Monday, December 21, 2015


Is the Paris Climate Accord “Good Enough”?

When I read the draft text still in play last Friday morning, I was close to despair. Here we go again, I thought. The same issues dividing the rich and poor nations seemed to have the delegates at loggerheads. Then, Saturday morning, the leaders of the conference appeared, holding victorious hands aloft over an agreement which stated in principle that climate diplomacy had some common goals and guidelines. This was clearly a victory, and I breathed more easily for a day. For the first time since Kyoto, the planet had a climate accord.

But as the Nation's blog put it, “the fate of the world changed in Paris, but by how much?” It all depends on how quickly we can convert to a carbon-neutral economy (“the last half of the century,” as the agreement puts it, is clearly too late). And one of the mechanisms upon which the agreement leans heavily to reduce the CO2 already in the atmosphere – biofuels producing CO2 that will generate heat and electricity as they are sequestered, has already been dismissed by serious scientific studies. This continuing reliance on global corporations' profits is what those demanding they be banned from the table had predicted. Other more promising solutions, like soil carbon storage, are not even mentioned in the text. What is mentioned is the much-touted forestry initiative (REDD) preserving forests and planting more trees in countries with few resources but forests, offsetting continued carbon emissions whose negative effects are traded with a supposedly marginal benefit (loss) in net carbon. This is more of the failed Kyoto process, and it deserved no place in a viable agreement. Carbon credits can be gamed, as has been abundantly shown in the EU's carbon market.

A carbon cap-and-tax program, however, with revenue going to climate ameliorzation (not individuals) would be something that could move us swiftly towards the carbon-neutral goal (for 2 degree C max rise, by 2050; for 1.5C, 2030-40. These are the “official” figures from IPCC consensus, but they are compromised by political pressures upon and within the IPCC).I find the best site for unraveling the complexities of a carbon tax is the Carbon Tax Center.  But the key move, one which needs to become the international norm, is to revise income and corporate taxes by re-working them in accordance with taxing fossil carbon.  The bottom line in a post-Paris economy is carbon, not dollars.  

It was probably too much to hope for a binding agreement that would finally set the world on a crash-course for averting catastrophic climage change. Such an agreement is not possible until the US has a senate which is willing to debate a treaty on its merits. As we all know, the party in power there requires a litmus test denying anthropogenic warming, making passage of an international treaty impossible. The US requested the voluntary language, for the administration knows that it could not get a treaty through the present Senate (or probably the next one). The rest of the world understood this. And they understood the need to get China on board any agreement, so they exempted China from promising more in 2020, the first review date at which countries are strongly encouraged to rachet up their INDC's (intented nationally determined contribution – how's that for gobbley-speak!).

The biggest players asked for some of the biggest leniency, but in fact these two countries led the way into the INDC era with early pledges in a joint press conference last fall. Such behavior promises a different scenario for geopolitics than sparring over artificial islands in the South China Sea. The paradoxes are endless, but if these two countries can really work together towards carbon neutral economies - with the US contribution coming mostly before China's promised peak in 2030 – then the rest of the world may well do their part, especially with the EU continuing to lead in carbon reductions.

Despite the new international consensus which Paris COP 21 represents, we need to be realistic about the monumental task ahead. The speed at which climate change is disrupting the world makes talk of future carbon neutrality extremely tenuous. We already have several failed states, with climate change, mostly from drought, the key element in each collapse. These failed states have sent the first wave of climate refugees into the world, and finding homes for them has proved hugely challenging. With tens to hundreds of million more in upcoming decades, just keeping the world out of a war of all against all will be the utmost security threat. No wonder George W. Bush's defense department ranked abrupt climate change as our country's greatest risk, even as the President's party was hardening its position of denial.

Agriculture in an age of rapid climate change is the biggest challenge. In our reliance upon agricultural conglomerates, we tend to forget how important small and subsistence farmers are.  These are at greatest risk in threatened areas such as Africa, India, and Bangladesh.  The loss of farming opportunities in the drought-hammered Middle East has combined with the ill-advised US war on Iraq to lead to an increasingly desperate situation in the entire region.  In a politically precarious area, the relationship between water, small farming and refugees is now a permanent condition. Feeding the world's enormously bloated population in turn creates pressure for more top-down solutions, which further delays carbon neutrality, for that very pressure encourages increased reliance on oil, even with more sophisticated tech.  A vicious cycle is already in motion, even before the cascading positive reinforcements of global warming.

The biggest shift in the run-up to Paris has been the growth in renewable energy, especially solar. And the Paris pact is a boon to this industry, which the US House just helped in its budget bill (with trade-offs in a bill that was indeed a Christmas gift to virtually everybody, thus marginal progress at best). Though renewables still provide a very small portion of the total energy needs of some of the biggest polluters, some small countries, notably Uruguay, Costa Rica, Iceland, and Denmark, have made huge strides towards a carbon-free grid. But what about manufacturing and heavy industry? How exactly do we move away from oil, and in the case of industries like steel-making, coal? Almost every part of modern life involves habitual reliance upon oil, including every plastic in the world (except the imperceptible trials of plastics from artificial oil). I've seen no roadmap for this, only for retrofitting the grid.

No longer our grandchildren, but Boomers themselves.

We have seen this coming for a long time, since before Kyoto. We have spent the whole time, the Exxon interval, making up our minds over how to respond to something which means the end of our methods of production, requiring more than rearranging the furniture, creating more chances for profit among financially-savvy individuals and companies. Contrary to what the polyannas continue to say, it will require a huge change in our lifestyles, and a damping of the ambitions of developing nations. The changes in climate equilibrium which I first read would come in the latter third of this century are hard upon us. It is no longer our grandchildren at risk. Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and some wise lifestyle choices, many in my generation stand to be alive at the beginning of climate catastrophe in a couple of short decades. 

We remain a species that has evolved to exacerbate growth, and just saying we want to change (voluntarily) doesn't alter that. A friend recently sent me a link to a blog (forgive the title; it's not mine) which speaks eloquently to our dilemma.  I have previously addressed this intractable species-defined problem in reviewing Too Smart for Our Own Good.

Can we change fast enough, now that the world agrees that we must? The fate of the world has indeed changed, due to the globalization of the industrial revolution, powered by fossil energy. Can it change yet again on an equal scale, with a huge down payment in the next five years? I take that challenge personally, with a huge gulp and a depth sounding of the gut. It's time to really bring everything I have to the fight – as a writer, as a person of faith, as a consumer, as a pensioner with a few financial resources to leverage, and as a political animal with the temperament of a contemplative.As I posted today at another site, we must all follow our marching orders from the Inner Light

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