Letter from America – Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: December 19, 2015 Last modified: October 25, 2016

There are shades of euphoria from supporters of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change announced so triumphantly at the beginning of this month. “Universal” and “legally binding” are epithets brandished in its favour. Well, up to a point.

The mere fact that there is an agreement, of any kind, understandably warms the hearts of the many committed people who have for years tried to effect a change. Bank Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary General, has made it a major issue since he took office – and he and Gordon Brown played a major part in turning the previous Copenhagen talks into a holding operation rather than a complete disaster. So trying to count the ways in which Paris is a more limited success than the headlines suggest, let us accentuate the positive.

The mere existence of a global agreement accepting the reality of man-made climate change is a big step forward. It rebuts untold millions of dollars poured into public relations by oil and coal producers with direct mercenary interests, not to mention conservative kooks who have decided that the whole idea of global warming is a communist plot to subvert entrepreneurial activities.

If the Shadow Chancellor can quote Mao, so can I. One of the lines in the Chairman’s Little Red Book was that ideas can become a material force, and without endorsing the rest of the Maoist oeuvre, that is very true. In that sense, the Paris Agreement is a turning point in international sentiment for combating the unfolding ecological disaster, ideological leverage in the coming struggle.

The right have become experts at having their will triumph, both positively and negatively over the years, which is why they have fought this outcome so hard and so long. Even relatively rational politicians in America and elsewhere, faced with the wrath of the carbon fuel lobby have temporized about the reality of global warming. Saudi Arabia, continuing the constructive role that it plays in so many spheres, has spent enough hiring the mercenary PR companies to fight its oil-soaked corner globally for it to have resettled several threatened low lying atolls by now.

That is why the Paris agreement at the beginning of December was such a landmark event, despite all the compromises and weaselling that went into it. The simple fact of acceptance of reality, no matter how belated, is a great leap forward in the face of the industry lobbyists.

Gaining recognition of that premise made other forms of progress possible – like the Pacific mini-state of the Marshall Islands who campaigned to ensure that there would a review of the targets within five years instead of 15. However, the review is desperately needed. The targets are hopelessly inadequate and it is a small consolation that the signatory countries recognise when the agreement effectively postpones the reaction needed now until the second half of the century. It is as if we stood in a burning city and congratulated ourselves for noticing the flames and temperature, but decided not to set the fire brigades on the case for a while longer.

In that sense, the Paris agreement is an egregious example of the fun and frivolity that the city was once so famous for. Having evaded the targets set in Kyoto, Bali and other resorts, the nations of the world have now set a non-binding set of targets that they will probably ignore and evade again.

While considering the triumph of the will, one can see in this agreement how the faith-based solutions of the Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan era still haunt us. A carbon tax, on the fuel used could be one of the most effective inducements to encourage investment in more efficient energy use and generation, and thus emissions. However, reflexive right wing (and now “centre”) recoil from the very idea of taxation – which would put cash in the hands of governments for the public good –- has been subsumed by the idea of alleged market mechanisms and trading emissions.

The agreement is deeply flawed, weak and ineffectual. But it lays down what should be done – at a minimum. It is up to the rest of us to risk a few virtual carbon-emissions by holding the feet of governments to the burning coals, making sure they keep their promises.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent