1.5 Degrees Matters, But We Do Realize the Negotiating Text Totally Punts on Getting There, Right?

globe as a chess board with push pin chess pieces everywhere

“It seems almost certain now that the final agreement will compel nations to strive to limit global temperature increases to less than 1.5°C (2.7°F) compared with pre-industrial times, alongside a firmer goal of keeping warming “well below” 2°C (2.7°F).”

This is from a Triple Pundit post Thursday evening (12/10/2015). So let me get this straight. The draft would “compel nations to strive” to keep global temperatures below 1.5oC, alongside a “firmer goal” of keeping temperatures “well below” 2oC. Come again?

I have read lots of negotiating texts and lots of treaties. I have attended lots of negotiations and lots of COPs, including the all-night session that led to the Kyoto Protocol, which at the time had a “rabbit out of the hat” feel to it. And I’ve read dozens of stories and blogs about the Paris COP, and how close we’re getting to a binding treaty to save the world. But I’ve also read the negotiating text, which as of Thursday evening doesn’t say anything of the sort.

I get how much people want to be able to say that Paris will have been a huge success. The climate community redefined success two years ago just to make that possible, suggesting that voluntary bottom-up commitments would be more successful than the (failed) top-down efforts of years before (of course, against a baseline of failure anything can be characterized as a success). And with SO many people in Paris, and with climate change having SUCH a high profile right now given the Pope’s intervention among many others, everyone wants Paris to be a success! I get it.

In Margaret Heffernan’s great 2011 book Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, she states “[I]n failing to confront the greatest challenge of our age – climate change – all the forces of willful blindness come together, like synchronized swimmers in a spectacular water ballet.”

She wasn’t just talking about skeptics and deniers. She was talking about all of us, and what’s happening in Paris just proves her point. Let’s look at a few of the stronger statements in the draft Agreement:

The purpose of this Agreement is to further implement the objective of the Convention as set out in its Article 2 through enhanced action, cooperation and support, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty, so as to:

(a) Hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change;

Hard to disagree with any of this text, but what does it mean? “Well below?” “Pursue efforts?” “In the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty?” Not a lot of nailing anyone to the wall here. Remember that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (agreed to in 1992) obligated countries to avoiding “dangerous interference with the climate system.” Many years later this was informally codified to mean that we shouldn’t exceed 2oC. Now we’re formally codifying that number, and talking about an even lower 1.5oC number, but again without anything binding to back it up (and assuming the lower number is even possible). But in totally pragmatic terms, how far have we really come since the “dangerous interference” text agreed to in 1992?

All Parties shall undertake efforts defined in Articles 3, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9 progressively towards achieving the purpose of this Agreement as set out in Article 2, while recognizing that enhanced support for developing country Parties will allow for higher ambition in their actions. Over time efforts of all Parties will represent a progression taking into account Parties different national circumstances and stages of development.

Come again?

In order to achieve the long-term global temperature goal set in Article 2 of this Agreement, Parties aim to reach the peaking of greenhouse house gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter towards reaching greenhouse gas emissions neutrality in the second half of the century on the basis of equity and guided by science in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

OK, now at least I understand countries’ respective binding obligations.

All Parties should strive to formulate and communicate long-term low-greenhouse gas emission development strategies mindful of Article 2 of this Agreement taking into account Parties different national circumstance and development stages.

Sounds good!

Developed country Parties shall provide [new,] [additional,] [adequate,] [predictable,] [accessible,] [sustained] and [scaled-up] financial resources to assist developing country Parties with respect to both mitigation and adaptation. Other Parties may on a voluntary, complementary basis, provide resources to developing countries, including through South-South cooperation initiatives.

Let me just check with my international banker on using this statement as collateral for investing in low-carbon development strategies. . . .

Again, I understand the desire, no the “need,” to make Paris a success. But no one seriously expected anything to come out of Paris that would actually change the course of world energy economy, did they? This great piece from November 30 makes clear that the U.S. certainly never had any intention of agreeing to anything that might be called a “binding treaty.” And if it’s not actually binding, and not actually a treaty, what exactly is it? So if we didn’t really expect such an outcome, why are we so desperate to spin that outcome now? Who benefits? Where is the benefit to the climate in putting a lot of lipstick on this pig?

We’ll soon see plenty of arguments that this deal does more harm than good, since now the world will wait for several years to see whether this “agreement” even “enters into force,” and then will wait for at least 5 years before countries have to commit to new commitments. Is that really progress?

But for now we’re immersed in the euphoria of “finally” having a “binding agreement” to save the climate.

To what end? Other than willful blindness of course, a siren song indeed!

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