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COP21 a cop-out or an opt-in?

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COP ParisIt’s been awhile, but in the great scheme of things not that long, and my absence here lately is of no great import. Things have changed in the past few months, including an engagement, a time-consuming book project and a re-think of my assocoation with TriplePundit. It’s all great-to-good-to-exhausting, but without getting into details, the gist is that I’ll concentrate more on this blog space in the future. Maybe.

First, some venting about the climate change summit that concluded in December, COP21. Remember? It already seems like a long time ago! The results were better than expected and encouraging, but still probably too little too late. Coverage and punditry was mixed, which is better than saying the effort failed. Time will tell on that. Yes, it’s a climate accord among a slew of nations, but unenforceable.

Here’s Bill Mckibben, founder of 350.org, the global grass-roots climate campaign, writing in the New York Times: “In the hot, sodden mess that is our planet as 2015 drags to a close, the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995, when the first conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change took place in Berlin.

“Under its provisions, nations have made voluntary pledges to begin reducing their carbon emissions. These are modest — the United States, for instance, plans to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2025 by 12 to 19 percent from their levels in 1990. As the scrupulous scorekeepers at Climate Action Tracker, a nongovernment organization, put it, that’s a ‘medium’ goal ‘at the least ambitious end of what would be a fair contribution.'”

If all parties keep their promises, and if you expect that to happen I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn you can buy, the planet will warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels. “That is way, way too much,” McKibben says. “We are set to pass the 1 degree Celsius mark this year, and that’s already enough to melt ice caps and push the sea level threateningly higher.”

The irony is, he continues, an agreement like this adopted at the first climate conference in 1995 “might have worked.”

For a more optimistic view – it’s a “big, big deal”—here’s Thomas Friedman, also in the NYT: “Any global conference that includes so many countries can’t be expected to agree on much more than the lowest common denominator. But the fact that the lowest common denominator is now so high — a willingness by 188 countries to offer plans to steadily and verifiably reduce their carbon emissions — means we still have a chance to meet what scientists say is our key challenge: to avoid the worst impacts of global warming that we cannot possibly manage and to manage those impacts that we can no longer avoid.”  What?! Anyway, he does make this rather trenchant point: “The only important holdout in the world to this deal is the U.S. Republican Party. I wouldn’t care about such cave men — as one sign borne by a Paris demonstrator said, “Dinosaurs didn’t believe in climate change either,” and it didn’t end well for them — except that one of these knuckleheads could be our next president and mess this up.”

Like McKibben, scientists and academics are saying the COP21 Agreement is way too weak. In a joint letter to The Independent, some of the world’s top climate scientists attacked the deal, warning that it offers “false hope” that could ultimately prove to be counterproductive in the battle to curb global warming.

From the letter: “The hollow cheering of success at the end of COP21 agreement proved yet again that people will hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. What people wanted to hear was that an agreement had been reached on climate change that would save the world while leaving lifestyles and aspirations unchanged.

“What they disregarded were the deadly flaws lying just beneath its veneer of success.  As early as the third page of the draft agreement is the acknowledgment that its CO2 target won’t keep the global temperate rise below 2 deg C, the level that was once set as the critical safe limit. The solution it proposes is not to agree on an urgent mechanism to ensure immediate cuts in emissions, but to kick the can down the road by committing to calculate a new carbon budget for a 1.5 deg C temperature increase that can be talked about in 2020.

“Given that we can’t agree on the climate models or the CO2 budget to keep temperatures rises to 2 deg C, then we are naïve to think we will agree on a much tougher target in five years when, in all likelihood, the exponentially increasing atmospheric CO2 levels mean it will be too late.”

Sorry to rain on the COP21 parade even more, but there’s an even large ethical problem, a problem of mindset and character that we all have to deal with.

Stephen M. Gardiner, professor of philosophy, and Ben Rabinowitz, endowed professor of the human dimensions of the environment at the University of Washington, write: “Climate change presents a severe ethical challenge, forcing us to confront difficult questions as individual moral agents, and even more so as members of larger political systems. It is genuinely global and seriously intergenerational, and crosses species boundaries. It also takes place in a setting where existing institutions and theories are weak, proving little ethical guidance.

“The critical question as we seek to address climate change will be which moral framework is in play when we make decisions.”

The ethics and morality of our climate change decisions matter far beyond the steps that governments make – if an agreement of this magnitude is more ‘feel good’ than enforceable, then does it matter?

“The real climate challenge is ethical, and ethical considerations of justice, rights, welfare, virtue, political legitimacy, community and humanity’s relationship to nature are at the heart of the policy decisions to be made,” Gardiner says. “We do not ‘solve’ the climate problem if we inflict catastrophe on future generations, or facilitate genocide against poor nations, or rapidly accelerate the pace of mass extinction. If public policy neglects such concerns, its account of the challenge we face is impoverished, and the associated solutions quickly become grossly inadequate. Ongoing political inertia surrounding climate action suggests that so far, we are failing the ethical test.”

Yes, inertia will get us every time.

Image: Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques – COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget) by COP PARIS, via Flickr CC.

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Written by William DiBenedetto

11 January, 2016 at 8:00 am

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