In the month since COP21, there has been no shortage of commentary and analysis of the talks. You can read about how COP21 was historic, the world’s greatest diplomatic success, and the end of the fossil fuel era.
You can read about how it’s not enough from the perspective of a young Canadian who attended the conference. And you can read about what it was like to be a young feminist activist speaking out on the conference.
From where I stand, the gist of it (in brief) is that the pledges that countries have actually submitted still set us firmly on the path to a devastating 3 to 3.7 degrees Celsius in temperature rise. The much-hailed 1.5C degree promise is vague (the parties agreed to “pursue efforts” in line with it), and the window mentioned as the timeline for reaching zero net emissions is far later than what science says we need. Over the course of the 2 weeks of negotiations, we watched the draft text shrink as reference to Indigenous rights, the rights of occupied peoples, meek suggestions that rich countries might ever have to pay compensation for countries most affected by climate change, specific goals for climate finance, and any references to fossil fuels all disappeared.
It is both true and remarkable that the deal is dramatically better than the outcomes of recent COPs, especially 2009’s disastrous Copenhagen conference. I think this is the result of public pressure and governments no longer feeling like they can afford to go to COP and block progress in any conspicuous way.
And there are certainly useful tools in the agreement that activists, civil society, and local governments can use to hold national governments accountable. Author Naomi Klein said it well when she called the Paris climate talks a ‘scorecard’. COP21 shows that we have progressed, but that we have an unimaginable amount of work to do before being able to meet the climate crisis with the urgency it demands.
Un-FCCCing the UNFCCC
A month after COP21, there are things we could still be talking more about. Like the phantom text that could have been, with all its references to human rights, to financial flows from culpable to impacted countries, and even more ambitious proposals that never made it onto paper in the first place. Why does the UNFCCC work in a way that a justice-based text was never a real possibility? Why is the process so consistently disappointing that observers joke about being able to write their press releases on the talks months in advance?
It comes down to who is allowed at the table, and this isn’t always as obvious as it should be. The night before the COP21 deal was struck, I sat in on a meeting of a negotiating bloc made up of Global South nations. One senior negotiator lamented the fact that they were still debating an issue, saying: “This feels like the end of Copenhagen. We were up all night finalizing [the position] we wanted to bring to the table, when in reality the deal had already been sealed and we just didn’t know yet.” Their governments, while invited to the official table, are not privy to many of the informal off-the-record meetings where more powerful nations hash thing out.
Missing voices can be found at all levels of the conference. It’s easier for civil society members from the Global North (this includes me) to get accreditation to the conferences and bear the cost of getting there. As a result, we are often heard much more loudly than those experiencing the effects of climate change and fossil fuel extraction first hand. There are also missing voices in the streets, from border crack-downs that prevented some activists from reaching Paris, to raids and arrests hindering climate activists planning peaceful protests, to the increased risk for those most vulnerable to climate change to take direct action because of the realities of racism in our police forces.
While there’s no silver bullets around to solve the inequities in global politics, there are things we can do to tip the scales in the right directions for future negotiations. We can support groups like the Legal Response Initiative who provide free legal support to under-resourced Global South delegations. We can keep calling attention to the conference’s fossil fuel sponsorship, we can push for more transparent meetings and process (follow #keepusintheroom for more on this). We can keep fighting police brutality and all the other forces that keep protesters off the streets, and as Global North-based organizations we can start being more conscientious about whose voices we are sending to advocate on behalf of civil society.
Canada is not back
At the national level, Canada has our own ghosts. Ten years of Canadian governments going to talks and actively blocking progress ended this year, and many observers rightfully relished in this. The dominant media narrative became “Canada is Back.” While it’s true that we’re no longer one of the worst, we were decidedly average in terms of developed countries at COP21. Media and observers alike were reluctant to admit this, and going forward we’ll need to learn how to critique these more nuanced policy performances in a more effective way.
Canada did some great things like push for the inclusion of the rights of Indigenous peoples in the text (ultimately unsuccessfully), but we also did less charming things like stick with the pack of developed countries pushing to water down any commitments to compensation for climate losses & damages. We came to the talks with a lot of ambitious rhetoric, but also with our previous government’s wholly inadequate climate pledge and a reluctance to commit to any concrete domestic plans. Our current government hasn’t yet shown any signs that they are willing to block the fossil fuel infrastructure or build the solutions needed to stay anywhere near the 1.5C goal. They’re still actively pursuing the construction of tarsands pipelines against the will of impacted First Nations and in blatant disregard of greenhouse gas emissions.
Ultimately, a UN agreement will not be what pushes the scales towards climate justice. Author and activist Arundhati Roy, whose landmark book this article’s title nods to, said it best: “If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle everyday to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them.”
Roy is right to point to the streets, where so much has already been accomplished. It’s this people-powered pressure that yielded the bit of progress we saw at COP21 to happen, and it’s this pressure that will continue to build community-led renewables, block pipelines and coal mines, rebuild food systems, see land rights and title returned to Indigenous peoples, and lead to the hundreds of other small victories that will add up to a world with a fighting chance. These gatherings have far fewer ghosts, and heading into 2016, they’re where I’ll be putting my hope.
Want a refresher of what was kept and what was cut from the Paris deal? Check out our infographic here