Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Exit Humanity: COP21 - Historic Agreement, or Homo Sapiens' Suicide Note?

Sandstorm from Syria hits south eastern Turkey, 2014 - global warming sparked the Syrian civil war and is set to multiply conflict worldwide

The UN climate change negotiations at COP21 in Paris culminated in the hailing of the resulting treaty as a great breakthrough in human history. As 195 nations signed up to the Paris Agreement, world leaders hailed their own deeds as planet-saving; Francois Hollande, the French President and host, wiped tears from his eyes as he declared "History is now!"

And yet, what has been signed up to at this, the end of the warmest year in recorded history? In the warmest December ever? And in a year when, yet again, human emissions of greenhouse gases have grown yet again to a new record?

Well, frankly, not much, if anything at all.

195 nations have signed a non-binding declaration to reduce their carbon emissions "as soon as possible" in order to keep global warming at no more than what is seen as a critical threshold of no more than 2 degrees centigrade abover pre-industrial levels. A secondary target is to try to limit the rise to 1.5 degrees, but as this year we have reached 1.2 degrees, this seems like a pie-in-the-sky objective at best; at worst, a shocking deception.

Each country will have a target to reduce emissions until at some point, far enough away for today's politicians to not worry a jot about, the world will be carbon-neutral with a big move away from carbon fuels to nuclear and renewable energy. However, the agreement is non-binding until 55 countries producing at leat 55% of the world's cabon emissions formally ratify it; and even then there is no enforcement mechanism and no sanctions against any non-adhering nation. £100 billions is earmarked to help developing nations to bypass the dirty fuel industrialisation that plagued western nations in their development, but again this is notional and non-binding. And no emission reductions at all are required for another five years.

And as with previous climate conferences, Paris did not include in its scope the airline and shipping industries, in spite of their substantial contribution to the problem, nor agriculture, which by some estimates produces as much as 55% of anthropogenic carbon emissions (largely down to the dairy and meat industries).

And of course, once the press conferences are over and the stage set for COP21 was dismantled, it seemed that the political leaders who had lauded themselves so loudly immediately suffered a bout of amnesia. Amber Rudd, the British Environment Secretary, returned to the UK and within a week had pulled the plug on the UK solar energy industry and approved fracking in British national parks. The only contribution Britain has offered for disinvestment in carbon fuels was the closure of the last deep coal mining pit in the UK, a product of global market forces rather than any phased switch to clean energy and a tragedy to a community now left without employment.

World leaders gathered for collective backslapping in Paris
Some Green leaders were surprisingly muted about their views, perhaps keen not to be seen as doom-mongers. England & Wales Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said it was useful albeit just as a set of first steps, while Green MP Caroline Lucas was more cautious with nuanced criticisms of its absence of detail, and former US Vice-President Al Gore declared it acceptable if in rather lukewarm terms.

Other environmentalists were somewhat more scathing - former NASA scientist Professor James Hansen, known as the "father of climate change awareness" in particular savaged the agreement as "bullshit" and "fraud", and far from enough to prevent runaway global warming. The Green Party of the US was overtly critical and The New Internationalist magazine meantime analysed the outcome on the basis of the four key steps required to halt global warming: (a) implement immediate and massive reductions in emissions; (b) provide effective support for transition to new forms of energy and economics; (c) deliver justice for communities impacted by global warming and (d) take genuine effective action rather than conjure up false solutions (such as the racketeering of carbon markets or the mirage of carbon capture techno-fixes).

It judged the agreement to have failed on all four counts. Completely.

Time, or lack of it, is as much an issue as lack of any concrete action - the bottom line is we cannot wait any longer to act. For while politicians have nosily signed us up to aspirations with decades-long timescales attached, we are already now in what many environmentalists call DECADE ZERO. In other words, given that many aspects of climate change have a lag of several decades between cause and effect, it is what we are doing right now that matters, not what we might get round to in 15, 25 or 35 years time. What we are experiencing now - record temperatures and more and more extreme weather events - are the products of what we did back in the 1980s. Since then global carbon emissions have grown exponentially at well over 3% per annum -and we will reap the product of that in the next 20 to 30 years regardless of what we do now.

The dangers are multiplied by what are called potential tipping points: events where human-caused global warming impacts on the planet in such a way that global warming jumps exponentially. One potential tipping point is the melting of the Arctic tundra to a point where there are mass emissions of subsurface methane gases. These are many times more thickening than carbon dioxide and would shunt warming into another level. There are already many instances of methane releases on a large scale in the northern hemisphere: another two or three decades beggars belief about what levels it will reach by then, making the pious, self-serving backslapping of the authors of the Paris Agreement utterly redundant.

And the consequences? Immense. We have already seen the first conflicts and mass migrations caused by global warming: according to a study by the University of California, the Syrian Civil War was largely prompted by the collapse of the agrarian economy in the Tirgis and Euphrates basin, driven by prolonged drought and exhaustion of water supplies. The result was mass movement to the cities by disaffected young people, who became hostile to the government, many were radicalised and the civil war began and, with it, the displacement of 12 million refugees. As the US Military has already gameplanned, as warming intensifies competition for water and decent land, conflicts will grow wider and deeper, and the current refugee crisis will look like a cakewalk by comparision to what is to come.

But beyond, if warming rises significantly over 2 degrees, as it almost certainly will now, the future is bleak indeed. Not for the planet - the planet does not need saving. It will endure. But in our global economy and interconnected world, with capitalism fighting to its and our last, what passes for civilised order will collapse in fits and starts and, as large swathes of our world become uninhabitable, our species itself will be at risk of extinction. Water sources and food supplies will come under ever-growing pressure and we will face constantly increasing dangers from extreme weather events, biohazards and new patterns of disease, and from each other. A four or five degree increase would see humanity more or less extinguished from the face of our world.

COP21 was a cop-out, not a breakthrough. And the people who stood and blithely pronounced it a historic occasion were right only in that it quite possibly marked the moment homo sapiens signed its suicide note. Greens cannot and must not soft-pedal or downplay the urgency of the emergency we face.

This is Decade Zero. We are not out of time just yet. But the clock is ticking and midnight is close.


  1. Green leaders have spoken out and are not muted in their views:

    And Al Gore is a Democrat, not a Green.

    1. Thanks Brian and good to see such a robust response from GPUSA - my reference was to Green politicians in Britain who to my mind did not take the limited opportunities available to condemn the outcome for the greenwash that it essentially is; and I wasn't suggesting Gore is a Green Party politician, but he has attempted for some years to position himself in the wider green movement, something I feel rather sceptical of given his personal record.