The Surprise Message from the Paris Climate Conference

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By Lewis Gannett


On December 12 at a convention center near Paris, the twenty-first gathering of the U.N.’s Conference of the Parties (COP21) “agreed” to halt global warming before it reached 2°C above the preindustrial average. In a surprise move the conferees also vowed to “strive” for the more ambitious eventual cap of 1.5°C. Media framed the news as a major development. Television reports included video of dignitaries delivering a standing ovation in the conference hall, a beaming Al Gore prominent among them. 

That the conferees had agreed to stop global warming was indeed historic. For over two decades negotiators had met at many different locations around the world to try to devise measures to reduce carbon emissions. All of these efforts had failed. Finally, nearly two hundred nations had endorsed an action framework. It lacked penalties for noncompliance, and at best would limit the warming trend to about 3°C. But this was a great deal better than the U.N.’s 5°C+ business-as-usual projections. The final text required nations to make periodic progress reports, with the expectation that the 2°C goal—and maybe the 1.5°C goal—would in time be met.

Al Gore wasn’t the only prominent activist who greeted the announcement with enthusiasm. Jeremy Leggett, chair of CarbonTracker, on December 15 posted in his widely read online diary, “On Saturday I witnessed something that nothing else in human history comes close to, in terms of scale and stakes.” Many others also expressed relief and delight. 

The glee disguised undercurrents of dread. Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, had been warning for some time that the 2°C goal posed unaddressed problems. Six weeks before the conference met he had crystallized this perception with commentary in Nature Geoscience. Anderson noted that “carbon budget” numbers from U.N. scientists were suggesting that global warming could be halted below 2°C without having a significant impact on the world economy. In fact, Anderson argued, the necessary emissions cuts required “a rapid and deep transition” with “profound implications for the framing of contemporary society.” He in essence accused his scientist colleagues of caving to political pressure to produce a reassuring scenario. “We simply are not prepared,” he concluded, “to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings, and even when we do we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly.” Indeed, “many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.”

If Anderson was right that U.N. scientists had deliberately underestimated the costs of the 2°C cap, how much more costly would the 1.5°C cap be? Were scientists rigging their data even further to make lower goal look tolerable? How could the Paris negotiators be unaware that they were using fake findings? 

In an interview conducted in Paris on December 10 with The Elephant Podcast, Naomi Klein noted that “nobody has disputed Kevin Anderson’s Tyndall numbers.” Let’s suppose that Anderson was indeed right. One concludes that the negotiators knew that their respective countries weren’t remotely prepared to take the measures necessary to achieve the 1.5°C cap. Their vote for it therefore couldn’t have been serious. Why, then, did they pretend to be serious? Perhaps they wanted to make a “symbolic statement.” Maybe they were extending token diplomatic cover or at least sympathy to the envoys of low-lying countries unlikely to survive the rising oceans of a 2°C world. 

Still, nearly 200 nations had vowed to strive for 1.5°C. It was fair to ask how they planned to do it. Journalists sought out experts for opinions. The day before, on December 11, The Nation had already quoted Joeri Rogelj of Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Rogeli noted that the COP21 provisions wouldn’t go into effect until 2020, and said, “To limit warming below 1.5 degrees C, there is no scenario available that says that we can delay action to 2020 and beyond. We need a global peak of emissions by 2020.” On December 12 Justin Gillis reported in The New York Times that by 2030, “the nations of the world would likely have to bring an end to gasoline cars, to coal- or gas-burning power plants in their current form, and to planes and ships powered by fossil fuels.” These stories and others suggested that something odd had happened at COP21. Had it called for the rapid shutdown of the fossil status quo?

On December 21 Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, entered the fray. In an address to the American Geophysical Union’s high-profile Fall Meeting in San Francisco, he declared that “the aspirational goal of not exceeding 1.5 degrees” provides “less than a decade’s worth of fossil fuel consumption at current rates.” Heinberg added that “some climate scientists would argue that we may reach 1.5 degrees and higher on the basis of carbon already released into the atmosphere and oceans.” 

The scientists Heinberg had in mind included Michael Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. Two days later on December 23 Mann published in HuffPost Green an impressive analysis showing that everybody had gotten some fundamental numbers wrong. Corrections to the dating of temperature records, along with the fact that air pollution provides a temporary shield against solar radiation, meant that the climate had in effect already warmed by a whopping 1.7°C. This darkened the outlook for the long-range 1.5°C goal. Efforts to fulfill it not only would require the nations of the world to stop emitting CO2 immediately. It would also require some combination of futuristic crash programs to “capture” the gas from smokestacks, to “remove” it from the atmosphere with huge purification machines, and to deploy geoengineering schemes such as “solar-radiation management.”

Well, what about carbon capture, perhaps the most viable of these technologies? Could it ramp up fast enough to clear the air? 

No, according to Richard Martin, energy editor of MIT Technology Review. In the December 15 issue Martin cited data from the International Energy Agency to argue that we must capture and store “more than two billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from smokestacks by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic warming [beyond 2°C], and seven billion metric tons by 2050. Barring a major technological advance that is not currently foreseeable, those targets are unreachable.” 

In short, expert opinion indicated that limiting global warming to 1.5°C required the virtually instantaneous decarbonization of the world economy. The “carbon budget” had been exhausted. Indeed, the extraction industries had to go into reverse gear: instead of pulling raw carbon from the ground, they now needed to draw its waste products from the air, and rebury them. 

There it was. The vampire movie needed to play backward. Demonic forces had to be hustled back into their graves. From the standpoint of climate activism it added up to an excellent plan to save civilization. But how could anybody pretend that the players at COP21 had the slightest intention of limiting global warming to 1.5°C—or even to 2°C? It didn’t take much cynicism to understand that the demonic forces were making too much money.

Questions arose. If the conference really had been trying to extend a token gesture to nations especially vulnerable to climate change, the effort had misfired badly. Why hadn’t it been obvious from the start that experts would shoot down such unrealistic thinking? Perhaps the COP process had reached a state of exhaustion after two decades of negotiations having gone nowhere. Maybe the conferees, supplied with quantities of fine wine by their attentive French hosts, simply had surrendered to positive spin.  

But maybe it was something deeper. Was the Paris denouement, in fact, a surprise psychological gambit? 

It’s plausible that the conferees’ embrace of a politically impossible goal wasn’t a case of bungled etiquette, but an admission that they didn’t have the faintest idea of how to proceed, and felt obliged to take desperate measures. They were caught in a tight space with no rational exit. So they invented an imaginary exit. The alternative—conceding diplomatic failure and with it the probable downfall of civilization—was unthinkable. What relief they must have felt, to find an escape hatch at the last minute. You could see it actually, in the giddiness eddying through news video of the closing ceremony’s standing ovation.

Let’s say that 1.5°C was indeed a case of people at their wits’ end trying to find a way out. Attractive ideas follow. 

First, however, consider the conclusions of the distinguished lefty Chris Hedges. On December 6, days before the conference closed, Hedges wrote in the online journal Truthdig, “There are only a few ways left to deal honestly with climate change: sustained civil disobedience that disrupts the machinery of exploitation,” along with preparing for doomsday and shrinking personal consumption. Political engagement just didn’t work, in Hedges’ view. “Arts of duplicity and propaganda on behalf of corporate power” had hijacked the process. This sounded pretty close to giving up.

Hedges had good company. On December 29 in his year-end blog from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, James Hansen, dean of climate-change awareness, pointedly remarked that “Shameless preplanned back-slapping accompanied a Paris climate accord that guaranteed nothing except continued high fossil fuel emissions.” Hansen hadn’t given up on policy advocacy; far from it. But his longtime disgust with American leadership had now reached a breaking point. On December 12, the conference’s closing day, Oliver Milman of The Guardian quoted Hansen: “I think we will get there because China is rational. Their leaders are mostly trained in engineering and such things, they don’t deny climate change and they have a huge incentive, which is air pollution…. They realise it’s not a hoax.” Hmm. If the U.S. intends to cook the biosphere, can Beijing really stop it?

 It’s not hard to join Hedges and Hansen in concluding that COP21 was the endgame triumph of sociopath titans and corrupt politicians. But here is what I’m wondering. Didn’t the vote for 1.5°C make the point that we can’t give up? That in fact, we must go for 1.5°C? Even if it’s stepping into the fourth dimension?

That, perhaps, is the lesson of Paris. We are in a tightly sealed room. There’s no way out. It’s totally impossible to get out. But! There has to be a way. 

Okay, that’s easy to say. How is there a way? Now is the time to point out that failing to escape the sealed room probably means 3°C or higher. Actually, it’s already becoming conventional wisdom that 3°C is inevitable and maybe even tolerable. People are almost resigned to it. It’s shocking how blasé people seem, even so-called liberals. For example, Paul Krugman on Christmas Day wrote in The New York Times: “now we can see the shape of a sustainable, low-emission future quite clearly…” Krugman must not have been reading Justin Gillis’ reporting in his own newspaper. It’s very far from clear that COP21’s emissions pathway will sustain much of a future in large parts of the world. 

How do we find a way out of the tightly sealed room? Thanks to The Climate Mobilization, a growing grassroots movement that you might have heard of, we have a start to the answer.

The Climate Mobilization calls for a World War II-scale commitment of resources to halting global warming and restoring a safe climate for humanity. That means a society-wide commitment. Business as usual stops, we all take a deep breath, and then we collectively advance on the problem, engage it, and don’t stop until we’ve solved it. That’s how we geared up for, fought, and proceeded to win the Second World War.  

It’s important to keep in mind a fascinating aspect of how that war played out. At the start, the Allies faced problems they’d never before seen. They were flying into regions unknown. But they went in and played it by ear, with an ever-growing series of improvisations. This is the fascinating part: it required a lot of gambling. Nobody knew what might work. It seemed like desperate thinking. But it was all right as long as something worked.

One of the great examples of WWII gambling concerned a decision Winston Churchill made about a young mathematician named Alan Turing. Turing thought he could crack the Nazi Enigma code and acquire valuable military intelligence. Churchill bet that Turing was right. Vast sums flowed to Bletchley Park, the dismally named estate where Turing and his fellow cryptanalysts set up shop. Nobody knew if this would work. It seemed like desperate thinking! Who were these cryptanalysts? They mostly were weirdo crossword-puzzle champions (in a manner of speaking). But the bet paid off. Turing’s team cracked the code. Allied warships sank U-boats, convoys crossed the Atlantic, the war shortened by perhaps two years, and lives were saved in untold numbers. Probably in the millions.

Franklin Roosevelt made a similarly audacious and much bigger bet on the Manhattan Project, which also got results. Let’s not dwell on that, except to note that what had seemed science fiction proved not to be delusional. 

Going all-out to roll back global warming to 1.5°C is desperate thinking. It’s crazy to imagine that we can decarbonize in a hurry. How absurd to grab CO2 from the air. What could be more farfetched than playing the vampire movie backward? 

We have no choice. We must think our way out of the sealed room. It’s all right if everything else goes on hold for a while. It’s okay if we make mistakes here and there, and who cares how much it costs. The important thing is this: We’ve made similar efforts before. We know we can make them now.

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