Changing the climate at the COP
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This year’s annual UN climate summit, known as the Conference of Parties or COP, has drawn to a close in Lima, Peru. In a disgraceful outcome predictable enough to be called a pattern, the COP once again failed to deliver what climate science and justice require to avert climate catastrophe.
The Pseudo-reality of the COPs
Like many COPs before it, the Lima meeting was awash in climate double-speak by rich countries — most notably the U.S. — boasting about all the wonderful actions they’re taking to address climate change. Yet alas, ocean acidification, drought and fire are not curtailed by boastful rhetoric, but by cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
As expected, the U.S. delegation did an excellent job of dampening global ambition while still claiming the mantle of leadership. At their firm insistence, obligatory greenhouse gas cuts by rich countries have been, in effect, discarded and replaced by, in UN jargon, voluntary “intended nationally determined contributions.” Basically, each country does what it wants, when it wants, regardless of whether those collective actions are sufficient to avert climate disruption. With this voluntary system, the international climate talks look like they will set us on an extremely dangerous course of some 4 degrees Celsius of warming (twice the already dangerous 2 degrees Celsius — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — level that countries have agreed to under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). On another front, the U.S. worked quite successfully to sideline progress on climate adaptation and loss & damage — areas of preeminent importance for the poorest and most vulnerable nations.
But to expect much more from Lima would have been self-deceiving. The fact is that the U.S. is not going to bring to the international table more than the dinner it can set at home. We all know that the U.S. is currently in a pretty miserable place when it comes to addressing and mitigating the climate crisis. And the blame can’t be laid only at the feet of the flat earth climate deniers occupying congressional seats. (They’re pretty much unsalvageable.) There are also plenty of everyday politicians who believe in climate change, but not as much as they believe in money from the dirty energy industry. We have to plant and grow seeds at home before we can bear fruit internationally.
Roots of transformation
Fortunately, we are already seeing seeds of change take root. With Little Village Environmental Justice Organization shutting down dirty coal plants in lower-income Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, and Indigenous Peoples leading the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, we can just begin to see the roots of broader social change. We also see glimmers of hope in the hard work of New York activists, who just won a first-of-its-kind ban on fracking in that state.
From the sprouting of grassroots advocacy and ideas can come a cascade of change that makes its way up to the national and international levels. But we’ll need to see such change blossom at a tremendous scale — for climate change is ubiquitous, and touches everything. Far from being just an environmental issue, climate change is indisputably also about everything else — health, human rights, socioeconomic and racial justice and sustainable development, to name just a few. Indeed, as the mantra goes, we need system change, not climate change.
More and more people are realizing this need for broader systemic change; for example, the Flood Wall Street action in September (the day after 400,000 people turned up in Manhattan for the biggest climate march ever!) linked climate change and capitalism, with its call to: Flood, blockade, sit-in, and shut down the institutions that are profiting from the climate crisis.
Taken together, these struggles tell a powerful story of an increasingly powerful base whose voices, raised together, will one day drown out the clink of cash from the fossil fuel industry. On that day, we can be confident that the U.S. president will head to UN climate negotiations with marching orders dictated not by the fossilized thinking of dirty energy’s proponents, but by science and justice.