After Paris, Climate is A Question of Freedom

Achievement of the Paris agreement on climate change leaves those against effective global action on climate positioned as alongside ISIS.  It effectively brackets fossil fuels with tobacco and slavery.  Climate campaigns must now hold politicians to account and drive home these moral imperatives in simple terms.

At the 2015 climate conference in Paris, the world’s governments shifted from being uncommitted to doing the right thing, to commitment.   It was historic and it was positive but as Kumi Naidoo and many others said, it was a lifeline not a rescue for the planet.   There is no agreed package of measures which will achieve the goal of limiting the human warming of the earth to an average 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, only a political acknowledgement that this should be done, 23 years after governments adopted the UNFCCC, a mechanism designed to do just that. As the UN states:

The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human induced) interference with the climate system.” It states that “such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.”

That meant and means 1.5.C and 23 years is quite a long time to take before deciding to acknowledge that and to pick up the tool and use it, but it was always a big ask.

Whether or not political commitment has come too late or not to achieve this, campaigning will have to continue, and now it means closing the gap between a political intent, and political action.  Campaigns can play a role in the host of efforts required to ratchet the change needed: technological, regulatory, behavioural, perceptual and others. Deciding where to place the efforts is a mind-stretching task in itself.  What happened in Paris is the the only factor that should guide this but it is worth considering, as politicians seeded a powerful new ‘narrative’ in Paris.

Using What ‘Paris’ Did

The Paris outcome has left governments as a whole facing in the right direction, unlike what happened in Copenhagen in 2009. It has changed the political weather on climate because it was not possible to go along with the general consensus while remaining even ambivalent about the science.  Scepticism is effectively dead: the centre of gravity in media and political discourses has now fallen into line with the perceptions of publics and those of the business world outside the fossil fuel industries.

Fossil fuel companies realize they are now tobacco-like pariahs. A friend of mine who recently gave a talk to Shell executives told me that he found them a ‘company in the midst of a nervous breakdown’. Brian Ricketts, Secretary General of the coal industry’s European lobbying association Euracoal responded to the Paris agreement by saying coal producers “will be hated and vilified, in the same way that slave traders were once hated and vilified”. He fears that Paris positioned fossil fuels as “public enemy number one”.

It is plain that the fossil fuel industry has lost a huge amount of political equity that can never be regained. Campaigns against it need to continue. It is fatally weakened.  As John Kenneth Galbriath said: ‘all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door’ but it still needs kicking flat and quickly.

The tobacco analogy has long circulated in the ambitions of campaigners against fossil fuels, de-socialisation of fossil fuels is something that campaigns can leverage if not fully deliver, and now it will be harder for governments to stand in the way or just stand aside.   Even in backwaters like the UK where our antediluvian Chancellor George Osborne bizarrely promotes fossil fuels and tries to sabotage renewable energy, because of Paris and social-market forces beyond his control, the tide will run still faster against fossil fuels.

Of course we cannot afford for ‘tobacco control’ to become the model of delivery: it was decades too slow. But we should use similar signals of what needs to happen. Why, for example, should fossil companies any longer be allowed to advertise, without even any ‘health warnings’ ? How can that be in the public interest ?   As Euracoal’s Brian Ricketts might fear politicians will say, why should consumers remain enslaved to fossil fuels ? Politicians must be helped, encouraged and made to break those chains. Being free from the threat of worse climate change means being free from fossil fuels.  It’s a question of freedom.

So why did governments pull together in Paris when they did not before ? Was it to make good on their failure in Copenhagen, or because renewables are now more plainly the viable alternative and vigorously embraced by China and the US, or because they had discovered that scientists were right all along, or that their voters have noticed the world’s weather is going haywire ? All those things helped but in Paris there was one acute political need, lacking in Copenhagen, and that was to show that international state level politics can still ‘work’.

The leaders who gathered in Paris were spooked by the horror of the ISIS attacks, and US President Obama made it a case of rejecting-terrorism-by-saving-the-climate, asking “what greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshaling our best efforts to save it” ?

What greater example is there of the power of context ? On one thing though, Mr Ricketts was wrong.  For political leaders the number one public enemy was not climate change but ISIS. It’s just that the need for international action brought them together.

The political imperative to stand alongside France, and especially the show support for bloodied Paris, was turned into an imperative to reach agreement on climate action. By all accounts the French diplomats excelled themselves in negotiation and making best use of the counter-ISIS dividend.

So it is, that through the taking of sides, those against an effective international agreement on climate now find themselves counted alongside the oil-funded terrorists of ISIS. Politicians need to be constantly reminded of this.





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