Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for December, 2015

Climate Change: Merci

French may no longer be the language of international diplomacy, but French diplomats have not lost their touch.

The Paris climate deal reached at the weekend is a testament to their skill and endurance.

Many environmental activists and experts, among them the British climate economist Lord Stern, have been effusive in their praise for the French delegation led by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.

According to Lord Stern “they have taken great care to make everyone listened to, that they were consulted. There was a great sense of openness, of professional diplomacy, and skill.”

What Fabius, his colleague, Environment Minister Ségolène Royale, and their team have pulled off is the first ever agreement that all countries – rich or poor, developed or developing – will take action to tackle climate change by reducing their carbon emissions and reversing the deforestation and environmental degradation that is depriving the planet of its ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere naturally.

Of course, France did not do it alone.

At a time when the international system – and the United Nations in particular – has been written off by many as incapable of achieving the consensus needed for decisive action over conflicts like Syria and Ukraine, the success in Paris is a welcome reminder that the international community is capable of coming together for the common good.

The deal has allowed a rare moment of optimism over the climate change, which has been reinforced by research just published suggesting carbon emissions could have stalled this year despite the global economy growing.

The climate accord also builds on the momentum of September’s agreement by all UN members to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to eradicate poverty by 2030 by meeting people’s economic, health, education and social needs while protecting the environment.

It’s a far cry from six years ago in Copenhagen when the last attempt to get all countries on board in the fight against climate change fell apart amongst rancour and recrimination between the world’s major powers – particularly China and the United States.

So it’s no coincidence that another of the contributors to success in Paris was the growing climate cooperation between Washington and Beijing which became public last year during President Obama’s visit to China and was reaffirmed a few weeks ago during President Xi’s visit to the US where the two leaders announced a shared vision for the Paris talks as well as how their countries would cut carbon emissions.

In the US, President Obama has broken with his predecessor’s skepticism – some might say cynicism – over climate change action and made it a signature issue of his second term. But given the Republican Party’s control of Congress, Obama has had to use executive powers, not legislation, to take action.

One of the key features of the Paris deal is how the French and UN negotiators were willing to work around the American President’s political obstacles and produce an agreement that would not have to be ratified by the US Senate.

That’s why the Paris accord avoids a legal commitment by countries to actually cut emissions. Instead countries have submitted voluntary plans of how they will reduce emissions and fight climate change called – in UN-speak – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

The voluntary nature of these central commitments has been criticized as a major weakness of the deal, so in order to try to ensure countries keep their promises, the agreement legally requires all states to monitor their emissions performance and to come together every five years to review their progress.

The idea being that global peer pressure will encourage countries to do their bit.

Another obvious weakness of the deal is that, as things stand, when you total up all the INDCs it does not add up to preventing a temperature rise above 2 degrees Celsius, which most climate scientists agree is the tipping point where global warming will produce catastrophic climate change.

There is an aspiration in the preamble to the agreement to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees and the hope is the five-year review process and peer pressure will lead to countries committing to ever-deeper emissions cuts as they go along.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon – another leader who has made climate change a signature issue – described Paris as “a truly historic moment”.

It could be – if countries follow through.

What we can say for sure is that Paris has given humanity a fighting chance in the battle against climate change and for that a lot of the credit should go to France.

 

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Climate Change or Terrorism: Which is the True Existential Threat?

Climate change is “the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

So said the then UK Chief Scientific Adviser, David King back in 2004.

It’s a view that’s been echoed by, among others, President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Eleven years on, King’s comment came to mind as the UK parliament debated and approved air strikes on Islamic State in Syria at the same time as delegates from more than 190 countries were meeting at the UN climate summit in Paris to try to agree a deal to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Syria vote took up many more column inches than the goings on in Paris despite the presence of world leaders, including Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the summit.

Polls in Britain about the most important issues facing the World, indicate terrorism is seen as a much greater threat than global warming. It also seems public concern about climate change has declined since the last disappointing key UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Why should this be when the scientific consensus is that unless the world takes measures now global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees and cause catastrophic changes in the climate that will pose a grave threat to all of humanity?

Some climate scientists think it’s partly their fault. They believe they gave people the impression climate change would be more dramatic and also that it may be too late to do much about it. But climate change is likely to be gradual and psychology suggests if people think they can’t do much about something, they will most likely carry on as usual.

But political leaders and the media also bear some responsibility.

When there is a terrorist attack, there is frequent talk about terrorism as an existential threat.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself has said he believes IS is an “existential threat” to the UK.

According to the dictionary “existential” means “relating to existence”. So an “existential threat” to the UK is something that threatens the very survival of the country.

Does the Prime Minister really believe IS poses a threat to Britain’s national survival in the same way Nazi Germany did in 1940?

Surely not?

But he is not alone in using this language – other politicians and media commentators have also liberally used the cliché – and it is bound to have an impact on public perceptions.

Anecdotally, I know well-informed people who agree with this assessment of the scale of the IS threat and dismiss climate change as exaggerated – when it is precisely the other way round.

The frog in boiling water is the analogy that’s used to explain the lack of urgency about taking action to combat global warming. Then there’s the fact that because climate science is developing all the time, there is always an element of uncertainty about it, even if the broad trends are clear.

However, there’s already evidence that climate change will disrupt our way of life and threaten the existence of states.

The Pentagon and other defence ministries now recognise climate change as a threat to national security and see it as a driver of conflict.

One of the causes of the unrest that led to Syria’s devastating civil war that may well end in the permanent disintegration of the country was prolonged drought and it’s very likely climate change was a cause of that drought. It’s this research Prince Charles was referring to in a recent interview with Sky News when he grabbed headlines by suggesting a link between terrorism and climate change.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, which the UN estimates has killed around 300,000 and displaced almost 3 million, has also been linked to drought caused by long-term changes in climate.

Another problem when it comes to public perceptions of the two is that while terrorist attacks are sudden and shocking – that is the whole point of them in the eyes of the people carrying them out – climate change is incremental.

We humans also seem to find it far easier to empathise with the relatively small numbers of victims of sudden random violence than we do the large numbers whose lives are threatened by an creeping menace like climate change.

I don’t intend to diminish the impact terrorism has on its victims and their loved ones.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a terrorist attack then it is an existential threat to you.

But, unless you live in a handful of countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan,terrorism is not a threat to the future of your country. It’s also not a threat to human existence. Climate change, on the other hand, probably is.

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