LIMA—Tony La Viña blinks when I ask him about the world his children will live in. As a veteran negotiator of 17 of the 20 global summits on climate change, Tony knows that his native Philippines is running out of time: that typhoons like Hagupit, which battered the archipelago mere days ago, will return more frequently and with a greater vengeance; that it is probable that his favorite island, Camiguin, will disappear under the sea before the end of the century, together with parts of Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia; and that what unites us is that we live in some of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, where there is no more time to lose than a blink of doubt.
The urgency is clear in the step of the thousands of delegates in this climatic Tower of Babel, winding through in no apparent order or coordination, in a diplomatic dance impenetrable to the uninitiated. In a whirl of photographers, Ollanta Humala passes, on his way to a panel with presidents from Colombia, Mexico, and Chile. In contrast to their weak domestic environmental policies, they make laudable announcements regarding contributions to the Green Fund, which will finance mitigation and adaptation programs around the world. Evo Morales follows, in another swarm of flashes, to give a heated speech rightly criticizing rich countries, but conveniently forgetting the blame that falls on countries such as ours: gas, coal, and oil producers. John Kerry’s arrival is announced, and he is armed with the recent emissions agreement with China, and willing to risk what remains of his government to compensate somehow for the inexcusable responsibility of the United States for the two-decade delay in reaching a functioning global agreement.
Two degrees and six extinctions
The Filipino La Viña arrives with the same hope, leading a group of vulnerable countries, with the unassailable argument of the last typhoon, the memory of his countryman Naderev Saño’s speech to the plenary during the climate summit in Warsaw last year still fresh, as he cried for the more than 6,000 victims of Typhoon Haiyan. But Tony knows that the agreement that is being hastily prepared here to be presented in Paris in 2015 is too little too late, to avoid two critical numbers: two degrees and the sixth extinction.
The degrees centigrade correspond to the warming of the planet, compared to the temperature at the beginning of the industrial era, which scientists and the international community set as a tolerable upper limit in 2009 in Copenhagen. The sixth extinctions is that of thousands of species due to climate change: coral turning into inert sponges because of the acidification of the oceans, amphibians dying around the globe. It would be the first cataclysm caused by a living species, comparable to the meteoroid that caused the fifth extinction and ended the era of the dinosaurs. Should we usher in such a disaster, our species would definitively earn the name of the present age, the Anthropocene, as Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her excellent book The Sixth Extinction.
Addicted to coal
Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Group on Climate Change show that unless we achieve drastic carbon emission reductions in the short term, humanity will pass one of these thresholds in the following decades, probably in the second half of the century.
It is now clear that these drastic cuts will not result from the negotiations in Lima and Paris. Although they are a notable improvement, the reductions promised by the United States and China, in addition to those that the rest of the 194 countries should be announcing in the following months, will be far from those scientists have recommended.
As with every addiction, the human addition to fossil fuels requires measures that are already available, but which governments, companies, and citizens refuse to take. We would need to leave a large part of the oil and coal underground, rather than burning it, but many countries have put their future economic hopes on these resources, while mining and energy companies lobby against addressing climate change. Ending investment in these companies, which Rockefeller and Stanford have done, urged by student movements and organizations like 350.org, would help. We need to provide incentives for clean energy, as Germany and Uruguay have done, as well as several pioneering cities and companies. We need to accelerate programs against deforestation and land titling for the indigenous people who mitigate deforestation, programs which governments like Norway are financing.
The possible agreement
A global agreement, one which will not be the result of this summit, would facilitate all of this: one that imposes strict emissions reduction requirements on all countries, proportionate to their level of development and contribution to the pollution, reflected in the demands of the thousands of people who marched through the streets of Lima on Wednesday and in New York during the UN General Assembly in September.
But this type of an agreement is impossible, for both good and bad reasons. The good is that treaties can no longer be a consensus between powerful countries, for the simple reason that the United States and Europe no longer have the power to impose an agreement of that size on the rest of the world. Much less so regarding an issue such as climate change, which ignores national borders and cannot be addressed without the commitment of emerging powers, such as China, India, and Brazil, which compete with the established powers not only in economic growth, but also in carbon emissions. This is where the cacophony of the summit and the palpable chaos of the negotiations, which need the consensus of all 196 countries, stems.
The bad reasons are already known: the lobby of industries that benefit from climate change, and that of countries such as Venezuela or Saudi Arabia; the corporate capture by energy companies of the republicans who control the United States’ Congress, which would have to pass the treaty; the contradictions of Andean countries and others, which have a good proposal and an even better negotiating team, but who protect their finances that depend on extractive industries.
This is why the proposed agreement is more of a multicolor mosaic than a classic treaty of only one piece. Rather than tying themselves to a level of reductions established in the treaty, each country commits to publically announcing their own goals, which would then be monitored by the international community. This is what jurists call “soft law:” voluntary norms whose violation does not lead to sanctions from an international tribunal, but rather become reference points for citizens, media, and other countries to demand compliance.
The next generation
It is easy to leave Lima with a feeling of failure. I told La Viña that a handful of soft laws seems insignificant compared to the calamitous prospect of climate change. But he, the irredeemable optimist that has survived two decades of failed negotiations, reminds me that never before have governments committed to proposing and publishing precise goals regarding emission reductions. And that when they do, the initiative no longer belongs only to States, but also to communities, social organizations, companies, media, and citizens, who can pressure their governments to meet these goals, and even promote their own projects that contribute to them.
He is right: there is hope, and much to do. But when we say goodbye, I wonder what I would do if I had children and was asked about the world that awaited them when they reach my age. I would follow the example of Ralph Keeling, the world leading scientist in atmospheric carbon measures. “When I go out with my children,” he said, “I remind them that the things they see could be extinct by the time they grow up. I tell them to enjoy these forests before they disappear… That they notice and appreciate what we have, and that they say goodbye.”
*Founding member of Dejusticia and El Espectador columnist. @CesaRodriGaravi
This article was published in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador
Photo credit: Delta Electronics Foundation