The Forks in the Road after the Paris Agreement

By Mike Sandler

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Pictured above (from left to right): Mike Sandler (co-founder of CCP), and members of the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA)

Erik-Jan van Oosten of the Netherlands, Robert Hutchison from the UK, Caroline Whyte originally from Ireland now living in France, and Laurence Matthews from the UK. They attended the Paris climate talks to promote CapGlobalCarbon.

Without a doubt, the Paris Agreement is historic. It provides
some much-needed relief to the UN process and the leaders of the world who
suffered a major setback after the UN’s Copenhagen breakdown in 2009. It lets a
term-limited President of the United States claim to have set laudably
ambitious goals, and it lets him enjoy his retirement, sipping margaritas on a
beach somewhere while others try to implement actual actions to meet the goals.
It gives the protesters something to support (the 1.5 degree goal), and it
gives the business community quite a bit of wiggle room (for example, nobody is
in charge of enforcement, and there are no consequences for missing targets).
The fossil fuel lobby seemed to have the least to show for itself. It looks
like it will be out of business sometime in the second half of the 21st
century. And in the meantime, oil prices are very low, and (at least in the
U.S.) coal companies are feeling the pinch.

Many of the big environmental organizations have issued
statements of general support for the Agreement. In some cases this is meant to
influence low-information readers and isolate opponents of climate action,
something along the lines of, “Look, the
whole world has come together, is taking the issue seriously, and is on record
to phase out fossil fuels in a few decades
.” Other environmentalists have
been somewhat ambivalent because the only thing missing from the Agreement is
who, what, and how.

Like a zen koan, the Agreement is a riddle that just leads to
more questions. The signatories recognize that 1.5 degrees Celsius is a better
target than 2 degrees, but countries’ current commitments would result in 3.7
degrees, so the rest of us reading the Agreement are meant to take the good
feelings at face value and cheer them on:
“Sure! Let’s all be ambitious! Why not?”

Even so, cynicism is not a viable path forward. Tackling this problem
will take centuries of effort, so for the countries of the world to unite
behind a vision of 100% renewable energy and complete phase out of fossil fuels
within just a few decades is actually pretty inspiring. On the other hand,
inspiration alone will not reduce emissions. It will take real action. In this
regard, there are a few paths we can choose:

Business as usual: This is the preferred
mode for many fossil fuel companies. And it is preferred by the Republican Party
and its funders, with the exception of former California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger, former Congressman Bob Ingliss, and perhaps a few others who
are in conversation behind the scenes with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. The
INDCs (national commitments to reducing carbon) presented in Paris are
predicted to lead to warming of 3.7°C by 2100. India’s Center for Science and Environment
review of the US’s INDC blasts through the win-win rhetoric and lays bare some
inconvenient truths. The possibility that this pathway will prevail counteracts
all the feel good emotions around the Paris Agreement.

Business
as usual cloaked in green:
 This
mode was promoted at various expos and side events in Paris including Solutions 21 (which was derided by
activists as “False Solutions 21”). The French utility EDF promoted nuclear
power as low-carbon, and numerous banks signed on to future commitments to fund
renewables, while their current balance sheets overflowed with fossil fuel
companies. Proponents of this view might respond to a protester, “Divestment, sure…some day. We’ll let you
know when it works for us.”
 If you
squint one eye tight enough, you might be able to see a slight transition
occurring, but it seems unlikely to result in an economic transformation that
addresses global poverty, clean development, inequality, decoupling of
emissions and economy, and degrowth in the developed world.

Technological
wishful thinking:
One might think this is just an add-on to the above category, except
that in this case the messengers at COP21 were several big non-governmental
organizations, including Greenpeace. Here’s how the presentation played out: “We’d prefer a carbon price, but
unfortunately it is politically infeasible. But not to worry, renewables are
falling in price so rapidly that we don’t even need a carbon price! A little divestment here, a little investment there, maybe a
little bit stronger INDC in 2020, and viola: 100% clean energy!”
 Once again, if you squint one eye tight
enough, it is appealing, politically feasible, and being promoted by well-known
groups. “Let’s let the titans of industry
and the tech geniuses of Silicon Valley take us where we want to go! Tomorrowland,
here we come!”
So much optimism made me feel like a Debbie Downer.

A rising
carbon price under a declining global carbon budget:
As
Christina Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, the international body overseeing the climate
process, stated ahead of the talks, a carbon price was not really on the table for
the Paris Agreement. Neither were the words “global carbon budget.” Ms.
Figueres and others would say that could come later, starting at the national
or subnational level, and later incorporated into future INDC’s.

Rather than waiting around another 10 years, a delegation from
the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability (FEASTA), including me, attended COP-21 and
presented CapGlobalCarbon, a proposed
citizen’s movement to demand the creation of a Global Climate Commons Trust to
set a global carbon cap, auction production permits to upstream fossil fuel
companies, and return the revenues to people. This was presented at a side
event in the Blue Zone at COP-21. Similar concepts were noted at other climate
justice-oriented side events, including: The The Carbon Levy
Project,
the Civil Society Equity
Review
, EthicsandClimate.org,
remarks by former NASA scientist James Hansen (though he would say he support a
price but not a cap), James Glynn of University College Cork, the Mary Robinson
Foundation’s “Zero
Carbon Zero Poverty
” project, and by numerous Global South advocates.

To the extent that the Paris Agreement empowers activists to
investigate this pathway, then COP-21 can be considered a success. To the
extent that the Agreement promotes the other approaches or provides cover for
business as usual, well, let’s take to the streets!

Two final
notes.
The first goes back to an early mantra of the Center for
Climate Protection that was borrowed from ICLEI: “Local Action Moves the World.” Cities and regions were
well-represented at the Paris talks, and in many cases had the best stories to
tell of actual implementation of the transition off fossil fuel-dependent
economics. California was well-represented, and Sonoma Clean Power’s story was
told at several events featuring Community Choice Energy. Attending the Paris
climate talks was a high emissions, high effort endeavor. For example, it may
have cost attendees $200 or more per day to participate (which excludes the world’s
populations that subsist on a dollar or two a day). This trip reinforced the
idea that in general, it is more cost-effective, and in many cases more
rewarding, to “Think globally, act locally.”  

Second, it is important to mention the shadow cast over Paris by
the terrorist attacks that occurred a few weeks prior to the Paris climate
talks. Following the attacks, France more or less banned civil society,
cancelled the climate protests, and invoked emergency powers that subjected
citizens to something like a police state. During the climate talks, France’s
National Front, an anti-immigrant political party, won several regional
elections. Concurrently, here in the U.S., Republican presidential candidate
Donald Trump took the opportunity to propose banning Muslims from entering the
country. And this is in a world with less than a degree of greenhouse
warming.  

Climate change is a huge injustice waiting in the wings. It has
the potential to cause suffering on the poorest people, with scientific proof
pointing back to the tailpipes of the wealthiest 1%. The implications for a
future cycle of terror and right-wing reactionary backlash are obvious. It is
yet another scary fork in the road.

Let’s hope the Paris Agreement points us toward a peaceful, just,
and climate-protected world, and let’s work together to make that happen.

 –

Mike Sandler is co-founder of The Climate Center Campaign and   former program manager at the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority. He advocates for cap and dividend and currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family.

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