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Brian Tokar

Climate Diplomacy and Climate Action: What’s Next?

By Brian Tokar - System Change not Climate Change, April 29, 2017

Just over a year ago, diplomats from around the world were celebrating the final ratification of the December 2016 Paris Agreement, proclaimed to be the first globally inclusive step toward a meaningful climate solution. The agreement was praised as one of President Obama’s signature accomplishments and as a triumph of his “soft power” approach to world affairs. But even then, long before Donald Trump and his coterie of plutocrats and neofascists rose to power pledging to withdraw from the agreement, there were far more questions than answers.

First, recall that the Paris Agreement was based entirely on countries voluntarily submitting plans outlining their proposed “contributions” to a climate solution.  This was the outcome of Obama and Hillary Clinton’s interventions at the ill-fated 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, where the US delegation made it clear that it would never agree to mandatory, legally binding limits on global warming pollution. While most global South representatives at successive UN summits sought to preserve that central aspect of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, rich countries united during the years between Copenhagen and Paris behind the notion that climate measures should be strictly voluntary.

Secondly, the Paris Agreement contained no means of enforcement whatsoever. While the text was abundant with words like “clarity,” “transparency,” “integrity,” “consistency,” and “ambition,” there’s literally nothing to assure that such aspirations can be realized. The only official body focused on implementation and compliance is mandated to be “transparent, non-adversarial and non-punitive.” Countries are urged to renew their proposals every few years, with a stated hope that the various “Nationally-Determined Contributions” to climate mitigation will become stronger over time. But if a President Trump or a potential President Le Pen chooses to do the opposite, there’s nothing but vague diplomatic peer pressure standing in the way.

Third, the various plans submitted prior to Paris fell far short of what is needed to prevent catastrophic destabilization of the earth’s climate systems. Various assessments of the plans that countries brought to Paris suggested an outcome approaching 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3°F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, far short of the stated goal of a maximum of 2 degrees, much less the aspirational goal of only 1.5 degrees that was demanded by delegates from Africa, small island nations, and elsewhere. We know, however, that at the current level of just over 1 degree Celsius (1.8°F)  in average temperature rise, we are experiencing uniquely unstable weather, Arctic ice is disappearing, and catastrophic storms, wildfires, droughts and floods are disproportionately impacting the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Two degrees is very far from a “safe” level of average warming; it is far more likely to be the 50-50 point at which the climate may or may not rapidly shift into a thoroughly chaotic and unpredictable state.

The global climate movement responded to the Paris outcome with an impressive showing of skepticism and foresight. Thousands of people filled the streets of Paris itself, declaring that the UN conference had fallen far short of what is needed, and parallel demonstrations voiced similar messages around the world. Last spring, a series of worldwide “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” events temporarily shut down major sites of fossil fuel extraction and transport on every continent, including major actions against oil transport by rail in the northeastern and northwestern US, a massive convergence to shut down Germany’s most polluting coal mine, and a boat blockade of Australia’s biggest coal port. Last fall and winter, the encampment at Standing Rock in North Dakota brought together the most inspiring alliance of indigenous communities and allies we have yet seen, and encampments inspired by Standing Rock have since emerged at the sites of a handful of major pipeline projects across the US.  Midwestern activists are responding with renewed determination to challenge the Trump administration’s move to resurrect the dreaded Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport toxic, high-carbon tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail?

By Brian Tokar - Common Dreams, November 11, 2015

The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. We should not forget how that turned out. (Image: via PabloSolon.com)

From the end of this month through early December, much of the world’s attention will be focused on Paris, the site of the upcoming round of UN climate negotiations. This is the twenty-first time diplomats and heads of state will gather under the umbrella of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a document first put forward at the landmark 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro – the same global conference where the elder George Bush told the world that the “American way of life is not negotiable.” The UNFCCC process has had its ups and downs over the years, including the approval of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international agreement to mandate specific reductions in climate-disrupting greenhouse gases.

As this year’s conference approaches, people around the world are suffering the consequences of some of the most extreme patterns of storms, droughts, wildfires and floods ever experienced. Western wildfires last summer reached as far north as the Olympic rainforest, and unprecedented mudslides earlier this fall in a corner of drought-baked southern California nearly buried vehicles caught on the route from Tehachapi to Bakersfield. Central Mexico recently experienced the most severe hurricane to ever reach landfall, and the role of persistent regional droughts in sparking the social upheaval that has brought nearly a million Middle Eastern refugees to central Europe is increasingly apparent. It is virtually certain that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded, with several months having surpassed previous records by a full degree or more. While we are always cautioned that it is difficult to blame the climate for specific incidents of extreme weather, scientists in fact are increasingly able to measure the climate contribution of various events, and rising temperatures also heighten the effects of phenomena such as the California drought, which may not have global warming as their primary underlying cause.

The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At that time, the first “commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol was about to expire shortly, and Copenhagen was seen as a make-or-break opportunity to move the process forward. Even as close observers decried the increasing corporate influence over the preparations for the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, most observers held onto a shred of hope that something meaningful and significant would emerge from the negotiations. There was a huge public lobbying effort by Greenpeace and other groups urging President Obama to attend, and China put forward its first public commitment to reduce the rate of increase in their greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kyoto Protocol’s primary implementation mechanisms – tradable emissions allowances and questionable “carbon offset” projects in remote areas of the world – had proven inadequate at best, the Copenhagen meeting was seen as the key to sustaining Kyoto’s legacy of legally binding emissions reductions. Perhaps, activists hoped, the negotiators would agree on a meaningful plan to prevent increasingly uncontrollable disruptions of the climate. It soon became clear, however, that Copenhagen instead set the stage for a massive derailment of the ongoing negotiation process, and unleashed a new set of elite strategies that now render the Paris talks as virtually designed to fail.

Officials in Copenhagen were determined to spin the conference as a success, no matter what the outcome. Still, even before the conference began, they began to proclaim the advantages of a non-binding “political” or “operational” agreement as an incremental step toward reducing worldwide emissions. As described in my book, Toward Climate Justice (New Compass Press, 2014), the assembled delegates from nearly all the world’s nations failed to accomplish even that. COP 15 produced only a five-page “Copenhagen Accord,” with no new binding obligations on countries, corporations, or any other actors, and the document was not even approved – only “taken note of” – by the conference as a whole. The accord essentially urged countries to put forward voluntary pledges to reduce their climate-disrupting emissions, and to informally “assess” their progress after five years. Every substantive issue was hedged with loopholes and contradictions, setting the stage for most of the global North outside of Europe to simply withdraw from their countries’ obligations under Kyoto as the 2012 renewal deadline approached. Still, all but three countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – went along with this scheme; one main reason was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised skeptics that the US would raise $100 billion a year in funds to assist with climate stabilizing measures, a promise that is still to be realized in the halls of Paris.

Brian Tokar: Defying Apocalypse

By Brian Tokar - Institute for Social Ecology, September 18, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

This commentary appears on the occasion of the forthcoming “Apocalypse Now?” issue of the Occupied Times of London, as well as the People’s Climate March in New York City and events before and after, and also the publication of the newly revised and expanded edition of my book, Toward Climate Justice.  It also appears on Counterpunch, ZNet and Toward Freedom:

Today it often feels as though we are hopelessly mired in apocalyptic thinking, both in our social movements and in popular culture. From Hollywood blockbusters to art house dystopias, and from hip-hop lyrics to “serious” literature, images of irreversible climate chaos, interminable warfare, and total societal collapse seem increasingly inescapable. Apocalyptic visions appear equally-pervasive in current radical discourse, from Derrick Jensen’s popular “end of civilization” treatises from the US west coast to the more contemplative but perhaps equally despairing works of Paul Kingsnorth and the rest of the UK Dark Mountain group.

For some, such outlooks are simply the logical conclusion of even a cursory examination of current climate science. If we don’t stop burning fossil fuels within the next few years – a prospect that seems unimaginable in the current political context – we could face global warming of 4-6 degrees C by the end of this century, resulting in the collapse of the relatively stable patterns of weather and climate that have helped sustain human life on earth for thousands, and likely tens of thousands of years. Absent any semblance of a meaningful global agreement to curtail climate pollution, how can we possibly fend off utter catastrophe?

For some youthful radicals, the prospect of a civilizational collapse is invigorating: the more dire a future we face, the greater the urgency of revolutionary action and the more inviting the challenge. But for most people, facing the unthinkable is merely a path to despair and disengagement. If apocalypse is inevitable, why bother with activism at all? More people will prefer to just dig in, refocusing their energies toward the private sphere and the pleasures (or struggles) of everyday life. One recent study suggests that broad scientific literacy only correlates strongly with climate awareness in relatively progressive-minded circles; for most people, it appears far more important to fit in with the inclinations of one’s own social group than to embrace any particular understanding of the truth.

A recent book, Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, by four North American activist-scholars, describes in some detail how apocalyptic thinking has historically been a dead-end for the left, a chronic enabler for the right, and an outlook that radical movements embrace at their peril. “The politics of fear,” they argue, “play to the strengths of the right, not the left,” and best serve those interests that are “against equality and for war, hierarchy and state violence.”

In contrast, as social movement historian Richard Flacks has shown, people will willingly disrupt the patterns of their daily lives to engage in the project of “making history” once they have a tangible sense that a better way is possible. This, for Flacks, is among the historic roles of democratic popular movements: to further the idea “that people are capable of and ought to be making their own history, that the making of history ought to be integrated with everyday life, that [prevailing] social arrangements … can and must be replaced by frameworks that permit routine access and participation by all in the decisions that affect their lives.”

The Myths of “Green Capitalism”

By Brian Tokar - New Politics, early 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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