Paris Agreement is a ‘Dangerous Distraction’

Members of Grassroots Global Justice march against the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. © 2009 Orin Langelle GJEP-GJEPClimate Justice Groups Release Report

Three major climate justice organizations—the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance—organized a delegation to the December 2015 United Nations climate talks in Paris. The delegation, called “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm,” included more than 100 leaders and organizers from US and Canadian grassroots and Indigenous groups. “It Takes Roots” delegates took part in the talks and helped to lead two weeks of direct action in the streets of Paris. The actions brought the broader movement against climate change into the streets, and also developed new ties among grassroots groups around the world who are united behind the call for “system change, not climate change.” The text that follows comes from the It Takes Roots report on the Paris talks, We Are Mother Earth’s Red Line: Frontline Communities Lead the Climate Justice Fight Beyond the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 is a dangerous distraction that threatens all of us. Marked by the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry, the deal reached at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) never mentions the need to curb extractive energy, and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe. The agreement signed by 196 countries does acknowledge the global urgency of the climate crisis, and reflects the strength of the climate movement. But the accord that came out of the UNFCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) ignores the roots of the crisis, and the very people who have the experience and determination to solve it.

Our analysis of the Paris Agreement echoes critiques from social movements around the world, led by those most impacted by both climate disruption and the false promises that governments and corporate interests promote in its wake.  In order to effectively develop and support our next organizing steps, we must have a clear and honest understanding of the challenges and conditions we are facing. We have five core concerns with the content of the Paris Agreement:

The Agreement relies  on voluntary versus mandatory emission cuts  that do not meet targets scientists say are necessary to avoid  climate catastrophe. The Paris Agreement is not  based on what is scientifically necessary to address the  climate crisis .  The accord contains no binding mandatory emissions reductions—only voluntary pledges from each country, called “Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions .” Taken together, all these pledges would still allow an average global temperature increase of between 3 – 4 °C above pre-industrial levels . Scientists warn that this  level  of warming would be catastrophic  In fact,  the  agreement allows emissions to continue to increase without setting a date by which they need to begin to decrease .  The actual language states, “Parties aim  to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible .”

The Agreement advances pollution trading  mechanisms that allow polluters to purchase “offsets” and continue extremely dangerous levels of emissions. The agreement allows countries to claim reductions through pollution trading schemes written in the  agreement as “results-based payments,” rather than requiring actual reductions of pollution emissions at the  source. The underlying approach of these trading schemes is to create a market for emission credits that allows polluters to continue releasing greenhouse gasses if they can  produce a certificate attesting that they have contributed toward preventing a similar amount of emissions elsewhere, and thus avoid taking action against burning fossil fuels .  An example of what is being traded is a mechanism called “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation”4 (REDD+) .  Within climate negotiations, deforestation has become a global issue .  Forests provide vast amounts of carbon sinks that when destroyed emit CO2 into  the  atmosphere .  The loss of these forests, especially in the  Global South, is a major driver of climate change, accounting for roughly a fifth of global GHG emissions .  The Paris agreement approved REDD+ for implementation despite continued debates on how to make forests fit into  a financial carbon market regime with no real guarantee there would be progress in reducing the underlying causes of forest loss .  These carbon market regimes allow for the  privatization of the  carbon in the  forests, and tree plantations, wetlands, agriculture and soils to be used as sponges for mitigating greenhouse gases .  This allows governments and polluting corporations to offset their carbon and other GHGs,  to meet emission reduction targets rather than cut emissions at the  source .

Offsets and pollution trading have a double-edged impact: They  give  polluters in the  industrialized countries of the  North cover so they can  continue to poison the  air and water in the  communities  alongside refineries, coal  mines and fracking wells, and at the  same time in the  global South, including Mexico, these projects can  fail to secure the  rights of local  forest-dependent communities, peasants and Indigenous Peoples to their lands .  Even  where land titles might be recognized on paper, implementation of REDD+ projects that generate carbon credits is likely to lead to these people losing control of their lands, land evictions, and restrictions on entering forested areas .  Current safeguard mechanisms developed have no guarantees for being implemented at the  national or subnational areas of developing countries .  Tradable REDD credits are  a form of property title—privatization .  Those who own the  credit do not  need to own the  land nor  the  trees, but  they do own the  right to decidehow that land will be used. They also usually have the contractual right to monitor what is happening on the land and request access to the territory at any time they choose as long as they own the carbon credit.

The Agreement relies  on dirty energies and false  promises including hydraulic  fracturing  (fracking), nuclear  power, agro-fuels, carbon  capture and sequestration and other  technological proposals that pose serious ecological risks. While  the  fossil fuel industry has tried to position natural gas as a “transitional fuel” and nuclear energy as a green energy alternative, both of these industries carry tremendous risk to surrounding communities .  In 2015,  the  state of Oklahoma was forced to impose a ban on fracking, due to more than 5000 earthquakes in one year, sometimes more than 20 in a single day, directly resulting from extensive fracking operations. The nuclear power industry has seen similar disasters, such as the Fukushima meltdown of 2011. The Paris Agreement focuses on national voluntary pledges of emissions reductions, but not reductions in the extraction of fossil fuels, allowing contradictory practices such as the  Obama administration on the  one hand pledging net  emissions reductions, and on the  other proposing a five-year expansion of offshore oil drilling across the  Arctic and Gulf of Mexico .  A genuine Just Transition requires rejecting dirty  energy and investing in clean and renewable energy sources .

The operating text  of the Agreement omits any mention of human rights  or the rights  of Indigenous Peoples and women. Despite vocal objections from Indigenous Peoples, allies and human rights NGOs, the  operative text  of the  Paris Agreement is void  of any  language on the  recognition of human rights, with  limited language in the  preambular and addendum text .  The language on human rights and Indigenous Peoples’ rights within the  preamble is purely aspirational text  and not  legally binding or enforceable in any  way .  The preamble text  has no mention of the  rights of women .  The US, Norway, the  UK and the  EU have been key players in this  removal of language around human rights and the  rights of Indigenous Peoples .

The Agreement weakens or strips  the rights  of reparations owed to the Global South by the Global North.  The Paris Agreement dilutes the  language that until  now has been critical for establishing the expectation that countries that have greater historical responsibility for causing climate change must be held to higher standards for reducing emissions and addressing impacts .  Furthermore, the  Paris Agreement denies the  possibility for compensation or liability for loss and damage done, thus limiting rights of countries or communities impacted by climate change to use legal methods to hold entities accountable for causing their suffering.

The leadership of social movements of Indigenous Peoples, Black, Latina, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, small-scale farmers/peasants and women, and all communities on the frontlines of extraction who have been defending lands, territories, water, forests, the health of their communities and Mother Earth as a whole, is more critical than ever..

In the report, these quotes appeared at the beginning of the section:

“The harsh reality we face is that the very people who have already been experiencing the most frequent and severe climate impacts to date—Indigenous Peoples, small-scale farmers/peasants, women and low-income communities of color, especially in the Global South—will now face even more difficult life-or-death struggles as their lands, territories, waters, and forests could be increasingly privatized and taken away under the mechanisms of the Paris Agreement.” —Chung-Wha Hong and Sara Mersha, Grassroots International

“The Paris Agreement 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.” —Alberto Saldamando, Human and Indigenous Rights Expert & Attorney

*A version of this story posted earlier today (4.22.16) included text from a pre-release version of the report's 5 points of concern.

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United Nations climate agreement never mentions the need to curb extractive energy and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe.

Rebecca Solnit on Climate Change

Interview by Dayton Martindale

A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

In a dispatch from Paris for Harper’s, writer and activist Rebecca Solnit called the recent climate agreement negotiated there “miraculous and horrible.” This tension between the exciting and the awful, the transformative and the terrifying, motivates her book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Initially written in response to the Iraq War, the book will be re-released this month with a new section on climate change.

Solnit’s numerous books and essays cover a wide array of topics from environmentalism to feminism (famously, “Men Explain things to Me” helped inspire the concept of “mansplaining”). Her history of activism includes Nevada’s anti-nuclear testing movement in the 1980s and the protests around corporate globalization of the 1990s. Today we see another corporate trade deal—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)—on the table, American bombs falling across the Middle East and climate change accelerating.

This interview was originally published at In These TImes and is reprinted here as part of a collaboration sponsored by the indpependent media organization The Media Consortium.

What are your thoughts on the election?

The current hate-fest on the Left is just…kind of sad. The Left is famous for tearing itself apart. I’m not sure the purpose of that exercise. Hating on people has never been a great form of social change, so far as we know. I have preferences and they’re probably not that hard to guess. But with Obama, people so completely put their faith in: “Oh, we’ll elect this magic, amazing super-human and then we’ll all go home and do absolutely nothing.” The movement that put Obama in office was powerful enough to make really profound change, but everyone went home because they thought he’d do it.

That’s what you see with Bernie Sanders: this infatuation with an almost savior-like figure who will do it all. No, actually, massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal; I’m more interested in grassroots power, popular power.

How has your activism influenced how you think about social change?

I’ve had a front-row seat in how change gets made, and I’ve seen that it’s often slow, indirect, unpredictable and sometimes incredibly wonderful. But I’ve also seen people who don’t perceive it if it’s not quick and direct. The incredible nuclear freeze movement in the early 1980s was driven by fear of Armageddon. I remember one guy being like, “I went to a rally and it didn’t change anything and I didn’t do anything more.” Really? You thought the Kremlin was going to fall to its knees because you went to an upstate New York rally? But the movement had tremendous power. When the Soviet Union collapsed there was this incredible moment where powerful movements could’ve pushed forward total disarmament, but there were no powerful movements. It’s sad.

Six years ago, the climate movement decided to stop the Keystone pipeline. As David Roberts at Vox has said, it was not just about changing one pipeline but changing the culture. Watching that process take place up close is boring. There were bad meetings and demonstrations that aren’t always triumphs.

But then you pull back and, oh my God, six years later, we defeated the northern stretch of the pipeline and we’re in a completely different place with the climate movement. A lot of people don’t have the long-term memory to see that—not that six years should even count as long-term. Also, hanging out with people who are passionate idealists and deeply devoted has made my life incredibly richer—this heroic sense of what it means to be a member of civil society, a person with a commitment that’s bigger than themself.

There’s this idea that political engagement is some sort of horrible, dutiful thing you do, like cleaning the toilet or taking out the garbage. But it can be the most fantastic thing you do. It can bring you into contact with hope, with joy, with a sense of deep connection, with what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” Disconnection from a larger sense of purpose and agency, from community and civil society, and from hope are huge factors in unhappiness.

How do you keep hope amid climate change?

It’s tough because we know terrible things are happening and are going to happen. Hope is that we can steer toward the best-case scenarios instead of the worst. Hope is not like saying, “Let’s pretend I don’t have cancer.” It’s saying, “Let’s hope this treatment has survivability. Let’s work for the best-case scenarios.” Things are changing fast. If you said three years ago that Congress was going to introduce a bill to prevent all fossil fuel extraction on public land, people would be like, “You’re out of your mind,” and that just happened. The science is changing, politics are changing, technology is changing, and we don’t actually know what they’re going to look like in three or 10 years.

The proposed solutions for climate change require large-scale state planning, but you’re very sympathetic to a local or anarchistic approach.

Paris was about nation-states, and they have a role. But at the same time, San Diego decided to go 100 percent fossil- free by 2035 and San Francisco finally implemented its clean-power program. Things are happening on a lot of scales.

We do need legislation and agreements. As Naomi Klein points out, one of the reasons the Republicans are furious about climate change is that it does require large-scale cooperation and regulation. But a lot of the systems are on smaller scales. My solar roof. Your transit alternative. Our statewide building code. New York’s fracking ban.

In Hope in the Dark you argue that the environmental movement should reach out and form alliances with rural communities.

It’s really funny talking just after Cliven Bundy got arrested and charged. He represents the far-right fringe of rural culture. A lot of what rural people who were suspicious of big government think isn’t that different from what radicals on the Left think, but right-wing outreach was awesome and left-wing outreach was somewhere between pathetic and nonexistent. How do you convince them that the world government they should fear is not the U.N., it’s the TPP? How do you get outside the stereotypes where people assume, “Oh, I have nothing in common with feminists or labor organizers”? We have a lot of divides that are artificial or not carefully examined. People on both the Right and Left are operating with a lot of stereotypes about each other.

What do you think of the argument that we need more women and people of color in power?

In a culture dominated by white men, often people succeed through allegiance to that white, male worldview, to those priorities. Thus: Margaret Thatcher, Clarence Thomas and so forth. I am not sure we will see what might be different about non-white and non-male governance until it’s more than a minority in a white-male system. I loved it that Ruth Bader Ginsburg, when asked, “Do you think there should be more women on the Supreme Court?” said there should be nine.

Can writing drive social change?

It’s important not to be prescriptive and say all writing has to have a political or practical end. Something I recall often is Lawrence Weschler’s Vermeer in Bosnia, about a human rights tribunal judge dealing with Bosnian war criminals. Weschler asks how he can bear to listen to stories of horrific atrocities day after day. The judge pauses for a moment and then his face brightens and he says, “After work I go to the museum and I go to the Vermeers.” That’s the best and most succinct description of how beauty, pleasure and joy help people do really difficult things. They often get dismissed as not part of the revolution. But I do believe that writing has and does and can change the world in direct ways, too.

You write a lot about walking, and about past writers like Thoreau and Woolf walking. Do you walk a lot?

Yes. Part of the solution to climate change is that we don’t need to rush around, we don’t need to consume as much, we don’t need to move around as much, because what’s up close can be pretty magnificent. I’ve been in San Francisco since 1980 and I still discover things all the time. A sense of wonder can be a revolutionary tool.

Dayton Martindale is a contributing writer for Rural America In These Times. He studied astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, where he wrote and edited for the student alternative paper The Nassau Weekly and student film/TV blog The Princeton Buffer. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.


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"Massive grassroots movements need to exist the day after the election. Electoral politics are dismal..."