Tuesday, March 29, 2016

After Paris

published 15 December 2015

The Guardian gave a vivid description of what transpired in Paris over the weekend during the conclusion of the 21st Conference of Parties. 
There was, first, an announcement that there was no opposition to the final draft of the agreement. A banging of the gavel. For a moment, silence, as though nobody believed what was happening. And then, jubilation: Cheering, crying, hugging, even high-fives among diplomats, negotiators, politicians, academics,  civil society, media and everybody else in the hall. 
The reason? A “landmark” 31-page deal had been reached by the community of 195 nations. They all agreed to do something to cut carbon emissions so that the planet would not descend into worst-case scenarios brought about by climate change. This was important because in previous climate change conferences, they merely “agreed to agree” at some later date, to do the same. 
Science has told us that the world should not get warmer by more than 2 degrees Celsius—or else the consequences would be dire, and accelerated. Actually, 2 degrees is bad enough because what we have been seeing now, in terms of extreme weather patterns such as stronger, more frequent and erratic storms on one hand and drought and dry spells on the other, are all already that. 
According to reports, the main contention remained to be how much each country was willing to sacrifice in terms of emission cuts given the fact that other countries have more (or less) historical responsibility than they do, or have (or have not) attained a significant amount of economic development as they have.
The Philippine delegation pushed for an ambitious target of capping the warming not just to 2 degrees but 1.5. They also framed the climate change issue as a human rights issue, arguing that the poor and the vulnerable have the right to be protected from the consequences of climate change. This rings even more urgent as we realize they did not have a hand at all in the situation, that they did not benefit from development, and probably have no idea about the scientific and diplomatic terms used during the COP talks even as its impacts to them are real, immediate and life changing. 
Time to bring out the champagne? By all means. It’s been a tough two weeks, and an even more tougher 20 plus years. Everybody who worked towards this goal and who acknowledged that a measure of sacrifice has to be taken deserves recognition. Everybody who toiled and spent sleepless nights during the crucial stretch need to know we appreciate what they have done.
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Lest we think the work is over, however, let’s put a cap on the celebrations, as well. 
The agreement has yet to be widely circulated, but at this point, we know as much: That the countries would set their own targets, that  there would be regular reviews, that $100 billion would be given to poor countries to adapt to the effects of climate change, but also that the countries would not be legally bound to their commitments if they even make one at all. 
These, among others, has led former Nasa scientist James Hannsen to brand the Paris talks “a fraud...a fake,” in another The Guardian article.  “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.”
According to Hanssen, the only way to ensure success is to tax greenhouse gas emissions across the board. He would go as far as calling these a “fee” instead of a “tax” because the mention of taxes scares people off. 
Alas, even “big green”—large environment groups he calls them—are not sold on the idea, according to him.
Hanssen first became famous in 1988 when, at a House committee hearing in the US, he talked about the then-unheard of term “greenhouse effect” where heat-trapped gases are released into the atmosphere and cause global warming with 99-percent certainty. His suggestion was to sharply reduce the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide. He was once a celebrated scientist—now he is an environmental activist. 
The work begins, too, according to Pope Francis, who commended the agreement but emphasized that its implementation would require “a concerted and generous commitment on the part of each one.” 
Pope Francis referred to the environment/the planet as our common home in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si.  He expressed his hope that the agreement will give special attention to the most vulnerable.
And indeed only conscientious implementation will  do justice to the jubilation that took place this weekend in the city of lights. People were emotional then, exuberant even as they were exhausted.  But soon they will return to their home countries, be reminded of their economic priorities, get confronted by their own realities and the concerns of the present. They will be back in their comfortable offices and expensive suits and will forget the stories of the poorest and most vulnerable. 
The landmark deal will amount to nothing if all the good things remain on paper.  Let’s give ourselves and the next generation something to really cheer. Let’s continue to watch how nations make climate commitments, and ensure they take these commitments to heart.
adellechua@gmail.com

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