The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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Why Hope For Lima?

Yesterday, a conference on climate change began in Lima, Peru.

The body meeting in conference is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The name refers to both an international treaty and to the group formed by the parties to that treaty. I wrote at greater length about these conferences and what they are for several months ago. In brief, the UNFCCC treaty does not itself do anything about climate change, but as the name implies it provides the framework for other treaties that do reduce emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was the creation of UNFCCC, although some UNFCCC members declined to sign or withdrew from Kyoto. For many years now, the international community has been trying to create a successor to Kyoto, a new treaty that is both more ambitious and more inclusive. The conference in Lima is part of that effort.

Lima itself will not produce a new treaty; hopefully, next year’s conference in Paris will do that. Instead, these two weeks in Peru are another stage in preparing the ground for the new treaty.

The signatories have already agreed to the rough outline of a plan–each country will commit to reducing its emissions by an amount of its choice and some countries will commit to giving a certain amount of money to a fund to help poorer countries cope with the effects of climate change. The United States, and some other countries, are unlikely to agree to a new, legally binding treaty. The US Senate, for one, is hostile to climate action. Instead, the world will likely extend existing treaties and combine them with voluntary commitments that will be politically rather than legally binding. This solution takes advantage of the American President’s authority to make certain kinds of agreements without using the formal treaty process, as per a law passed decades ago. President Obama intends to use the authority that Congress gave him to make climate sanity work.

Over the next few months, the signatories will announce what their voluntary commitments will be.  This way, by the time the Paris meeting rolls around, there will be little left to do on the agreement besides signing the thing. The plan for the conference in Lima is to work out these details on what information these announcements have to include.

Several signatories have already announced historic plans for greenhouse emissions reduction. It’s enough to make a person optimistic about the future.

Of course, it isn’t actually enough to avert catastrophe. As a recent UN report points out, current plans to reduce carbon emissions are neither deep enough nor rapid enough to keep us below 2° of warming, the cut-off point after which scientists are fairly sure the climate gets horrific (the uncertainty is whether it will get horrific before then). It’s important to recognize that the problem isn’t solved, yet.

But it’s also important to treat what we’re seeing as progress, to not reject what we’re given simply because it’s demonstrably inadequate.

The thing is, we’ve been here before on other issues. In the forties and fifties, some political leaders recognized American institutional racism as a problem and wanted to do something about it, but no civil rights bill could get past Congressional filibusters. Finally, one bill got through by the simple expedient of being so weak and watery that the segregationists allowed it to pass.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1957 was ridiculous. The only thing it did was to create a temporary commission charged with writing a report on voting rights. The group could subpoena witnesses and record testimony, but it couldn’t actually change anything. And because the Commission was supposed to be “balanced,” several of its members were actually segregationists. The Civil Rights Commission may have contributed some momentum in the right direction, but it was, as it was designed to be, essentially powerless.

And yet, some bill had to be first. Would it have been better if powerful legislation had passed earlier? Yes, of course. But if the more progressive elements in Congress had held out for a bill with teeth, would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have passed when it did? Possibly not.

The historical point is debatable. Certainly, the activity of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the death of John F. Kennedy were both more important. Of course, the importance of any legislation might be debatable, too, considering that fifty years later the courts don’t seem sure that killing black people is a crime. I am neither black nor old enough to know for myself what America was like back before 1964. But I’d bet that strong civil rights legislation was a game-changer, even if the game hasn’t been won yet. And I’d further bet that the first civil rights bill to pass could never have been strong. Something had to break the hold of the Congressional segregationists. Something had to prove that America wouldn’t fall into chaos if civil rights legislation passed.

Where we as a species are with climate change now is where America was with racism in 1956, with growing popular support for change but with entrenched and often wealthy opponents effectively blocking any meaningful policy shifts–once again, the US Congress is functioning as a blockade. We need something to run that blockade.

That something will be the climate agreement in Paris, in 2015. We need to be the organized popular movement that then forces our political leaders to do the right thing and get off fossil fuel entirely by 2050.