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The COP21 Deal Will (Probably) Go Through Tomorrow, Leaving Tough Work for Activists

Yesterday, the ministers pulled an all-nighter with Laurent Fabius to produce the penultimate draft of a climate agreement. Resigned to a toothless deal, activists plan their next steps.
kerry fabius

Secretary of State John Kerry with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the Paris climate talks, December 9, 2015. (Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly before traveling to Paris for this year’s climate talks, 24-year-old Jeremy Pivor finished a round of treatment for an inoperable and recurring brain tumor. Diagnosed at 12, Pivor had the tumor removed the following year. In late 2014, MRI scans revealed that tumor growth had begun once more, in the same place. His last round of chemo came less than two weeks before the start of COP21.

On Friday morning at the climate talks, delegates from the American youth-advocacy group SustainUS held a panel that indicted the United States for its failure to budge on a variety of key issues in the closing hours of this year’s conference. Pivor appeared on the panel and took a moment between policy observations to make this simple statement: “I have a brain tumor, and I’m more scared of climate change than I am of that.”

The line was not in any way theatrical. It bore no trace of emotion. Pivor proceeded quickly to what he called “real” problems, and the panel continued its discussion of climate crimes being perpetrated stateside.

You can read Pivor’s personal story on his website, which is good because you won’t hear much about it from him—he’s far more interested in talking about the work of SustainUS. And he’s especially interested in talking about what the world will look like in 50 years, when his generation will still be alive, and the ministers who hold the keys to this crucial agreement will be dead.

That frankness and unassuming courage is something of a tonic on an otherwise dismal day. The penultimate draft was released Friday morning after an all-night session of the ministers, which French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius dubbed an indaba—the Zulu word for an important meeting between a chief and his deputies. The ministers worked from 11:30 p.m. until 5:30 a.m. CET.

Upon reading the draft this morning, many observers, especially civil-society advocates, were livid.

Fabius has said that, by Saturday, ministers will be popping champagne to celebrate a new, bold climate deal. Other bottles will pop in corporate boardrooms across America.

“The text when we got it this morning was very, very disturbing,” says Lidy Nacpil, coordinator of the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development. Chief among her concerns is the denial of historical responsibility on the part of the U.S., the European Union, and various other northern, high-emitting countries. Finance clauses remain non-binding, or largely volitional. Human rights, and the rights of indigenous people, are recognized in a similarly vague and unsatisfactory way. We’re moving toward a deal that young people like Pivor are right to be scared about.

Who’s to blame? There is no single answer. The U.S. and the E.U. have introduced an “exclusion clause” against liability and compensation. Japan and New Zealand joined the U.S. and the E.U. in opposing anything binding on finance. India has effectively weakened legal rigor around the so-called “ratchet mechanism”—a shared commitment by all parties to re-assess their climate commitments every five years while aggressively accelerating green infrastructure and phasing out coal, oil, and gas. China happily ceded to India on weakening of the ratchet mechanism. Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Russia have pushed the 1.5-degree limit into language that is aspirational rather than contractual. Most of the language on human rights was stripped wholesale from Article II.

All of these developments fall into a pattern that is unsettlingly familiar to long-time observers.

“We spend the first part of these negotiations adding concerns and red-lines from the global south back into the agreement, and ensuring the agreement will deliver for the people of the world who need it,” says Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, an associate research director at Corporate Accountability International. “Then we spend rest of the time not being able to see what happens behind closed doors.”

That lack of transparency creates, as Lawrence-Samuel says, a “chasm between the rhetoric and the actual American position.”

Americans are taking much of the flak from advocacy groups, and with good reason: Though the French are running the conference, President Obama had positioned the U.S. to lead it, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s high profile in the second week of talks makes America a prominent scapegoat.

There’s also widespread fatigue, among observers, advocates, and reporters alike, over the traditional refrain that India is holding back the talks.

“We need other sides to move for India to move as well,” Liz Gallagher, program leader at E3G, told reporters this afternoon.

But there’s another, very specific reason that delegates are worried about America, and most people have avoided talking about it until today: the industry of climate denialism within the GOP, and especially the recent doings of Republican representatives in Congress. People in Paris have been watching closely during this week’s threatened government shutdown, and their suspicions gained traction with Republicans’ insistence on defunding Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Religious leaders here in Paris are especially outraged at the intransigence of American Evangelical politicians on the subject of climate change. During a Friday afternoon panel, the Reverend Canon Sally Bingham, president and founder of InterFaith Power and Light, said that Christian environmentalists in the States were already preparing to mobilize.

“If we have to sit outside the doors of our legislators, that is what we'll do,” Bingham said.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, expressed confidence that the CPP would not be dismantled by the Republicans in Congress.

“There are bipartisan members in both houses who stood up and said we will support the president’s plans,” Karpinski told reporters. “That deal is gonna go forward.”

Lawrence-Samuel referred to Citizens United v. Holder in her censure of the U.S. “Many blame American negotiators,” she said, “and they should—but it goes much deeper. The lack of campaign-finance restrictions in the U.S. has turned America into an extension of the fossil-fuel lobby.” Lawrence-Samuel added that companies such as Exxon were “really driving the negotiating position in these talks,” preventing the U.S. from backing any kind of robust agreement.

Fabius has said that, by Saturday, ministers will be popping champagne to celebrate a new, bold climate deal. Other bottles will pop in corporate boardrooms across America and the world.

There’s a growing sense among civil-society organizations that the real work begins when they return home, with Pivor carrying his eloquent message across the States and Bingham pitching her tent outside the office of (say) Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe.

Perhaps they’re right. On Thursday, Bill McKibben told Pacific Standard that climate progress must come from the bottom up. "The real task for activists is to change the zeitgeist,” he said. “It usually doesn't work the other way 'round."


"Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change" is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.