Having attended COP21 as a member of the Ethiopian delegation, I’ve been meaning to write up a post with some take-aways and reflections on the outcome, and will still do so if/when I have a second – but in the meantime, here’s an excellent piece by Christian Hunt, reproduced here with his permission.
My take on the Paris climate agreement is that it’s inadequate. But I think it’s still a really good thing.
Others have been less equivocal, arguing that the Paris agreement is either the best thing since sliced bread, or a disaster and a betrayal of real action on climate change.
So over the past few days I’ve been jotting down some thoughts to help me figure out how I feel about the agreement, and why – mental work in progress, that I’ll share in case it helps you organise your thoughts, or prompts you to email me and tell me I’m wrong.
So here goes:
1) Some preliminary analysis says the agreement, if implemented, would put us on track to 2.7°C by 2100. (Or even lower, with a ratchet mechanism.) I remember when similar analysis said we were on track to between 4 and 6°C, depending on which report you pick. Parking the obvious caveats, isn’t that a good thing?
2) Straight back to those caveats – “if implemented” is a huge one. In fact, it’s kind of the same caveat that existed before the agreement was done – “if we do something about this”. So obviously, the agreement in and of itself doesn’t fix the climate problem. It will require a huge effort from civil society to make the words of the agreement real, in political cost, in infrastructure, in financial decisions. And it will require more moments in the future when ambition is increased again, and again.
3) So let’s not get too hung up on the 1.5/2 degrees targets, and whether they’re realistic, or whether the deal does enough to secure them. My honest answers are: a) We don’t know if they’re realistic – it depends on how you define realistic, there’s a range of opinion, but we know they’re really tough. b) No global agreement will ever do enough to achieve them unless it is supported under the surface by an iceberg of agitation, campaigning and radical shifts in the global economy that still need to be fought for and built, and c) We should just stop obsessing about targets anyway and start arguing for and enabling the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. Oh, and d) The 1.5 target came about because of advocacy by countries that face being literally wiped off the map by climate change, so let’s be a little careful about dismissing it out of hand, or as a way to buy off poor countries, because that strikes me as quite a disempowering and in some ways arrogant thing for those of us in richer countries to argue.
4) So congratulations civil society, we still have a massive job to do. But I would cautiously venture that having every government in the world committed to try and limit warming to 1.5°C is a great lever to move them with – a lever that gives more traction.
5) In fact, let’s quote what I see as the best part of Bill McKibben’s reaction to this – “What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me? You said you were going for 2 degrees at the absolute worst.” On decarbonisation, if governments are sincere in what they say, let’s help them achieve their goals. If they’re insincere, let’s bust the hypocrisy.
6) Decarbonising our energy system, then our society, then reworking the relationship human society has to resource use and sustainability remain big, hard, daunting problems. Agreement in Paris doesn’t change the calculus of climate change.
7) In reflecting the way the world is arranged, the Paris agreement is an unfair deal for the world’s poor. Equity needs to be a much bigger part of the mainstream climate debate. One positive thing might be the emergence of strong campaigns for climate reparations, led from the global South and with the support of northern allies. (Or whatever the right approach is to opening up that space.)
8) Paris produced a treaty-level agreement, but was a document born of compromise. So while the ‘wrapper’ is binding, different parts of it have different levels of binding-ness. But crucially, important parts of it are actually binding – for example, the verification of what a country’s emissions are, a process to increase ambition over time, a long-term goal for emissions reductions. These are tangible things. So it’s not just nice words, or symbolic. (As an aside, the era of binding multilateral treaties is probably over, a friend pointed out to me the other day, because these days it’s more complicated than just getting the US and the USSR to agree to something. Not that it was ever necessarily simple.)
8) NGO messaging that says this is a “historic deal that will fix all our problems” can be annoying, I agree, because it sounds a lot like “job done”. But we should remember that we (in civil society) are not the target audience for that messaging. Such messaging is directed at the general public (to try and create a narrative shift that can enthuse people and build support for further climate action), or at investors (to increase investment risk, as with the divestment movement). It’s probably also directed at supporters (to make them happy about the impact ‘their’ NGO is having). Luckily, we can just ignore it, although I agree some of the crasser examples need to be called out.
9) In summary, if anyone has a good argument for why we’re in a worse place with a climate agreement produced in Paris than we were before, I’d be really interested to hear it. I accept that I may have drunk the kool-aid… But I don’t think so. Paris is the beginning of a process – a means to an end, not an end in itself. Civil society has played a huge role in getting us to this point, and will have a similarly important role to play in what comes next.
(Christian Hunt is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant, focusing on climate, energy, peace and conflict. He was founding editor of the website Carbon Brief, previously worked for Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Centre, and is a co-director of the infidelity offsetting company Cheat Neutral. He lives in Minneapolis, USA.)
Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.
Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* get slightly teary at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.
Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.
And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.
And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.
But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.
So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.
I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.
We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?
So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.
I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.
And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.
But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on.
Like many Labour members, I despair of the direction in which Jeremy Corbyn is taking the party. Back when he was elected, I wondered whether he had a plan for reaching out to the public and taking them with us. In the wake of John McDonnell’s decision to produce a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at the Despatch Box, I think we have the answer to that question.
Worse, Labour risks building this disaster in for a generation. The kind of hard left organising happening at CLP level looks like a re-run of Militant circa 1981. You have to wonder whether the people who voted for Corbyn over the summer knew what they were letting themselves in for – or even if they really care that Labour is becoming an unelectable NGO, if this week’s Economist is anything to go by:
“A YouGov poll in The Times on November 24th found that 66% of current party members thought that Mr Corbyn was doing a good job – even more than voted for him in September. And this result came although half of party members also believed he was unlikely ever to become Prime Minister.”
Understandable, then, that centrist Labour MPs are spoiling for a fight, and why they might decide that Syrian airstrikes are the ground on which to have it. Public unease about ISIS is spiking after Paris, and Corbyn has seemed badly out of sync. Labour MPs also sense a chance to set the record straight after Ed Miliband’s disastrous mishandling of a previous vote on the issue in the last Parliament.
Yet for all of Jeremy Corbyn’s incompetence in other areas, the plain fact is that on air strikes he is right and the Labour MPs thinking about voting for them are wrong (including my former boss Hilary Benn – who, for the record, is a man whom I think has more integrity than anyone else I’ve met in politics).
First, because air strikes don’t work unless they’re undertaken in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground, and these don’t exist in Syria. As counter-insurgency writer William Lind puts it,
“The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.”
Second, because air strikes will bestow a priceless gift to ISIS. Lind again:
“By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.”
And third, because surely we’ve learned by now that “something must be done” is no substitute for a proper war strategy with clear aims. Look how often that impulse has got us into trouble, for heaven’s sake – Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, the disastrous US mission to Somalia that resulted in the Black Hawk down debacle.
To be clear, I’m a passionate believer in the Responsibility to Protect, and the principle of humanitarian intervention. I supported Labour MP Jo Cox in her joint call with former development secretary Andrew Mitchell for a new approach to Syria, and slated shadow development secretary Dianne Abbott for her kneejerk rejection of it.
But we should only undertake humanitarian intervention when it will actually work. This won’t. And my worry is that many Labour MPs are now so enraged with Corbyn that they’ll vote for it anyway.
— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) October 10, 2015
Labour Shadow International Development Secretary Diane Abbott is right to be sceptical of air strikes on ISIS. But she’s completely misread where Jo Cox and John Woodcock, two centrist Labour MPs, are coming from in their push for a cross-party approach on Syria. And in the process, she’s played straight into the hands of those parts of the media that are rubbing their hands in anticipation of a big bust-up within the Labour Party.
Start with the air strikes. As I wrote in a post here on Global Dashboard almost exactly a year ago, I have great misgivings about the west’s existing strategy of air strikes on ISIS, for two reasons.
One, because they’re militarily dubious. Air strikes only work in conjunction with effective allied forces on the ground. Those exist in Kurdistan, but not elsewhere in Iraq – and barely at all in Syria. What’s more, as counter-insurgency writer William Lind observes,
The enemy quickly finds ways to conceal and protect himself from air attack. It’s harder in desert country, but by no means impossible. Irregular light cavalry forces such as ISIS are difficult to distinguish from civilians from the air, and they will quickly intermingle their columns with traveling civilians so the air strikes kill women and kids.
This leads on to the second problem with air strikes on ISIS, again succinctly summed up by Lind (emphasis added):
By attacking ISIS, a force with few air defenses, from the air, we will fall once again into the doomed role of Goliath endlessly stomping David. That will strengthen ISIS‘s moral appeal and serve as a highly effective recruiting tool for them … As air attack has its usual effect of pushing those under bombardment closer together while giving them a burning desire for revenge against enemies they cannot reach, ISIS’s power at the moral level of war will grow by leaps and bounds.
For both of those reasons, I share Abbott’s instinctive scepticism of air strikes on ISIS. They may make us feel better, and scratch the “something must be done” itch – but they’re unlikely to work, and may well end up empowering the forces they’re supposed to weaken.
But Abbott gets it totally wrong with her late night tweet yesterday, responding to a Guardian piece with news that as many as 50 Labour MPs, led by Cox and Woodcock, may vote with the Conservatives to support a new approach to Syria set out in a joint article, also published today, by Cox and former Conservative International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell.
In her tweet, Abbott makes two big errors.
The first is to imply that Cox and Mitchell’s proposal is simply to “bomb Syria” – as if they are merely proposing a continuation of the current, failed approach of ‘air strikes only / ISIS only’.
Instead, Cox and Mitchell’s article is calling for a major shift – starting with the recognition that if your priority is civilian protection, then you can’t just target ISIS and ignore the Assad regime which, with its barrel bombs and chemical weapons attacks, is by far the biggest source of innocent casualties in this long conflict.
Nor are they proposing air strikes alone. Instead, it’s clear from briefings given to inform the Guardian’s accompanying news article that this is about a much more comprehensive approach, which could include “the use of troops to protect new “safe havens” inside Syria, and enforce a “no-fly” or “no bombing zone” to prevent Assad launching further attacks on his own people, as well as moves to hit Islamic State in Syria”.
To be sure, there are still big questions about what Cox and Mitchell are proposing.
For one thing, I still feel uneasy about including air strikes on ISIS as part of the mix, for the reasons set out above. (True, a no-fly zone would also include air strikes, primarily on Assad’s air defences and airfields – but Lind’s ‘Goliath vs David’ point about perceptions, legitimacy and the moral level of warfare wouldn’t apply in the same way here, and I also find it easier to see how these strikes would work militarily.)
More fundamentally, I have a lot of questions about how their proposed approach would work in the multi-side proxy conflict that Syria’s civil war has now become. After all, Russian air forces have been responsible for plenty of civilian deaths in the past week: would we be attacking their air base at Latakia too?
(Of course, Cox and Mitchell aren‘t suggesting this, and instead it proves their point that any military scaling up would have to be matched by a diplomatic scaling up too, where there are tentative signs of progress in talks between the US and Russia – but the Russia question remains the gorilla in the room in all this.)
The bottom line, though, is that Cox and Mitchell are making a valuable and important contribution in reviving and bringing fresh ideas to a debate in Britain that’s become stuck and that has too often lost sight of what should be our top priority: the humanitarian and civilian protection dimension.
And this leads to the other thing that Abbott gets wrong in her tweet: its tone, with its sour references to Cox, Woodcock and other Labour MPs as “these people” and to “join[ing] with the Tories”.
Abbott may disagree with Cox and Woodcock’s position, but she should at least acknowledge the seriousness of their intent and the integrity of their motives. Instead, she weakens her case, and offers a gift to all those hoping that Labour will go to war with itself under Jeremy Corbyn. Most of all, she diminishes her own standing by bringing party politics into it – as though this were about her or Jeremy Corbyn’s authority, or “the Tories”, rather than about thinking much harder about what we can do to protect the innocent victims of Syria’s war.
What a joy to be able to think about something other than the Sustainable Development Goals for a change…
If anything, I have had to keep empathy at bay. It is such a saturation of suffering that somehow as a journalist you have to harden yourself, otherwise it becomes too painful to do your job. Then on 7 April, a few months after I began researching a book on the subject, my first child was born.
In the weeks after Nathaniel’s birth, there was one image I could not shake from my mind. It was of the mothers who gave birth in the sinking smuggling boats, their stories told by survivors who had witnessed the deliveries and by rescue divers who found the bodies of babies still attached to their mothers by their umbilical cord. I had just experienced a pregnancy and birth, that blooming of hope, the excitement at the onset of labour, the hours of terrible pain then the euphoria of the delivery and wriggling new life in front of you.
Imagine doing all that, but in the darkness of the rotting hull of a fishing vessel, surrounded by so many bodies in the grip fear and panic, inhaling hot air saturated with the smell of human waste and diesel fumes, lost in the middle of the sea and knowing that you were drowning.
Would that rush of pure, indescribable joy when your baby finally leaves your body still be there, even if you knew you and the child you brought into the world were about to die? Did they have a chance to hold their babies, to try and comfort them? Did anyone help comfort them at that moment when they were delivering that doomed life, or was the panic so complete that they were alone?
As I nursed Nathaniel in the small hours of the morning, I could not stop putting myself on those boats, imagining the horror of it over and over and over again. What scares me most about the current debate over the refugee crisis is the utter inability of some people and politicians to acknowledge any shared experience with the people asking for sanctuary on this rich continent.
It is the British politicians speaking of ‘swarms’ and ‘marauders’. This is the language of plague and pestilence, not human lives. At its worst it is the Hungarian and Slovakian leaders speaking about the dilution of Christian values, and refusing refuge to Muslims.
In 1938, American and European leaders met in the French spa town of Evian to debate whether to offer sanctuary to the growing numbers of Jewish refugees. Politician after politician took to the podium and spoke about high unemployment and economic hardship, and nothing was done. The next year, W.H. Auden wrote his Refugee Blues: ‘Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees; They had no politicians and sang at their ease; They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race’. So much time has passed, yet how little we have learnt.
From Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in Granta.