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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir's Legacy: a history of the American environmental movement.

Not a victory, but a start--barely

Part 7. Hope Blossoms: Paris, December 2015

The 2014 U.N. climate conference had asked the world’s nations to submit by October, 2015 their pledges (INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to form the platform of the much-anticipated December, 2015 climate summit in Paris. These pledges would be a test of how seriously the world’s leaders were listening to the data and predictions of virtually every scientific body in the world, and the pleas of climate change activists.

In the scientific and environmental establishment, at least, the 2015 summit was considered the last opportunity to craft an international consensus that would avert global catastrophe. Optimism was not widespread, given the utter failure to reach such agreement in every other preceding summit. Klein’s hoped-for mass movement had not mushroomed in the year since her book’s publication, nor were there any signs of Pope Francis’ hoped-for “ecological conversion” occurring throughout the world.

President Obama and Premier Xi Jinping had dramatically unveiled elements of the pledges of the United States and China early, in the November 2014 meeting at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. Obama pledged that the U.S. would reduce emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, while Xi committed China to capping its rising emissions by at least 2030, and to have 20 percent of all its energy produced from non-fossil sources by then. In their subsequent Washington, D.C. summit in September 2015, they announced further steps, including Xi’s that China will launch a national carbon cap-and-trade system in 2017.

This promising beginning was amplified as the INDCs arrived from other countries. Brazil became the first major developing country to commit to an absolute emissions cut, by 37 percent over the next decade and 43 percent by 2030, along with a halt to illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. India planned to triple its renewable energy capacity by 2022, with a target of 40 percent of its power from non-fossil sources by 2030. The European Union pledged to cut its 2005 emissions by 40 percent by 2030.

By mid-October, 149 countries had submitted their INDCs, and the first round of calculations of the effects resulting from the anticipated new global emissions regimen emerged from the key organizations tracking climate change, including Europe’s Climate Action Trackers (CAT), America’s Climate Interactive (CI), and the international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

First the “good news”: the new regimen, if implemented as envisioned in the INDCs, would pull the world back from the previous global course heading to a 4 to 6 degrees C temperature increase by 2100, which was clearly incompatible with continuing human civilization on the planet. Progress, then.

But the “bad news”: as Lord Nicholas Stern, President of the British Academy and Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, expressed it, the 2015 INDC “pledges by national governments will mean emissions after 2020 will fall far short of cuts needed to have a reasonable chance of avoiding global warming of more than 2 degrees C.” Specific estimates of temperature increase engendered by the INDCs clustered around 3.0 degrees C, depending on the various computer models utilized by the research outfits (2.7 from CAT; “around 3” from PwC; 3.5 from CI).

The 3.0 degrees C increase indicated by the INDCs falls well within the 2-to-4 degrees C “catastrophe” range, characterized by at least the following consequences: melting of much of the Antarctic, Arctic, and Greenland ice caps, resulting in sea level rises of 1 to 2 meters, and significant flooding of the world’s coastal cities and agriculturally-important deltas; disappearance of low-lying island nations; disappearance of coral reefs worldwide (already well-begun); extensive inundation of coastal areas on many continents; significantly decreased food production due to widespread droughts and heat stress on crops; increased frequency and intensity of storms and hurricanes; heat stress rendering equatorial areas uninhabitable by humans; massive worldwide migrations into temperate regions due to droughts and heat (far in excess of the summer/fall 2015 migrations into Europe); collapse of marine systems and fisheries due to ocean acidification. This would doubtless result in human deaths in the tens- to hundreds-of-millions range.

The anticipated consequences must be termed “at least” because somewhere in the 2 to 4 degrees C window, tipping points will occur. The current models cannot specify exactly what increase will trigger these; it could be 2.1, 3.8, or anywhere in between. (Indeed, a 1990 report by the Stockholm Environmental Institute said warming even above 1 degree C could trigger “rapid and unpredictable” consequences.) But we can with reasonable confidence predict that at some point in the 2 to 4 degrees C range--probably the lower end, since the Arctic is warming at twice the rate as the planet as a whole—the carbon frozen in the tundra permafrost will melt. This event will release an estimated 1,700 gigatons of methane rather suddenly into the atmosphere. Since methane is 25-times more powerful as a global-warming gas than carbon dioxide, the resultant spike in temperature will be dramatic.

Another anticipated tipping point would be the substantial, further melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, which would cause a significant additional rise in sea level (beyond the 1 to 2 meters indicated) and change the chemistry of the oceans (as unprecedented inputs of fresh water impact the system) and the prevailing ocean currents—all of this with consequences that our current models can barely imagine.

These are the tipping points scientists can predict. Because our knowledge of climate is still relatively rudimentary, other unanticipated tipping points may well occur, particularly in the chemistry of the oceans and the wind and water currents of the atmosphere and oceans, respectively. When it enters the 2 to 4 degrees C range of temperature increase, humanity is literally playing with global fire and ice, elemental forces of nature far more overpowering and dangerous than individual hurricanes and earthquakes.

So while the INDCs for the December 2015 Paris climate summit indicated an avoidance of the 4 to 6 degrees C scenario, and thus relative progress, they were not close to avoiding the 2 to 4 degrees C scenario. They were not enough. Further reductions must be made to avert catastrophe, and the consensus from Lord Stern and other economists and scientists was that the next steps would have to kick into effect by 2020 hopefully, certainly no later than 2025.

There were other issues that threatened any agreement at Paris. The dispute over “differentiation” was instrumental in producing the fiasco at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Developing nations held that developed nations, which had contributed virtually all the greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution, should have to do much more in addressing global warming than developing nations, whose contributions were negligible, historically.

Another issue was the cost of developing nations to cope with the effects of global warming thrust upon them by developed nations: should the costs be considered “compensation and liability,” thus legally addressed in the courts, or “loss and damage,” to which the developed nations could contribute whatever they wished?
And finally, the Europeans insisted that the INDC pledges must be legally binding, to have a reasonable chance of actually taking place amidst future changes of governments.

Amidst the uncertainty and the high stakes, amplified by the terrorist attacks just the week before which had shaken the city (and left 130 dead), 150 heads of states flew to Paris for the summit’s opening on November 28. Security was extraordinarily high. Many eloquent speeches were made. President Obama met privately with China’s Xi Jinping and India’s Narenra Modi--they represented the three nations with highest carbon emissions by far. Germany’s Angela Merkel met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin; and Francois Hollande of France huddled with the leaders of the smaller, developing nations. Coordinating and driving everything forward was Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, involved in the UN summits since 1995 and the UN’s climate change chief since 2010.

Hollande and his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, tirelessly applied the legendary Gallic diplomacy and fine food to the delegates, and moreover arranged for a room with cubicled beds for exhausted negotiators to catch snatches of sleep, as well as numerous venues for smaller, breakout negotiations. By the end of the first week, as the heads of state returned home, a first draft agreement had been produced, though with 300 bracketed portions indicating areas of disagreement.

The government ministers of all 196 nations represented flew in as the second week began, and the real work commenced, as the draft agreement was haggled over line by line, word by word, comma by comma. The beds were liberally used as all-night sessions became the norm. Hollande, Fabius, and Figueres seemed tireless, and everywhere.

Many delegates who were veterans of former climate summits remarked upon the changed atmosphere in Paris of 2015. The catastrophic consequences of doing nothing and continuing on the current path were better understood now, by all. The summit’s critical second (and concluding) week began with a coalition of chief executives from prominent corporations (“B-Team”) urging strong measures, including the adoption of a 1.5 degrees C target rather than the 2 degrees C goal set in Copenhagen. Delegates seemed to listen more intently to Richard Branson of Virgin, and Jochen Zeitz of Puma, than to the ubiquitous environmental lobbyists.

The summit had opened with the Lima Paris Action Agenda detailing hundreds of businesses and thousands of regions and cities worldwide which had already promised to cut emissions, including Ikea, Coca-Cola, Dell, General Mills, Kelloggs, NRG Energy, Procter & Gamble, Sony, and Walmart, as well as 20 investor groups representing US$ 3.2 trillion committed to decarbonisation of US$ 600billion in assets.

Howard Bamsey, Australia’s lead negotiator in Kyoto in 1997 and veteran of 18 of these UN climate summits, felt that Paris, 2015 was different: “I’m finding it impossible not to be optimistic, because it feels like we have reached a tipping point, like this shift (away from fossil fuels) has become unstoppable.”

None the less, the outcome did not come easily. “Climate vulnerable” countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam had early teamed with the Marshall Islands to launch a campaign to change the target from 2 to 1.5 degrees C. To the astonishment of all, the idea gained traction, was seconded by the B-Team executives, and was included as an “aspiration” in the final agreement.

Three days before the conference was to end, the French produced yet another iteration of the agreement, in which the bracketed areas had been reduced to 40, but they were the toughest to handle. A string of delegates trouped into Fabius’ office, including Edna Molewa of South Africa over liability, Xie Zhenhua of China over differentiation, John Kerry of the U.S. over “treaty” versus “agreement,” and Julie Bishop of Australia over multiple issues. Fabius listened, cajoled, exhorted, persuaded. President Obama phoned Xi Jinping from Washington, and a compromise was reached on differentiation. Hollande spent all night on the phone to many developing nations, who agreed to “loss and damage” rather than “liability.”
Crucially, the Europeans dropped their demand for legally binding economic targets and emission reductions in the agreement, since that would makes the agreement a formal treaty which would never pass the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

On the last day of the conference, the putative “final” document was distributed, and delegates were invited to a final, triumphant session in the main hall at 5:30 pm. Everyone arrived--except Fabius and his aides. An hour passed. Another half hour. Word spread: there have been complications. The agreement may be falling apart. In a crucial sentence, “should” had inadvertently been replaced with “shall.” The agreement was now a treaty, and dead in the U.S. Senate. Fabius and Hollande wanted to simply change the wording, but other countries sensed an opportunity for their own last-minute changes. First African countries; China persuaded them to drop their demands. Then the Nicaraguans; they persisted. Only after phone calls from Cuba’s Raul Castro and the U.S.’s John Kerry to Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega was their demand dropped.

Fabius strode into the great, cavernous main hall at 7:16, flanked by a visibly weary Figueres and other UN officials. He glanced about the room, banged the gavel, and announced that agreement had been reached. The hall erupted in whoops and cheers, and much hugging all around. Newspaper headlines blared “World’s Greatest Diplomatic Success,” and “Saving the Planet in a Fracturing World.”

Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore proclaimed that “This universal and ambitious agreement sends a clear signal to governments, businesses, and investors everywhere: the transformation of our global economy from one fueled by dirty energy to one fueled by sustainable economic growth is now firmly and inevitably under way.” Unilever CEO Paul Polman: “The consequences of this agreement go far beyond the actions of governments. They will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, boardrooms and research centres as the world absorbs the fact that it is embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonise the global economy.”

What, in fact, had just been agreed upon? The INDCs, to start, which are “recognized” in the agreement, but are not legally binding. A goal to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C over the pre-industrial level, at least, and hopefully 1.5 degrees C. A binding commitment to take stock every 5 years, beginning in 2018, to review the progress in meeting the INDC goals. Critically, at these periodic assessments, countries would be expected to progressively ramp up measures to further reduce emissions, to bring them down to the 2 degrees C goal and, hopefully, towards 1.5 degrees C.

Various developed nations pledged US$100 billion a year to the developing world to help it cope with climate change and direct its energy production to renewable forms. This pledge is not legally binding. Finally, nations pledged to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”--net zero emissions, in other words.

In succeeding days, thoughtful analysis did not dispel the jubilation, but tempered it with the realization that there was still a very long way to go to avert catastrophe. James Hansen, who has been central to the struggle for 27 years, voiced an extreme reaction as he declared the agreement “a fraud really, a fake...It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.”

Hansen and others noted that there are no binding emissions reduction targets, and nothing about specific decarbonisation measures to wean economies away from fossil fuels. There is no firm date to achieve peak emissions and reduce them thereafter. And the only realistic path to prompt reduction in carbon emission, according to many economists--a tax or fee on carbon extraction and combustion--is neither mentioned nor encouraged by the agreement. And though carbon neutralilty (“net zero emissions”) is aimed for, the vague “in the second half of this century” could mean 2050 or 2099, the former quite possibly leading to catastrophe, the latter certainly insuring it.

Rather than accentuating the positive and what the agreement may (or may not) inspire in the future, most environmental groups voiced the keen awareness that pressure must be applied to governments to stick to their pledges, and to fossil fuel corporations to “keep it in the ground.”

Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo summed up the mixture of positive and negative in the agreement: “Today, the human race has joined in a common cause. The Paris agreement is only one step on a long road and there are parts of it that frustrate, that disappoint me, but it is progress. The deal alone won’t dig us out of the hole that we’re in, but it makes the sides less steep.”

350.org spokesperson May Boeve echoed this sentient: “Paris isn’t the end of the story, but a conclusion of a particular chapter. Now, it’s up to us to strengthen these promises, make sure they are kept, and then accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels and towards 100% renewable energy...Lines are being drawn everywhere against the true villain of the last two weeks: the fossil fuel industry, which has done everything possible to weaken even this late, late deal. Without pressure from ordinary people, world leaders would have gladly ignored this problem entirely. It’s pressure from people that will closes the gap between what was signed today and the action we need. This begins the next chapter.”

Bill McKibben of 350.org, who has been in the center of the climate battle as long as Hansen, was very specific about what must be done. “The pistol has fired, so why aren’t we running? With the climate talks in Paris now over, the world has set itself a serious goal...We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast?...Translated into carbon terms: you don’t get to go drilling or mining in new areas, even if you think it might make you lots of money. The Arctic will have to be completely off limits, as will the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming. The pre-salt formations off (the coast of) Brazil, and the oil off the coasts of North America, too.

“You’ve got to stop fracking right away...You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace--and all over the world. The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuels have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it.

“At the moment, the world has no real plan to do any of those things. It continues to pretend that merely setting the goal has been work enough for the last two decades...They don’t seem to quite get it: from this point on, if you’re even slightly serious about meeting these targets, you have to do everything possible. There’s no more compromises or trade-offs that can be made. You’re no longer negotiating with a bunch of other countries around a conference table. You’re negotiating with physics, and physics holds all the good cards.”

So even with the relative success achieved in Paris in December of 2015, the envisioned new world economic order, upon which every strand of evidence indicates the future of human civilization on the planet rests, will need a groundswell of popular support from the world’s people if it is to have any reasonable chance of success. Economist Lord Stern and other progressive, sane voices in the governing elite will push for it; but they will have scant chance for success without massive and demonstrated support from the societies of the world, democratic and otherwise.

Can it happen? Only if the change in worldview envisioned by Klein and Pope Francis becomes a reality, and is translated into a groundswell of popular movements. And that “new way of thinking” can come about best, perhaps only, if the new worldview is understood as one which incorporates the body of scientific knowledge with the indigenous cosmologies cited by Klein, the simple words of the southeast Europe villagers, the folk Taoism of China’s people, and the Earth Wisdom of Muir.

The underlying commonality of all these views musts be recognized, revealing that at their roots all are drawing on the same earth-centered, three-pillared vision of the world and the place of humans in it: the earth is our home and is enough; humans are kin with all other creatures, not their superior; and the yin qualities of cooperation, acceptance, nurturing, and the feminine must be balanced with the currently dominant yang qualities. The varied and disparate voices of all these views must strengthen and spread, and moreover be recognized as one voice, united in one grand vision.

Here we must turn to John Muir and the Two Perfected Lords. Doubtless they are now sauntering along a shaded path under tall pines and cedars on some lofty mountain slope, a clear stream gurgling beside them, amiably discussing the merits of various medicinal teas, and the evidence of glacial sculpturing at nearby high passes. We must interrupt them, courteously, and ask if we might borrow the immanent worldview from them, to offer to the world in its hour of great need.

They will hesitate. As we have seen, though vigorous and tough, they are not fond of controversy. Will this require that they descend to the dusty valleys and engage in argument with greedy, shouting men? No, we inform them. You have given us Taoism and Earth Wisdom, through your writings, your wanderings, your lives. We merely want to borrow your precious legacy, and present it to the world.

Hearing this, they smile shyly. Shrug their shoulders. Whatever. Good luck, they say, and turn back to their mountain rambles with sparkling eyes. Soon they are out of sight amongst the trees.

But we have their legacy. Surely this is the moment for the hidden Muir to emerge from its century-long obscurity, and boldly challenge the environmental movement and the rest of humanity with the full Gaiacentric, three-pillared, immanent worldview.

Next Week: Part 8. Two Paths, and a Choice

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