Like Copenhagen Talks, Paris Climate Negotiations Were Mostly Smoke and Mirrors

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The recent climate conference in Paris followed a nearly inverse format from the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, but its results were the same: more woefully inadequate commitments in the face of impending climate disaster.

At the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Copenhagen, the heads of state arrived at the end. President Obama then proceeded to shut himself up with a carefully selected minority of other heads of state to produce a toothless “statement” that satisfied nobody and represented a major step backward in climate control.

At the COP in Paris, the heads of state arrived for the first days (for “the biggest gathering of heads of state in history,” as we were constantly reminded). They had themselves photographed together, chatted bilaterally or multilaterally, and then mostly departed, leaving their delegations to do the work of eliminating the dozens of disputed passages in the text (all in brackets). The result is supposed to represent the victory that eluded the delegations at Copenhagen. Rather, it is as much a sham as Copenhagen’s “statement.”

If the final drafting could be so easily delegated, it is because the primary outcome has long been known apart from the details: It will codify the woefully inadequate commitments already submitted to the Conference by the member states. These submissions represent what each country is prepared to commit itself to doing in order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Well before the conference’s opening, the climatologists and vigilant members of civil society were pointing out that, even if all the commitments were implemented (which is highly unlikely in view of past performances), we would still be on track to a warming of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius, depending on whose figures one chooses to trust.

It is worth recalling that the 2-degree limit was never a scientific estimate. Long ago, when the polluters were less impeded in spreading doubt about the whole warming process underway, they were able to insist that the science was embryonic, too immature to be trusted as a basis for any serious policy decisions, that their (hired) science postulated that the earth could tolerate warming of up to 3 degrees before any major difficulties might appear. The scientific community maintained its claim that, after 1 degree, major disruptions were in store. The end result was a compromise: the 2-degree limit.

At the entry to the conference center at Le Bourget – a substantial distance outside of Paris – was a huge panel listing the conference’s sponsors, who “helped make all this possible,” as the pitch justifying their participation would have it. In addition to being major contributors to the funding of the conference, they were all major contributors to the disastrous situation that the Good Earth and its peoples find themselves in.

Since the commitments are voluntary, there is no serious monitoring planned. Further, those who in the past raised serious questions about the whole COP process and tried to steer it in the direction of responsible action have been systematically sidelined: scientists, civil society and even delegates. There are numerous testimonies from these people of interference from the major hydrocarbon-producing countries. That Saudi Arabia and the United States are the ones most frequently mentioned will surprise nobody.

It is also worth noting that the representatives of the island states – among those already most affected by what is under way – and civil society groups have been steadfastly insisting on a 1.5-degree limit. This requires a radical rethinking of how humankind lives on the earth. Such a rethinking is long overdue.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International told Amy Goodman during the December 10 broadcast of Democracy Now! that 1.5 as a goal is still alive owing to the activism of civil society. He thus uttered one of the most significant statements of the entire conference.

André Gide wrote: “The world will be saved – if it can be saved at all – only by those who refuse to be subjugated.” (“Le monde ne sera sauvé – s’il peut l’être – que par les insoumis.”) Civil society has shown a remarkable refusal to accept subjugation to the established criminal order of globalized capitalism, and the admission that the 1.5-degree goal is alive owing to civil society’s efforts should also not surprise anybody.

In the late 1970s, during the “dirty war” in Argentina, there were repeated attempts to bring the horrors of the Argentine military regime before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. At the time, nongovernmental organizations were excluded from the Commission’s work, which was carried on entirely by governmental delegations. The level of “horse trading,” as it was commonly called, was appalling.

With the firm support of the United States, the Argentine atrocities were kept off the Commission’s agenda until, finally, the unrelenting pressure from the NGOs caused the dam to break. Not only was the subject finally put on the agenda, however temporarily, but – more importantly – the NGOs were also admitted to the work of the Commission as well as to that of its subsidiary body, the Sub-Commission. This latter body comprised 26 independent experts and was largely free of the governmental politicking that constantly plagued the Commission. Most of the significant work done by both the Commission and its Sub-Commission thereafter bears the indelible imprint of the unflagging efforts of civil society.

Later, the United States, declaring that the Commission had become “politicized” (cynical, coming from the country that had done the most to politicize and enfeeble it), pushed for reform. The main real reason was the independence of the Sub-Commission, which had tackled the devastating effect of sanctions on the Iraqi people and the crimes of transnational corporations. The Sub-Commission, backed untiringly over the years by the NGOs – and especially by one major human rights research center in Geneva, the “Europe – Third World Center,” or CETIM – had actually come up with a draft binding treaty for a legal international framework for transnational corporations and handed it up to the Commission for action on it.

The proposed reform was initially for a new “council” which, like the Security Council would have five permanent members with veto power. This was in essence shouted down by the NGOs, but the next proposal was for a council that would exclude the NGOs, on the pretense that this would avoid politicization. In the end, the new Human Rights Council was set up in 2006,with open participation by the NGOs but without an independent Sub-Commission. The NGOs refused to accept this setback.

The draft norms for transnational corporations were relegated to the dustbin of history and replaced by a voluntary set of norms that have proven useless.

However, binding draft norms are once again on the agenda – thanks largely to the CETIM and its NGO partners. And the role of NGOs has never been greater within the United Nations, as testified by the impressive work on the rights of Indigenous peoples and on the right to land – all comprising a climate-related approach.

It was all done against the odds, yet now the NGOs are leading the way more than ever before.

Similarly, when the governments of the world refused any work on banning anti-personnel land mines, it was civil society that moved in and took the initiative, sponsoring the drafting of the treaty now in effect – in record time, moreover. Again, against all odds.

There are numerous other examples of the triumphs of civil society over bought governments and corrupt corporations.

Paris and its document are a sham, yes, but civil society is coming into its own on this major issue, and civil society refuses to be silenced and refuses to be subjugated.

The future looks grim, but if there is yet hope, even if it is only the hope for attenuation of the worst, it is because civil society groups are again leading the way.