, or corporate level.
However, on the whole, these respective steps forward are few and far between and have not been part of a larger coordinated international effort — for instance, think of the 2014 China-U.S. agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, one need only to look at the newsroom page of the UNFCCC website to get a flavour of the melange of climate actions that are taking place. As of June 27th, one can find the following headlines: “This Sunday: People’s Climate March in Rome”; “France and Peru Sign Climate-Labour Call for Action”; “Climate Campaigners Win Landmark Court Case”; and “5 Seismic Shifts to Shape Global Electricity Over Next 25 Years”.
Don’t get me wrong, all of these aforementioned things are great. However, where there is potential for things to get troublesome is when too much energy and time goes into a process that has not demonstrated significant success in its more than 20 years of existence.
In his book Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — and What It Means for Our Future, Dale Jamieson, a professor of philosophy at New York University, traces the history of the climate movement from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference.
He goes on to argue that for a number of reasons — such as how vested interests and politics have affected action, how humans are designed to think of more immediate concerns, how our institutions are not set up to deal with the problems of today or those to come, how economic theory is not able to effectively calculate and measure climate change costs now versus the future, and how issues of morality and responsibility are tricky and difficult to figure out when the problem is not immediately felt and the consequences may occur elsewhere — we are in a situation where the damage has been done.
In this sense, the danger of climate change is not that we don’t have a global agreement to do something about climate change, but that we are not acting to prepare and adapt to what is already taking place.
In other words, keep the pressure up on governments to reduce their emissions, but understand that there are other environmental issues that must not be lost in the vacuum that is international climate change politics.
As Jonathan Franzen explains in a recent New Yorker article, “And so I came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change. I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance. Not only did it make every grocery-store run a guilt trip; it made me feel selfish for caring more about birds in the present than about people in the future. What were the eagles and the condors killed by wind turbines compared with the impact of rising sea levels on poor nations? What were the endemic cloud-forest birds of the Andes compared with the atmospheric benefits of Andean hydroelectric projects?”
Figuring out what Paris might mean in the broader narrative of environmental action then is something that is worth exploring further. This is not to say that the goal of a global agreement on climate change is not a worthy cause to champion or that the reducing emissions are not important, but merely to recognize that even with an agreement there will still be work to be done in a host of areas.
If we are already on an irreversible path with regard to the rise of carbon in the atmosphere, it will matter little that in 2015, 196 governments belatedly said yes to collective climate action.
This article was originally published by Sustainable Collective, which has since merged with The Starfish Canada.