Will the Paris agreement deliver?


Freeimages.com/Sven Rohloff

Freeimages.com/Sven Rohloff

On the face of it the Paris summit on Climate Change seems to have been a remarkable success, but already the naysayers are pouring cold water on the celebrations. For some, like James Hansen, the process has been close to fraudulent in its failure to embrace clear strategies for implementation of its goals.

But what is the truth about this process? One way of understanding it is as a ‘System of Trust’.  Every complex act of co-operation among higher animals can be conceived as a system of trust. This includes systems of justice, education, taxation, health care etc. They are all marked out by the need to establish public confidence that they will deliver.

The Paris agreement is interesting because it is an attempt at a wholly new system. Never before have 195 countries come together to try to achieve something so important on such a grand scale. These countries have agreed to a set of goals for the world community in terms of temperature rise and to a protocol for regular revision of each countries pledges, together with monitoring of the progress they are making towards meeting those pledges.

The key question for this, as for every system of trust, is whether the participants in the process can trust the others that they will genuinely work together to meet the agreed goals and, if individual countries fail in that regard, that they will be robustly held to account and forced to reform.

The answer to this question, to some extent, lies in the minds of the conference participants. Did they leave this conference recognising that their own policies needed to change radically and urgently towards a low carbon future or were they relieved to think ‘that’s okay we can go on as we are’.

A similar question hangs over the wider community. Will the fossil fuel industry now recognise that their end is coming and that fossil fuels need to be left in the ground? Will fossil fuel shares trade lower on the market and governments cease to subsidise this industry? These will be the signs of an effective system of trust having been delivered.

The problems with this system of trust may lie in the systems of accountability. The right wing newspapers today ( Dec 14th) are already bemoaning the fact that UK will embrace tough new measures while other countries will fail to deliver. They denounce the agreement as toothless.

At heart the Paris agreement may not be so much an agreement about policies to limit carbon emissions, but an agreement to a process of working together to create and evolve each country’s strategy for delivering on the global goals. If this is understood to be its legacy, then it might indeed be ‘historic’, as so many world leaders have claimed.



Migration and political turmoil – A foretaste of things to come?

The countries at the focus of today’s issues, like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Libya, are all marginal in terms of their capacity to support human civilisation. The climate over much of this region is phenomenally hot and semi-arid and, as Stephen Haber of Stanford University has shown, there are substantial economic reasons why such climates tend to produce authoritarian governments. The structure of an irrigation-based economy necessarily favours larger scale enterprises and a landowning elite, while in more moderate climes, rainfall allows ordinary people to grow and store food, leading to a property owning middle class and pressure to develop mediating institutions.  It is difficult for human beings merely to survive in the climate of this region. Any shift in either climate or politics can lead to civil unrest and terrible hardship.

For example, the current litany of migration, terrorism and political instability may be partly caused by the Syrian drought of 2007 -2010 with its consequent mass migration into cities and the ensuing political instability known as the Arab Spring. As climate change develops across the earth, we can expect this pattern to repeat itself in such marginal regions. Climate change can no longer be treated as an isolated ‘climate’ problem. It will affect every aspect of our civilisation.

For a longer referenced version of this post go here

Is this the real globalisation?

globalisationWe are used to receiving goods from all over the world. Many people now take for granted the ability to travel all around the world for their holidays. Yet it may be only now that the real globalisation is taking root.

The current refugee crisis in Europe is forcing us into a new awareness of people from other countries. These are not our conventional tourist observations or the superficial delight in some exotic product. They are about feelings for our common humanity. The sight of desperate families setting out on the most dangerous journey of their lives elicits our compassion. The terrible picture of the drowned little boy on the beach moves us to tears. And our feelings begin to shape public policy. They force new political settlements. They challenge disengaged policy makers. And so something new emerges.

The plight of refugees also places a spotlight on our own foreign affairs. Suddenly our decisions to bomb or to invade other countries are seen in the context of their true complexity. We are chastened by news of our own people going out to fight and confused by governments working abroad with drones and using kill lists, executing our own people without any semblance of due process.

It is one of the commitments expressed in this blog that we should ‘feel our way’ in the world. There are too many dispassionate commentators, there is too much bureaucracy and there is too little recognition that true human progress comes from enhancing our empathic reach. If we come to appreciate a set of previously estranged human beings as fully human like ourselves then that is real progress.



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