G et ready for some high-powered hugging. On Friday, some 60 heads of state and government will gather at United Nations headquarters in New York City to officially sign the climate change pact known as the Paris Agreement.
When it was unveiled in Paris last December, the headlines were euphoric. A “major leap for mankind,” said one. Another declared that the pact marked the “end of the fossil fuel era.”
But there were dissenting voices, too: James Hansen, arguably the most respected climate scientist in the world, called the agreement “a fraud really, a fake,” because “there is no action, just promises.” And in Paris, thousands of climate activists took to the streets to protest a deal they said was so weak that it would lead to catastrophic levels of warming.
So who’s right? Is the Paris Agreement a historic political breakthrough or is it a potential ecological disaster?
The deal really does reflect significant diplomatic progress, with the United States and China no longer pointing fingers at each other and instead collaborating to champion the agreement. All major emitters, including newly industrialized economies, are committed to taking action, though the deal directs countries that have been major polluters for more than a century to lower their emissions faster.
The agreement also locks in an extremely ambitious target of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 Fahrenheit — while pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C.” (To put that in perspective, we have already warmed the planet by roughly 1 degree Celsius from where it was before humans starting burning coal on an industrial scale.)
That 1.5 C goal is a really big deal. Low-lying island nations came to Paris warning that if that figure didn’t make it into the deal, the world would be consigning their ancient cultures to disappearing beneath the waves. Many in the Paris convention center chanted the slogan “1.5 to stay alive,” and it pretty much sums up the enormous human stakes behind all the United Nations jargon.
The temperature target is also why we saw those over-the-top headlines declaring that the deal marked the end of the fossil fuel era. Even a 2-degree temperature target means that the vast majority of known fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. And for particularly dirty forms like Alberta’s tar sands, about 85 percent must remain unused. There’s just no room for expanding our reliance on these energy sources in a 2-degree world.
These bold goals are why many people who are deeply concerned about climate change cheered in Paris — and will do so again on Friday.
But here’s why some of us will be sitting on our hands. The Paris deal contains no plan for achieving its bold temperature targets. On the contrary, in Paris, our governments laid out a plan for warming the planet by twice that amount.
Strangely, this is not a controversial statement: Add up all the emissions-reduction plans brought by governments to Paris and it puts us on a pathway to warming the planet not by 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, but by 3-4 degrees, according to many analysts, including Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. And that’s a big problem, because Anderson bluntly describes 4 degrees of warming (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) as “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable, and civilized global community.”
In essence, then, our governments said to the world: “We know what we need to do in order to keep us all safe — and we are willing to do roughly half that.” The text of the Paris deal even acknowledges what it describes as “the significant gap between” the concrete commitments countries brought to Paris and the agreement’s stated goal. It notes this gap between physical realities and political realities with “serious concern.”
This helps explain the many contradictions that have emerged since the deal was negotiated. Contradictions like Canada’s new government, which vocally championed the 1.5-degree target in Paris, returning home to push aggressively the construction of new pipelines carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands. That is, carbon we know must stay in the ground.
Or Exxon, which came out with a report in January stating that “we expect oil, natural gas, and coal to continue to meet about 80 percent of global demand” between now and 2040. Which is strange, because to have a good chance of keeping warming below 1.5-2 degrees, the global economy needs to be almost completely carbon-free by mid-century.
Meanwhile, recent climate news — never cheerful reading — has gotten much worse. We’re in the midst of a historic coral bleaching, with much of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef now a ghostly white. (Coral reefs are essential to supporting sea life.) In March, two separate major peer-reviewed studies warned that sea-level rise could happen much faster than previously believed.
James Hansen, who coauthored one of them, warned that failing to drastically slash emissions could mean the “loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities, and all their history,” with catastrophic sea-level rise as soon as this century.
“We can’t continue on this path of just hoping that emissions will go down, we’re going to actually have to take the actions,” Hansen said when the paper was published.
That’s why today’s climate activists are doing what their governments refuse to do: take on the power of the fossil fuel lobby directly. Students are demanding that their schools divest from fossil fuels, whole communities are coming together to stop new fossil fuel projects, and young activists are shaming politicians on the campaign trail for taking fossil fuel money.
Many in the political class have been taken aback by these events. After all, just a few years ago, new pipelines were rubber-stamped and everyone took fossil fuel donations. Clearly, the political culture is changing, and faster than experts can track — much like our climate.
Given the “significant gap” between physical realities and political realities openly acknowledged in the Paris Agreement, that change is a rare piece of good news for the climate.
Naomi Klein is the author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate” and is on the board of directors of 350.org