The Paris Climate Conference: Last Chance for Planet Earth?

“Everything is coming together as everything is coming apart.” So said Jamie Henn, strategy and communications director at, after he and the other organizers of the People’s Climate March put hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of New York City in September 2014 for the largest climate demonstration in history. Henn’s observation has grown even more apt over the last 14 months, especially the “coming together” part. Interviewed in Germany during the final negotiating session before the Paris climate summit in December, Henn predicted that “Paris won’t deliver everything we need, but the dominoes that will take out the fossil-fuel industry have already started to fall.”

There’s no need to dwell on how things are “coming apart”: With 2015 on track to become the hottest year ever recorded, Mexico just having dodged a bullet from the strongest hurricane ever seen in the Western Hemisphere, and South Carolina still recovering from floods that ranked as the country’s sixth one-in-1,000-years weather event since 2010, the evidence of intensifying climate disruption is obvious to anyone who doesn’t believe that snowballs in February somehow disprove humanity’s role in this. At the same time, encouraging and, frankly, surprising things are coming together. At the popular level, there is unprecedented organization, mobilization, and support for tackling the crisis; a genuine mass movement, which first emerged at the ill-fated Copenhagen summit in 2009, has come of age. And at the elite level, there is unprecedented consensus that the situation is truly grave and that meaningful action must be taken if our children are not to inherit a hell on earth.

Whether all this will yield a successful result in Paris—­indeed, what “success” will even mean at the 21st Conference of the Parties—will be answered in time. But the outcome is at least up for grabs. There are more positive signs now than before any global climate negotiations in history (and this reporter has been covering them since the Earth Summit in Brazil back in 1992). Words are coming out of the mouths of government, corporate, and financial elites that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. And the words are not mere greenwashing; they are backed by actions that are fundamentally redirecting the policies of some of the most powerful actors on the global stage.

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Start with the historic breakthrough that the presidents of the two climate-change superpowers made seven weeks after the People’s Climate March, when China and the United States agreed to a joint agenda of slashing greenhouse-gas emissions and super-accelerating clean-energy development. China’s coal use is already peaking, and the country is slated to deploy enough wind and other renewably sourced electricity to match the entire US electricity grid by 2030.

The US-China breakthrough is a game-changing development, but its full implications still have not sunk in for many observers. On the diplomacy front, it ends the stalemate between Washington and Beijing that for decades has been the main stumbling block to an international treaty, thus opening the door for better news from the Paris summit. Arguably even more important is the economic message that the US-China agreement sends. When the world’s two largest economies and two largest carbon polluters pledge a specific timetable for cutting their emissions, it sends a clear signal to investors and policy-makers the world over. The message is straight out of Economics 101: limit the supply of a commodity—­in this case, the authority to emit carbon pollution—and its price rises.

It’s no coincidence that putting a price on carbon—the single most powerful climate-policy reform available—­is now endorsed by a Who’s Who of global heavyweights, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, two of the world’s foremost political leaders on climate change (Angela Merkel of Germany and Jerry Brown of California, a state that ranks as the eighth-largest economy in the world), four of its largest banks (Citi, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase), and even a few oil companies. How high such a carbon price will be, and by when, are knotty issues. But even Exxon­Mobil assumes that a price on carbon is inevitable; the only question is how long governments take to impose it. The immensity of the People’s Climate March brought that day closer, a company spokesman told me—evidence of how putting people in the streets can get results.

Pricing carbon will bring the power of the market to bear on the day-to-day decisions that shape economic behavior worldwide. Once consumers, producers, and investors begin paying some of the costs of carbon pollution, the prices will shift their choices away from climate-­destroying products and investments and toward climate-friendly ones—and at a much greater speed and scale than government mandates achieve.

This pending economic reorientation reflects a­nother astonishing break from the past: growing acceptance of the scientific finding that roughly two-thirds of the earth’s fossil-fuel reserves must be left in the ground if humanity is to limit the temperature rise to two degrees Celsius, the current international goal. A few years ago, this two-thirds imperative was a demand of grassroots activists; now it is a position embraced by such dangerous radicals as the president of the United States and the central banker of Great Britain. Even the chief economist of the oil giant BP concedes the basic point. “Concerns about carbon emissions and climate change mean that it is increasingly unlikely that the world’s reserves of oil will ever be exhausted,” Spencer Dale said on October 13.

The financial reverberations of leaving most fossil fuels in the ground would be, pardon the pun, earth­shaking. If you can’t burn them, why invest scores of billions of dollars to find, extract, and bring them to market? Thus arises the fear of “stranded assets”—­sunken investments that do not earn back their initial cost, much less a profit. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has been sounding the alarm on this threat, warning investors they face “potentially huge” losses that could even destabilize world markets.

No investor wants to be left holding the bag, and more and more big players are getting out. The world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund, Norway’s $890 billion Government Pension Fund Global, divested all of its holdings in major coal companies, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. Pension funds, regional governments, universities, celebrities, and other investors owning a combined $2.6 trillion of wealth have committed to ridding their portfolios of fossil-fuel holdings, a smashing triumph for the divestment campaign launched by and championed by The Guardian.

All this is hastening the death spiral of coal—the industry is in “terminal” and “structural” decline, concludes a recent report—and oil is feeling the heat. Fear of stranded assets was one reason that the Shell Oil Company recently retreated from the staggeringly costly proposition of drilling in the Arctic—that, and the ruckus that climate activists kicked up, including launching a flotilla of kayaks to block the company’s rig from leaving the port of Seattle.

Which highlights another transformation: The climate movement is not only growing; it’s winning concrete victories. Most mainstream media attributed Shell’s retreat to low oil prices, and those doubtless played a role. But Shell’s announcement also cited the “unpredictable federal regulatory environment.” That “regulatory environment” is a function of politics, and the climate movement is now clearly affecting how political leaders and institutions calculate.

Grassroots pressure has pushed Hillary Clinton, a political fence-sitter extraordinaire, to take noticeably stronger climate positions as she campaigns for president. Facing primary challengers whose more aggressive stances were exciting activists, Clinton announced in August that she opposed Arctic drilling. Then she even came out against the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that as secretary of state she had said she was “inclined” to support.

All three Democratic candidates now oppose Keystone XL and Arctic drilling, illustrating how the climate movement is also defining a higher standard for true leadership on the issue. A general commitment to cutting emissions and boosting renewable energy no longer suffices; candidates must also embrace the two-thirds imperative by opposing new fossil-fuel infrastructure projects that would spew heat-trapping emissions for decades to come. “We have to draw the line against new long-term investments that lock in doom,” says K.C. Golden, senior policy adviser of Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based group active in blockading Shell’s drilling rig.

The climate movement may also be on the verge of a monumental breakthrough in public consciousness: portraying Big Oil as the moral equivalent of the to­bacco industry. Blockbuster investigative reporting by two teams of journalists—one at the Los Angeles Times (with help from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism), the other at InsideClimate News—has shown that, as the hashtag puts it, “Exxon Knew.” As Bill McKibben wrote in The Nation, Exxon (now Exxon­Mobil) “knew every­thing there was to know about climate change by the mid-1980s—and denied it.” Indeed, top executives responded to their scientists’ findings by making Exxon the loudest practitioner and largest funder of climate denial, which helped block action in Washington and around the world.

ExxonMobil has called the articles “deliberately misleading” and sought to marginalize their impact by pouting that the company’s past opposition to (supposedly) “ineffective climate policies subjects us to criticism by climate activist groups.” R.L. Miller, founder of the NGO Climate Hawks Vote, notes that ExxonMobil’s statement is “uncannily similar to the talking points of the tobacco industry” in the way that it calls investigative journalists “activist organizations” and downplays the company’s “central role in creating and broadcasting scientific disinformation.” Bernie Sanders, whose full-throated criticisms of corporate malfeasance have shaken up the presidential campaign, has urged Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate, arguing that Exxon “lied to protect their business model at the expense of the planet.”

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The hill to climb in Paris is steep, precisely because the climate deniers have blocked action for so long. The more greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere, the more temperature rise gets locked in. The planet is now 0.85°C warmer than before the Industrial Revolution. Since CO2 remains in the atmosphere for decades after being emitted, global temperatures are bound to increase further—unless humans can extract sizable amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, as discussed below.

Two degrees or not 2 degrees, that is the question. Considering the damages that today’s 0.85°C is causing—record storms and droughts, leaders preparing to evacuate Pacific islands doomed to vanish under rising seas—many of the world’s governments are calling for limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C. But these governments represent the poorest parts of the world, in Africa, Asia, South America. The big powers—including the United States, China, and the European Union—­remain committed to 2°C. What’s more, they’re warning that any plausible Paris agreement will not secure even the 2°C goal.

The conflict between a 1.5°C and 2°C target exemplifies the rich-poor divide that has haunted global environmental negotiations since the 1992 Earth Summit. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has joked that she will cut off the head of any journalist who reports as news that the Paris summit will not deliver the 2°C target. What counts, she argues, is that virtually all of the world’s nations have officially committed to reducing their emissions, a notable difference from Copenhagen. If their pledges thus far yield an “emissions gap” that would raise temperatures at least 2.7°C—a catastrophic amount—it simply reflects the fact that the world’s political and economic systems cannot transition to low-carbon alternatives any faster. The way to fix the problem, say Figueres and others, including the Obama administration, is to make sure that any Paris agreement includes mechanisms to review the progress at, say, five-year intervals and strengthen commitments as needed to reach 2°C.

Such talk amounts to a death sentence for millions who inhabit especially vulnerable places, say the advocates for a 1.5°C target. “How can we possibly subscribe to more than double [the] current warming, given what less than 1°C has entailed?” asks Mary Ann Lucille Sering, director of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, a country that has endured record-breaking typhoons in recent years.

It’s not true that 2°C, or even 1.5°C, is unattainable, according to independent studies, though it would require jettisoning fossil fuels at breakneck speed. Emission reductions “need to scale up swiftly in the next decades,” says Joeri Rogelj, lead author of a little-­noticed study published by Nature in May, arguing that a 1.5°C goal is still viable. The world can achieve 100 percent renewable energy for everyone by 2050 (and at slightly cheaper cost, because the installation costs of solar, wind, and other renewable sources are offset by the zero permanent costs of their “fuel”), according to a report that Greenpeace researched with the German Aerospace Center. Yes, Greenpeace is an advocacy organization, but its analysts were the only ones to accurately predict the spectacular recent rise of wind and solar power, while their counterparts at the big banks and investment firms missed it. Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo urges “all those who say ‘it can’t be done’ to read this report and recognize that it can be done, it must be done, and it will be for the benefit of everyone if it is done.”

Fracking must also halt or be radically transformed, concludes a recent study by Robert Howarth of Cornell University, long a leader in the field. Fracking releases methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Its silver lining, though, is that methane is also much faster-acting, so slashing methane emissions can reduce temperature rise sooner. “Only by reducing methane emissions and emissions of soot can we…keep global warming below the 2-degree threshold,” Howarth tells The Nation.

There’s a catch to the 1.5°C target: Even the study by Rogelj et al. concludes that it’s too late to prevent a 2°C rise. But this rise can be temporary, they argue, if humanity deploys photo­synthesis and other “carbon-negative” tools to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and store it where it can’t trap heat. Growing and protecting forests, planting cover crops, and producing and burying biochar are the best-known tools to date. Australian climate scientist Tim Flannery describes a dizzying array of carbon-negative tools in his new book Atmosphere of Hope, including cement and plastics that “eat” carbon. “We must start preparing the ground now [to deploy such tools], even as we undertake the gargantuan effort of cutting emissions,” Flannery writes.

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A second rich/poor conflict in Paris: Will rich countries make good on past promises to help fund poor countries’ two-track responses to climate change? The Copenhagen accord obligates rich countries to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help the poor both shift to low-carbon energy sources and prepare for the impacts that can no longer be prevented. And experts reckon that the necessary funding will soon rise well above $100 billion a year.

For now, the aforementioned emissions gap is mirrored by a funding gap. The OECD claims that rich countries provided $62 billion in climate aid in 2014 and that “significant progress” is being made toward the $100 billion goal. Those figures are based on “dodgy accounting,” counter such antipoverty advocates as ActionAid, which notes that the majority of the OECD’s $62 billion is composed of loans, not grants, along with export credits that benefit companies in rich countries more than residents of poor countries.

A more fundamental objection comes from Saleemul Huq, who heads the International Center for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University of Bangladesh, and who trained diplomats of developing nations to participate in previous UN negotiations. Huq points out that many climate impacts are too overwhelming to manage, no matter how much money is thrown at them (recall the Pacific island nations disappearing beneath rising waves). What’s needed, he argues, is not only adaptation funding but also what’s known in UN parlance as “loss and damage” compensation. Most rich countries, however, resist the very concept of “loss and damage,” if only for fear it would expose them to lawsuits for climate disasters past and future.

The mix of good and bad news going into Paris has left Huq feeling “ambivalent about the entire enterprise.” He asks whether he should “accept some modest progress and say that we have achieved something and keep the show on the road, as I have done so many times before. Or should I call a spade a spade and say that Paris is not a beginning but the end of over two decades of inadequate efforts to tackle the biggest existential threat that mankind has ever had to face?”

I know what he means. But the outcome of Paris is still to be written. And never in the history of international climate negotiations has there been the kind of popular pressure that exists today, thanks to the rise of the climate-justice movement, which has planned a series of globally coordinated demonstrations, starting with national “days of action” and building up to rallies in Paris and other world capitals on November 28 and 29, as diplomats arrive for the summit. And never before have there been so many people in the corridors of power sincerely committed to averting catastrophe. The UN’s Figueres says that Paris must not be the destination but “the departure station” for a movement to “very, very deeply decarbonize” the world economy. Henn of puts it more simply: “The message coming out of Paris should be clear: We’re keeping fossil fuels in the ground.” •

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