Here’s What We’ll Do After the Paris Climate Summit Drops the Ball

No global agreement is coming to save the day. Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.
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Across the world, the eyes and the aspirations of climate activists are turning toward Paris. At the end of this month, delegations from more than 190 nations will gather in the French capital for the 21st annual U.N.-sponsored global summit to address a planetary crisis: our warming Earth. But COP 21 (the acronym stands for “Conference of the Parties”) will not be just another climate summit. The Paris meeting marks the deadline for reaching a new a global agreement—a “final exam” preceded by years of complex negotiations. It is that looming deadline that is making the Paris summit the object of intense attention from governments, activists, and many others.

Heads of state from around the world will descend on Paris, offering up a parade of lofty statements about forward progress and a string of announcements about their new commitments. Outside of the summit, a diverse alliance of climate organizations, labor unions, youth groups, and many others are mobilizing to turn hundreds of thousands into the streets of Paris, as well as other cities across the globe. The marches will call out the inadequacy of government promises and demand a serious global commitment to keep 80 percent of remaining fossil fuels in the ground and a swift global transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

The reality, however, is that we already know the essence of the climate deal humanity will awake to the day the conference ends, and the news isn’t good. While the Paris accord will mark an important global recognition of the crisis, and a loose structure in which nations pledge to act, none of that will halt the crisis that is already changing the planet in huge ways.

Paris will make it official that no global agreement is coming to save the day. The work of taking concrete action will still lie ahead. And the center of that action is going to come increasingly from creative communities taking leadership on their own and joining forces.

The Summit of Promises   

After more than 20 years of global negotiations (the important ones carried out behind closed doors), the world’s governments have agreed on a basic plan for how they aim to cut back on planet-altering carbon emissions. At the center of that plan sits a piece of confusing jargon, “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions,” or INDCs. These are pledges, made separately by each nation, laying out what each says it will do to reduce its carbon output.

In an intelligent world, in the face of a crisis so dire, nations would sit down together, craft a collective, science-based solution and bind themselves to it. However, we live in this world, and binding international agreements are reserved for the realm of trade deals such as the looming, corporate-backed Trans Pacific Partnership.

The Paris deal, in contrast, is a collection of promises, with no actual consequences for breaking them. The “intentions” in the INDCs are much like the ones many of us have after the holidays to give up sweets and get more exercise. Even if we mean them at the start, those intentions have a way of being forgotten. Absent accountability and sanctions, governments are going to toss aside many of their climate pledges in much the same way.

Even if some surprising wave of political discipline holds them to keep their COP promises, the aggregate impact of those pledges doesn’t come close to what is needed to keep planetary warming to below two degrees centigrade, the level scientists say is the maximum before all hell breaks loose—and which many warn is still far too high to prevent widespread disaster.

The United States’ INDC, for example, pledges cuts in its carbon emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, but that target is both inadequate and based on manipulation of the baseline dates used to measure progress toward it. Serious national action by the U.S. will also eventually require support from a Congress currently more inclined to believe in the reality of professional wrestling than of climate science. Bolivia has pledged to end all “illegal” deforestation by 2020, a goal achieved in good part by legalizing the large-scale deforestation it plans to undertake for soy production and cattle grazing.

Add to this the fact that those pledges don’t take effect for another five years, and it easy to understand why the Paris agreement is going to land a long way short of slowing the advance of the climate crisis.

To be sure, getting governments to make such commitments at all is progress and it took a great deal of effort to get here. But the pledges aren’t nearly enough and there are plenty of false solutions baked into the mix.

When the Paris conference comes to a close, the question will still be the same as it was before: What can we actually do to address the climate crisis in a way that works?

A Reminder in New York

Last year during the giant People’s Climate March in New York City, I was offered a reminder about a fundamental challenge that sits at the heart of the climate crisis. It happened around midday, when I got hungry. Standing near the tail end of the March at Central Park West and 81stStreet, still waiting to move after two hours, I suggested to my friend Carey that we commit a little political sin and escape one block over to Columbus Avenue to see if we could find something to eat. What we found was an avenue shut off to car traffic for almost as many blocks as the climate march and almost as filled with people. In this case, the draw was not saving the planet but a street fair lined with cheap Indian food and foil-wrapped burritos.

If you were in that great sea of climate activists that September day in New York, it was easy to believe that we had brought the nation’s largest city to a standstill; that the whole word was watching. In fact, you could be just a block away eating cheap piroshki and not even know there was a climate march.

Which brings me to my point—the great masses of people on this planet, be they in Brooklyn or Bolivia, are not thinking about climate change or what to do about it. They are living their lives, negotiating daily with a set of choices handed to them by systems and powers they don’t control—about how to get to work, where to get their food, how to make a home, and all the other things we do that have converted humanity into seven billion ants chewing up the planet.

The challenge before us is to change the behavior of billions of people in very deep ways, very fast. We will need to do more than just change people’s consciousness; we also need to fundamentally change the choices and options that surround us. If we want people to move out of cars and into public transit, then public transit needs to be efficient and affordable. If we want poorer nations to stop decimating rainforests for grazing and agricultural land, then we need to help assure that the people living in those forests can sustain themselves there in a dignified way, and that nations can develop without decimating the environment. If we want to get rid of our addiction to fossil fuels, we need to develop other ways to keep the lights on.

The roads for action beyond Paris will be many. Some will steer toward direct action against dirty energy projects, others will aim at promoting personal ways to live more sustainably. But to alter human activity on the vast scale required, one tool will remain essential: using the powers of citizen democracy to change public policy. Our deep disappointments with politics aside, getting governments to take action still remains the indispensible tool for altering both corporate behavior, and humanity’s.

A Global Movement of Local Movements

The deal coming from Paris will be, in the language of the policy wonk, a “soft policy floor.” It will represent the minimum effort we should expect from national governments, and it means that our challenge afterwards will be twofold: to press them to hold to those pledges (to make the floor hard instead of squishy), and to make sure that the floor doesn’t become the ceiling. If we are going to combat the climate crisis in a real way, we will need to fight for more serious action that goes well beyond what Paris promises.

That more serious action is not likely to come from national governments. If anything, their INDC pledges are inflated version of their plans, not understatements. We are going to have to win more aggressive policy action somewhere else, and that is increasingly going to be in our states and our communities, both in the U.S. and beyond. This is where I think we can find some reason for hope.

At the local level, we fall less often into ideological divides and are more likely to see ourselves as neighbors facing a common threat. Look at the political battle in the Pacific Northwest over coal trains, where stalwart climate activists have joined together with wealthy, often Republican, homeowners. Look as well at the Cowboy Indian Alliance, which brought together Native tribes and white ranchers in the recent victory against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Political creativity is still possible at the local level. As communities experiment and demonstrate success with everything from re-municipalizing utilities to alternative transport, ideas move from being quirky and marginal to something broadly accepted and possible to scale up across many communities. Bike-sharing programs, for example, began as radical acts in the Netherlands and France in the 1960s and 70s and have now evolved into systems today in more than 600 cities.

At the local level it also becomes far more possible for young people to take the lead. This is crucial because young people are and must be the backbone of climate action and climate justice campaigns. I know 20-year-olds who have gotten initiatives on the ballot in local elections. That kind of clout takes decades to acquire in national politics.

How can a collection of separate local efforts build anything close to the kind of large-scale, international change required to confront the global climate crisis? The answer is that, in isolation, they can’t. Our challenge will be to build a global movement of connected local movements, so that their impact becomes vastly more than the sum of their separate parts. Regional and local governments across the world—including, notably, the entire West Coast of North America—are already building those collaborations and linkages, through a set of formal agreements. Activist communities must also find similar ways to join forces.

Working together means many things. It means sharing strategies and learning from one another about what it takes to win public support and political action. It means joining together to take on common adversaries, including corporations such as Chevron, Shell, and Glencore (the Swiss mining conglomerate), which do damage not just in one community or one country but many at the same time. It also means taking inspiration from one another. Climate activism is hard, and in the face of a deepening crisis it would be easy for an entire movement to collapse under the weight of pessimism. Our passions, victories, and commitment must be shared in new and powerful ways to keep the movement’s hope solid and alive.

Changing what governments do is about much more than walking the halls of a capitol; it is also about altering the political winds that make change possible. The current wave of political attention today in the U.S. on income inequality, and action on issues such as the minimum wage, owe a good deal to the protests of Occupy Wall Street that forced those issues out of the shadows and squarely onto the political agenda.

More than two millennia ago, Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that most battles are won or lost by the choice of battlefield, long before they are fought. Global summitry, so far removed from regular citizens, was never going to be our place to win solid action, and we should not be surprised by the inadequacies coming out of Paris next month. Our powers lie elsewhere, in our communities especially, and this is where we must take the battle.

Our future will rely not on a single global accord, but on a wide constellation of diverse and creative advances across the world, that we win together, arm in arm, and community by community.