COP21: Achievements and challenges to the climate justice movement

The 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (COP21) concluded its meeting on December 12 in Paris. COP21 followed the process that began in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit, taking up as its central challenge the urgent need for global reductions in greenhouse gases that drive climate change.

Today, roughly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions hail from fossil-fuel use, with coal, natural gas’ methane leakage into the atmosphere, and tar sands oil leaving the highest carbon footprint. Conventional liquid oil boasts the lowest footprint (about three-fourths that of coal), arguably making oil the real bridge energy source in a full transition to a global wind/solar infrastructure.

Other greenhouse gases derived from human activity include nitrous oxide (the breakdown product of nitrate fertilizer), carbon dioxide, and methane—also byproducts of industrial agriculture, particularly cattle. That industrial food production also contributes to global warming makes a transition to ecologically-based agriculture imperative.

On the outcomes of the COP21 Paris Agreement, climate justice activists, including leading climate scientists such as Jim Hansen, generally have very sober assessments.

First, let us begin with the Paris Agreement’s positives (with significant caveats). This COP meeting was the first in which virtually all countries agreed to at least submit their national plans on climate change, subject to periodic review. From the introduction to the Paris Agreement:

“Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and thus requires the widest possible cooperation by all countries, and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, with a view to accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, Also recognizing that deep reductions in global emissions will be required in order to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention and emphasizing the need for urgency in addressing climate change, Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and inter-generational equity.”

But does the actual Agreement live up to these strong, even inspiring words? It agreed to a goal of keeping global temperature increase “well below” 2 °C and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 °C warming above pre-industrial temperatures by 2100. 176 nations including the biggest greenhouse gas polluters, China, U.S. and EU, made specific commitments via the Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs) to eventually curb their greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to peak them as soon as possible. No penalties, however, were provided for failing to achieve INDCs that curbed emissions over a projected time period. The sum of INDC commitments gives a projected warming of 2.7 to 3.5 °C warming above the pre-industrial temperatures by 2100, translating into climate catastrophe.

In the Introduction to the Agreement itself, we find that the challenge is acknowledged:

“Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre- industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.”

Many leading climate scientists now think that the 2 °C limit is too high. For example, NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen said this goal was a “prescription for disaster” because of projected impacts such as sea level rise and acidification of the ocean. His assessment is reinforced by a newly published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This evidence strongly backs up the long-term demand of many poor countries for a 1.5 °C limit, recognizing that the severe weaknesses in the Paris Agreement make this goal a huge challenge.

Nevertheless, some participants in COP 21 take even the acknowledgement of the 1.5 °C target as a major achievement:

“The fact that the accord prominently mentions the 1.5 °C target is a huge victory for vulnerable countries,” says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh and adviser to a coalition of least-developed nations. “Coming into Paris, we had all of the rich countries and all of the big developing countries not on our side… In the 14 days that we were here, we managed to get all of them on our side.”

But Oscar Reyes from the Institute for Policy Studies is far more sober. “According to the IPCC holding warming to 2 °C will probably require emissions to be cut by 40–70% by 2050 compared with 2010 levels, achieving the 1.5 °C target would require substantially larger emissions cuts — of the order of 70–95% by 2050,” Reyes says. “The new agreement doesn’t [fully] take effect until 2020, the chance to achieve the 1.5-degree goal will have already gone, unless all of the world’s largest economies dramatically change course.”

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” says Hansen. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2 °C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Patrick Bond, climate justice leader from South Africa has also added, “Since 2009, US State Department chief negotiator Todd Stern successfully drove the negotiations away from four essential principles: ensuring emissions-cut commitments would be sufficient to halt runaway climate change; making the cuts legally binding with accountability mechanisms; distributing the burden of cuts fairly based on responsibility for causing the crisis; and making financial transfers to repair weather-related loss and damage following directly from that historic liability. Washington elites always prefer ‘market mechanisms’ like carbon trading instead of paying their climate debt even though the US national carbon market fatally crashed in 2010.”

Nevertheless, rather than immobilizing the climate justice movement with the recognition of the huge challenges unaddressed in the COP21 agreement, indications so far point to a re-energizing process as a result, building on its recent victories such as the rejection of the X-L Keystone pipeline by President Obama with continuing struggles around extreme energy projects and the actions of cities around the world to take more aggressive steps to curb their greenhouse gas emissions and transition to renewable energy supplies.

I suggest the following issues be taken more seriously by the global climate justice movement:

  1. The huge subsidies going to fossil fuels (IMF study: $5 trillion/year), with indirect costs including health impacts from air pollution (3-7 million die every year), with a goal to nationalize the energy industry and decentralize with community management and ownership clean energy supplies in a full transition to wind/solar power (e.g., see Unions for Energy Democracy).
  2. The Military Industrial [Fossil Fuel Nuclear State Terror and Surveillance] Complex (MIC) as a block to achieving global cooperation for rapid curb on global greenhouse gas emissions and a full transition to wind/solar power. The Pentagon/NATO is the instrumental arm of the Imperial foreign policy of the MIC, so while the Pentagon is going “green” with respect to energy conservation and use of renewables it is simply “greenwashing” its Imperial role. The Pentagon’s recognition of the growing security threat from climate change reinforces the Imperial Agenda and military spending.

This is the critical obstacle posed by the MIC, not the sizable, but widely exaggerated greenhouse gas emissions of the Pentagon itself. [1] Yes, of course there are critical contradictions within capital regarding energy policy, and the Green New Deal strategy must capture the “solar” faction of capital into a multi-class alliance to force demilitarization and termination of the perpetual war dynamic to have any hope of implementing a C3 prevention program in time. Does any socialist believe that this prevention program can be realized as long as the State Terror apparatus is locked in the vicious cycle of violence with its useful enemy, its terrorist antagonist? To sum up, this strategy remains very relevant: build a transnational movement for a Global Green New Deal. This is not a strategy relying on the capitalist market driving “green” capitalist investment, rather one opening up the path for a concrete C3 prevention program and a more favorite terrain for global ecosocialist class struggle.

[1] On the issue of the Pentagon Greenhouse Emissions, Neslen in his recent Guardian article says, “According to Department of Defence figures, the US army emitted more than 70m tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year in 2014. But the figure omits facilities including hundreds of military bases overseas, as well as equipment and vehicles.” I contacted the DOE with the response that the total CO2 equivalent emissions does include overseas bases. (The excel sheet available in the Neslen’s article includes emissions labeled “Mobile Emissions [Vehicles, Aircraft, Ships and Equipment], plus Military Operations.”) The total CO2 equivalent emissions equal to 70 million metric tons from the DOD is less than 0.2% of the global emissions for 2014. Neslan also cites the 2008 Oil Change International estimate for the Iraq War. The total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions for the Iraq War corresponds to less than 0.1% of the total global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossils fuels for the same five-year period (I published this comparison in 2009). Yes, the DOD emissions are larger than that from many small countries, but simply focusing on the direct emissions from the military is misleading.