Not surprisingly, the climate agreement signed by 195 countries in Paris last weekend triggered much commentary on its merit or lack thereof. But before I get to that, a few words about what the agreement says. First, the positives.
* The goal is to bring down the rise of global temperatures to zero by mid-century.
* A target temperature rise of no more than 2º C or 3.5º F was established.
* The agreement also set an “aspirational goal” of limiting the increase to 1.5º C. This number represents a shift in the goal posts, and, if achieved, would be a death sentence for the fossil fuel industries and fossil fuel driven economies in the next decade or two.
* Both developed and developing nations pledged to be part of the process. Although the main emissions contributors are the U.S. and Western Europe, developing countries like China, India, and Brazil have also become major emitters.
* It established a fund of $100 billion annually from public and private sources to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. Though not exactly a full-blooded commitment to a “just transition” — lifting the burden of climate change from the most vulnerable and poorest countries which have contributed the least to the crisis — this very modest fund, along with the language in the agreement’s preamble, is a start in that direction.
* The agreement requires each country to regularly and transparently disclose its progress in reducing carbon emissions, including a process to review and assess this every five years.
Now to the flaws.
Critics – including many of the delegates who crafted the agreement – point out that there are obvious flaws. For one thing, it isn’t legally binding, a condition the Obama administration insisted upon, in large measure because a binding agreement would have required approval by the climate change denying Republican-dominated Congress.
Compliance, therefore, is strictly voluntary, hence unenforceable. More to the point: the agreement could easily become the casualty of government leaders and parties on the right of the political spectrum. And as we know, in more than a few countries — the U.S. in the first place — the right wing, demagogically exploiting the chaos, dislocation, and violence in the Middle East and recent terrorist attacks in France and the U.S., is either ascendant or gaining momentum and strength.
Another major shortcoming is that even if the participating countries all meet their emissions reduction pledges, when these are added up, the result is still a temperature rise beyond 2º C — most experts say in the 3º-4º C range.
That outcome would be catastrophic for literally tens of millions of people in poor and vulnerable areas of Africa and Asia. Homelessness, disease, dislocation, poverty, and death would grow. Island nations would actually disappear. And many climate change models suggest that the effect of such a rise in temperatures could be considerably worse than predicted, due to feedback loops that, once triggered, would cause severe disruptive effects worldwide.
Still another flaw in the document is that its overriding objective isn’t to eliminate the production of fossil fuels and the concentrations of capital that profit from it. Rather than pointing to supply side solutions (leaving carbon in the ground), the consumption-demand side (reducing emissions) is the focus.
The financial assistance to developing countries, while a start as mentioned, is woefully inadequate to the task. Aid, as the leaders of the developing world insist, isn’t a handout. It is a matter of justice extended to countries that bear little of the responsibility, but will experience (and actually already are experiencing) a disproportionate share of the negative effects of rising global temperatures.
In short, the agreement falls far short of what science and justice demand. And here’s the rub: while politics in many instances accommodates to delays and compromises, nature does not. And in the case of climate change, science tells us that lateness will be punished severely and forever. There are no makeup exams, no second chances, no getting it right the next time around.
Two camps of critics
Since most critics cite much of the above in their appraisal of the Paris agreement, one might think that everybody is more or less on the same page, but that isn’t the case. And here’s why: once the conversation moves beyond pointing out this or that positive feature or flaw in the agreement and turns to an overall assessment of it, critics find themselves at odds with one another and end up, essentially, in one of two camps.
In one are those who say that the overall agreement is a failure. In this camp is James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who broke new ground in the study of climate change and resisted pressures from the first Bush administration to button his lip. In an interview, he characterized the agreement as “worthless” and “a fraud.”
With him stands Bill McKibbon, leader of the environmental action group 350.org, whose assessment in an op-ed article in the New York Times sounded like a funeral dirge. No less negative, George Monbiot, the highly respected author and blogger on climate change, headlined his post, “The COP21 climate talks in Paris were not the success that governments claim, but a disastrous failure.”
And finally, Naomi Klein, author of the rightly celebrated book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate, had little good to say about the agreement either.
In the other camp, assessments go in a different direction. “What we have now is a framework for cooperating on climate change that’s suited to the task,” said Michael Levi, an expert on energy and climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Whether or not this becomes a true turning point for the world, though, depends critically on how seriously countries follow through.”
Mark Hertsgaard, environmental writer for The Nation, also had a positive take, “The best way to lower the death toll and improve civilization’s future prospects is for civil society all over the world — climate-justice advocates, community and religious leaders, business and financial executives — to push harder than ever to turn the noble but non-binding aspirations declared in Paris into rapid, concrete transformations of our energy, agriculture, consumerist, and other socioeconomic systems.”
“We can build,” Hertsgaard goes on to say, “a better future than what currently awaits us, and the Paris Agreement can help, but only if the resistance of the old order — as personified by the climate deniers and foot-draggers in Congress and their paymasters in the fossil-fuel industry — is routed once and for all.”
Striking a positive note too, Khalid Pitts, Sierra Club political director, writes, “The politics of climate action in the United States just got a major transformational jolt. In Paris, one hundred and ninety five nations agreed to a universal and lasting accord that commits all countries to act together on climate for the first time.”
“Due to the enormity of this historic agreement,” he continues, “it is surprising that the leading Republican candidates have been uncharacteristically silent for the moment – but perhaps not so much upon closer examination. One of the main arguments Republicans have made against U.S. action is that America cannot act alone. Now, with the entire world acting as one on climate, the Paris agreement accomplishes the very thing which completely undercuts the most hackneyed objections of the GOP candidates.”
My conclusion is that although giddy celebration is not in order, neither is paralyzing despair. What science dictates can’t be the singular yardstick with which to measure the success or failure of the Paris agreement.
Rather, we have to ask if it breathes new momentum into the efforts of people and governments to address the climate crisis. Does it bring new attention to the issue? Does it change people’s thinking? Does it create new opportunities to extend and deepen the movement? Does it bring a new focus to the struggle to save the planet?
I would argue that it does all of these things, and therefore should also figure into any assessment of the agreement. After all, it’s on the level of politics that this existential crisis facing humankind will or will not be resolved.
What is needed now is a clarion call to fulfill and scale up the U.S. commitments, to make a speedy and just transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and to help ensure that the same happens worldwide.
Whether this can happen depends on a number of things. First, the scale and scope of people’s activity has to ramp up. Governments do respond to the sustained actions of millions.
Second, it is imperative for climate change leaders and activists to reach out to a much broader section of the American people: to those who are too busy with their lives to do anything, those who are unconvinced of the urgency of the moment, those who believe that legislation to ameliorate the crisis threatens their livelihoods, and even those who deny that there is a crisis.
Third, a smorgasbord of entry points into the climate change movement is crucial. Blockading oil or coal shipments and street demonstrations aren’t for everyone, and especially those who are becoming politically active for the first time.
Fourth, leaders and activists have to persuasively articulate the interconnections between the climate crisis and the other crises of capitalism — wage and income stagnation, inequality and discrimination, poverty, police brutality and mass incarceration, militarism, the shrinking public sector and services, and narrowing of democratic space. Each is part of an interlocking whole.
Finally, climate change activists must shift into overdrive to change the political makeup of Congress and transform the role and priorities of government.
Direct action versus electoral politics?
But herein lies a problem. Too many in the climate change movement consider street heat and direct action as the singular mode of struggle. Indeed many of its leaders and activists — not to mention sections of the left — seem allergic to participation in the electoral process, especially when it amounts to supporting Democratic Party candidates. It seems they feel that to engage in two-party politics stains their political credentials and isn’t worth the effort.
This is in sharp contrast to of the broader people’s movement that played such a major role in electing President Obama for two terms and is gearing up for a major battle in 2016. While divisions exist over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, everyone is on the same page on the necessity of defeating the Republicans at every level. Such unanimity rests on the understanding of tens of millions of people and the organizations that represent them that the defeat of the right wing will bring some immediate relief as well as create a more favorable political terrain on which to fight for more fundamental solutions to the climate crisis and everything else.
Thus, when I see not a word concerning the urgency of defeating the right in next year’s elections in the commentary of Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, I have to wonder, what planet are they are, what planet are they trying to save? It’s beyond me how anyone can think that we have a snowball’s chance — pun intended — of challenging the grip of the energy corporations and enacting radical climate change measures as long as the right wing is in the driver’s seat in Washington and the majority of states governments.
The point here isn’t to denigrate McKibben or Klein, both are important and astute leaders and spokespeople of the climate change movement. Nor is it to throw cold water on demonstrations, divestment campaigns, mass civil disobedience, etc. Rather, I am arguing for a comprehensive and transformative strategy that not only combines different forms of democratic and class struggle, but also gives special urgency to defeating right-wing extremism at the polls next year.
While the past isn’t always a reliable guide to the future, the fact is that every transformative period in the last century — the 1930s, ’60s, and ’80s — was facilitated, given momentum, and consolidated by an electoral sweep: Roosevelt and his coalition in the first instance, Lyndon Johnson in the second, and, Reagan, albeit in a rightward, neoliberal about-face, in the third.
If this terrain of struggle gets little attention from some sections of the climate change movement and the left, the same can’t be said about their adversaries on the other side. The climate change deniers and polluters have their fingerprints, money, and voice all over every phase of the political and electoral process. If anything, they have ramped up their participation over the last three decades, establishing themselves as an unrelenting fixture in Washington that challenges the science of climate change, and resists the smallest measures that might cut down on carbon emissions. They understand that wealth, power and social policy are politically constituted as well as the anti-capitalist implication of a resolution of the climate and general environmental crisis. Abstention from politics, therefore, isn’t in their vocabulary or practice.
Martin Luther King once said in another context, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.’”
Were King alive today, my guess is that he would likely say much the same, and maybe with an even fiercer sense of urgency and moral righteousness. He would employ his moving oratory to urge us to take immediate and righteous action as well as challenge a social system whose essential logic and dynamic of endless growth and accumulation on an ever-expanding scale is violently threatening the very existence of our planet.
But King was a soberminded politician as well as moral visionary and would remind us of what he learned in the Civil Rights movement. One is that any successful democratic movement has to single out the immediate obstacle, that is, the class-political grouping blocking social progress and if in power would push the country down the road to ruin. Another is that democratic demands have to be placed on governmental institutions, including radical ones that abolish certain classes of corporate property. A third is that only a movement of millions of people — not a militant minority, not the left alone — has the capacity to make transformative change, and in this case, heal the planet.
Still another lesson is that methods of non-violent struggle have to be combined into a single, mutually reinforcing whole. Finally, he would argue that it mattered who occupied the White House and other seats of power in Washington as well as state capitals across the country. For King, the struggle against the “triplets of racism, militarism and poverty” depended on rearranging the political furniture. Like other outstanding leaders in our nation’s history, King’s moral vision and his sense of urgency never occluded concrete political realities that had to be negotiated on the longer march down freedom road.
Which makes me think that if he were still with us, he would insist that we step up to the challenge of the 2016 elections, a necessary fight that can’t be bypassed if we hope to save our planet and create a world free of exploitation and oppression.