Last week I spent just a couple of days in Paris to listen and meet with people from what, in the wake of COP21, is getting talked about as an ever-strengthening climate justice movement. If you read one piece on why the accord reached there is divorced from the principles this movement is growing itself around, make it this one from the New Internationalist (whose reporting throughout from Paris has been invaluable).
I couldn’t stay longer because I had to get back to my 2-year-old son. When I think about the chances for greater social and environmental justice in his lifetime I flip-flop, as all you parents do I’m sure, between hope and despair. When I think about the implications of things getting worse (or staying the same, which is actually the same thing), my mind hits a wall. I can’t think about it.
Government representatives, the mainstream media, and parts of the climate movement are currently floating off on a wave of congratulatory rhetoric after the Paris Agreement was gavelled in last weekend. The accord is being hailed as an historic game-changer and signalling the end of the fossil fuel era.
There has never been a more important time to come back to Earth. The words ‘fossil fuel’ are not even mentioned in the Paris agreement. At its best the Paris deal may, as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said, make the sides of the hole we have to dig ourselves out of a bit less steep. It may give us a bit of leverage in our fight. At its worst, it entrenches a status quo that opens the floodgates to carbon trading, geoengineering, and a whole dystopia of market mechanisms and privatisation of nature; a positive jamboree for transnational corporations. The climate justice movement is doing good work pointing these things out. Those on the frontlines of this depredatory fossil-based economy are already witnesses to this dystopia, and in Paris it was heartening to see that more and more they are recognised as the most crucial actors in driving this movement forward. With their feet firmly planted, they are leading the calls to #keepitintheground.
Everywhere the deal has been referred to as ‘legally binding’ by the main press corps. But try (as I have been) to actually find out in what sense and how it will be legally binding and you come up against another brick wall. The very fact that it is an ‘agreement’ and not a ‘treaty’ seems to indicate its relative weakness in terms of international law. Carbon Brief gave a useful overview of these issues back in November. In that piece they said that ‘Some or all of the provisions could be softened with aspirational language’ – and indeed that seems to be exactly what has happened. Lots of ‘shoulds’, ‘will work to pursues’ and ‘aim towardses’, but not much enforceable commitment. And that includes on that much-lauded wording about aiming for 1.5 degrees. Apparently the new agreement does write in a binding commitment to submit an emissions reduction target – but not to say how much that will be nor how you will achieve it. In a gushing piece in the Guardian on what a diplomatic victory the deal represented, much of how substance was sacrificed in order to achieve this can be read in this one short paragraph:
The EU backed down on having the intended emissions cuts, agreed at a national level, to be legally binding; the US accepted language on “loss and damage”; China and India agreed that an aspiration of holding warming to 1.5C could be included.
So there’s some nice language and aspiration – but, as we already knew, the actual commitments to reduce emissions via INDCs are based on voluntary pledges by country and are not binding. Unlike, we have to keep emphasizing, the TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements which have been and are being written into law and which threaten to completely undermine any chance of climate regulations.
So, as Danny Chivers and Jess Worth of New Internationalist (again!) have written, ‘Of course there are elements of the deal that climate justice activists can use…But to openly celebrate this deal would be a kick in the teeth to the hundreds of millions of people for whom its wording spells out the end of their homes and livelihoods.’
What is being celebrated instead, by activists and the alternative media who actually care about a just transition and building a new and better society and economy, is the organizing which is already going on to resist dirty energy, resist false solutions, and get on with that building work. Also to be celebrated is the daily-growing insistence on the intersectionality of the climate crisis with the other crises which corporate power thrives on. As we often say here at the Democracy Center, climate change is about much more than climate change. Everyone at Paris – frontline defenders, trade unionists, indigenous representatives, feminists, peace activists, solidarity activists – was talking about the importance of linking and thereby strengthening their diverse struggles. Now we have to carry on with the extremely hard work of actually doing that, and doing it effectively.
Those who are waltzing off into the sunset declaring Paris a success are also those, one suspects, who would like to step back and convince themselves that deeply compromised political systems and corrupt leaders are going to deliver us from this mess. In the end, this is a disempowering stance, a mirror of the passivity which we are encouraged to adopt in our consumer culture.
Much more empowering, for all of the challenges it faces, is to join the chorus which says: we know it is up to us. We hope that the piece of paper you have written your agreement on turns out to be worth something on our path to a better future – but we are certainly not going to rely on your signatories to deliver it; we are already working on it.
Feet on the ground, eyes open to the traps and hazards around it, this is where the climate justice movement stands today – reclaiming power. When I think of my son, this is where hope lies.
Maddy Ryle is the Democracy Center’s communications director.