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"No action, just promises" – Critical reactions to the Paris climate agreement

By: Christiane Kliemann


Climate change

While world leaders were still celebrating the Paris climate agreement adopted at the UN climate change conference in Paris as a "major leap for mankind", critical voices had already denounced the paper as "fraud", "epic fail" and "trade agreement". With this, they point to the discrepancy between the agreed commitment to hold the "increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels", and the agreed real actions to actually achieve this commitment. To put it with George Monbiot, the deal is a miracle "by comparison to what it could have been" - and a desaster by comparison to "what it should have been". He writes: "The real outcomes are likely to commit us to levels of climate breakdown that will be dangerous to all and lethal to some."

The strongest critic of the agreement might be James Hansen, former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the first scientists to warn about the danger of global warming. As Hansen told the Guardian: "It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned. (…) The economic cost of a business as usual approach to emissions is incalculable. It will become questionable whether global governance will break down. You’re talking about hundreds of million of climate refugees from places such as Pakistan and China. We just can’t let that happen. Civilization was set up and developed with a stable, constant coastline."

According to Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, when we simply add up the voluntary commitments put forward by all countries - actually the only real commitments made -  we´re heading towards a 3 or 4 degree temperature rise. Anderson is also very critical with his fellow-climate scientists who seem to be afraid to bring forward any analysis that leads to questioning the growth paradigm.

Negative Emissions?

With regard to negative emissions, i.e. the idea to technically remove emissions from the atmosphere after they actually occur - another important issue in the agreement - Anderson says: "The problem is, we have emitted so much of that, we’ve used up so much of that budget—like money in your bank account, we’ve spent that money already—that what’s left is so small, so that if we are going to stay within that budget, we now have to either make dramatic changes to how we live our lives—people like me and you, we have to, you know, fly much less, if fly at all, live in smaller houses, drive much less, consume less goods. So, those of us that—the wealthy parts of the society will have to make those sorts of changes. But because we’re—the scientists are reluctant to make that point politically, what they’re saying is, we can increase the size of the carbon budget by this dial here, which means that we will—can suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in 2050 to 2070 with a technology that just does not exist at the moment. So we are putting already almost all of our eggs in a basket that—a technology that does not exist. At some point a long way in the future, we’ll suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere."

Epic fail on a planetary scale

The New Internationalist claims that the Paris deal has completely failed the set of criteria it would have needed to meet to be effective and fair. These criteria were put together by social movements, environmental groups, and trade unions around the world shortly before the Paris summit. According to the interviewed experts, the deal fails to ensure any of the following:

  1. Catalyzing immediate, urgent and drastic emission reductions
  2. Providing adequate support for transformation
  3. Delivering justice for impacted people
  4. Focusing on genuine, effective action rather than false solutions:

According to the official declaration of the indigenous environmental network, the deal is "A trade agreement, nothing more. It promises to privatize, commodify and sell forested lands as carbon offsets in fraudulent schemes such as REDD+ projects. These offset schemes provide a financial laundering mechanism for developed countries to launder their carbon pollution on the backs of the global south. Case-in-point, the United States’ climate change plan includes 250 million megatons to be absorbed by oceans and forest offset markets. Essentially, those responsible for the climate crisis not only get to buy their way out of compliance but they also get to profit from it as well."

On the positive side

On the positive side, Naomi Klein, climate activist and author of "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate" tweeted right after the adoption of the agreement "I agree with ActionAid: The Paris deal "provides an important hook on which people can hang their demands." Along the same lines, Bill Mc Kibben, founder of 350.org wrote in Grist Magazine: "But if you want to be hopeful, here’s the thing: The world’s governments have now announced their intentions. And so the rest of us can hold them to those promises, or at least try. (…) And even if we harbor suspicions that they didn’t quite mean those words, we will use them again and again. We’ll be the nagging parent/teacher/spouse. We’ll assume they really want action. And we’ll demand they provide it."

In this sense, the deal shows that a strong global bottom-up climate movement that has the power to force governments towards real climate solutions is more important than ever. From a degrowth-perspective, the issue is clear: If governments are really serious about stopping global warming well below 2C, they have to prove that they put this commitment before profit, corporate interests and the interests of the privileged. And that they do everything they can to hold on to this promise – including questioning the growth paradigm.

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Christiane Kliemann

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