The Paris Climate Conference: What love will do

First published in The Friend, 18th December 2015

Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel. (William Penn, 1693; Qfp 24.03)

It’s that time of year again. Negotiators are heading home from the twenty first annual Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, after two weeks of working through the night. This was their fifth gathering this year, and they have been working towards this particular agreement for four years. The closing plenary was moving to watch, with delegates in tears, with hugs, kisses and extended standing ovations.

The outcome has been widely greeted as a turning point. In aspiration it goes far beyond expectations. At the beginning of 2015, we seemed on track for a 4°C global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of dire implications for life on Earth.

The new agreement states that its aim is to strengthen the global response to climate change by holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C.

It has something for nearly everyone. It pays attention to concerns for human rights and equity, to the need for sustainable lifestyles. There are processes to increase financial support from developed to developing nations and address the issue of ‘loss and damage’ due to climate change. But – as many delegates observed – the agreement is weak on specific commitments. It relies on ‘nationally determined contributions’ – essentially voluntary commitments to emission cuts, targets, policies, financial contributions and actions. One country, Nicaragua, said it would not sign the agreement because it is inadequate and will not achieve its stated aim.

Some scientists have expressed deep disappointment about the disconnect between the 1.5°C aspiration and the emission reduction pathway signalled by the agreement. It commits countries ‘to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century’.

The COP decision asks the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a new report by 2018 looking specifically at 1.5°C pathways. The IPCC Fifth Assessment, published last year, paid minimal attention to such pathways. Probably nobody thought they were seriously possible. The focus was on assessing whether a 2°C limit was feasible and what it might entail. However we can have some idea of what the new report might say. To have a good chance of limiting warming to 2°C we should phase out fossil fuels globally by 2050. To stay below 1.5°C we need deep cuts immediately, phasing out fossil fuels by perhaps 2030.

Achieving the aim of the Paris Agreement would take nothing less than a global transformation – in technology, finance, power relations, industries and lifestyles. For most people this is unimaginable. Yet it may not be so difficult. British carbon emissions per capita fell thirty percent in the last ten years. While our government currently seems to be doing its best to stop the transformation, it has begun here and most people have hardly noticed.

What really matters is not the wording of this agreement but the process by which it was achieved. The French presidency of the COP showed phenomenal leadership in transforming relationships among negotiators from the bitterness and distrust expressed a year ago to the loving fellowship displayed in Paris. It was a feat of community-building that involved a huge amount of careful listening and facilitating dialogue in small groups. And there were willing participants – perhaps most significantly in the efforts of China and the United States to co-operate and to set out their own national plans of action.

The global climate regime is voluntary. The new agreement provides for any party to withdraw from it at will. There is no provision for sanctions or force against parties that do not meet their commitments. So change will only happen when enough people – including key players in government and business – want it. The amazing thing is that transformations of relationships, of the human will, of behaviour, happen very quickly.

The COP decision explicitly states that the provisions on loss and damage do not constitute a basis for legal liability or compensation. This was necessary for some developed countries to agree. But as Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace said at a press conference, litigation is already happening. He cited a Philippines case against fifteen fossil fuel companies. ‘The struggle continues tomorrow’ and civil society ‘will be finding creative ways of resistance’.

The real challenge with a community is to maintain it, to cope with the tensions and struggles that emerge, especially when the going gets tough. Old wounds and resentments are still there beneath the surface. I do not believe there is much difference in this between the United Nations and a local Quaker meeting. My own experience is that sustaining community takes a lot of work. It helps a lot to have experienced people on hand, supporting participants to see things from each other’s point of view. It can be really hard to speak the truth, but when we don’t, relationships harden or unravel. Community depends on a willingness to listen, to love, to forgive. And above all, it requires a willingness to change ourselves.

What has happened in Paris is a microcosm of the community building that needs to happen everywhere, in organisations, neighbourhoods, cities, countries. The action needs to come from all of us. That means changing our lifestyles, our patterns of work and of relationships. It means fossil fuel companies undergoing their own transformation to leave carbon in the ground and find new business models.  It means elites finding a new power base – perhaps deriving kudos from generosity and pursuing the well-being of humanity, rather than their own bank balances.

Midwinter may be a good time to stop, reflect and listen for the Leadings of the Spirit. What are we called to do? What am I called to do? What gifts am I going to offer the world at this special time?

Your gifts may be practical. Could you move towards a vegan diet, reorganise your life to cut down on car and air travel, or install a wood stove and use less gas?

Perhaps you are a communicator. Can you befriend your MP and share your sense of urgency about climate change? Or maybe it’s time to write that short story, song or poem, or paint that picture.

You might be called to take direct action, to challenge, to expose the truth. Can you do so and sustain love and forgiveness, rejoicing in that of God even in those you are challenging?

Or perhaps your gift is to help build community and heal relationships, in your Quaker meeting, your family, your neighbourhood or workplace.

In the closing plenary of the COP, the United States delegate spoke about entrepreneurial innovation. The South African delegate quoted Nelson Mandela and the Indian delegate mentioned Gandhi. Each of us has something special to bring. Many of the delegates mentioned faith groups as part of the effort and support that made the agreement possible.

Paris represents a huge step forward in community building, globally, to be able to address climate change. We can only greet it as a moment of joy.

6 thoughts on “The Paris Climate Conference: What love will do”

  1. I absolutely love this. It so speaks to my condition, and reaches out to everyone (even artists get a mention, for which many thanks!) We are currently planning an exhibition of the work of Quakers in Oxford for May next year, which will be entitled something like “Could the change be beautiful?”
    We will also be giving love the best chance we can…..

  2. A good article! Life seems to me to be constant change. Some events, circumstances pull us down, others lift us up. Discernment of which does which is the beginning of a new life. I like: “Community depends on a willingness to listen, to love, to forgive. And above all, it requires a willingness to change ourselves.”

  3. Thank you Laurie, for this heartful view of the COP. A huge amount was achieved, and as you say it is as much the process as the substance, although both are interwoven.

    When you say ‘some scientists’ have expressed deep disappointment, I think this slightly diminishes the impact of comments by some of the most respected climate scientists like Kevin Anderson or Jim Hanson. We still have a crisis, and an almost unimaginable challenge.

    I would also just say that your comment about UK emissions seems to me misleading. The reason our emissions appear to be falling is a combination of the ‘dash to gas’ for electricity generation, moving offshore (to China etc) much of our consumer product manufacturing and the very dubious practice of converting some of our coal fire power stations to biomass. The reality is that taking this into account our emissions are rising still. The other reality check is domestic use of woodburning stoves, which is not an answer, unless maybe you live in a rural location and have access to otherwise waste wood. In urban locations, woodstoves add to dangerous carcinogenic pollution and in effect start to reverse all of the progress we have made in improving our urban air quality. Burning wood does not necessarily help at all, and in fact can in some circumstances have a greater CO2 impact than burning coal.

    I heard Naomi Klein speaking in Paris, and while I don’t completely agree with her views, what she pointed out (as George Monbiot has) is that everything at COP and elsewhere is about the demand side, but we do less about the supply side (and the COP says almost nothing about the fossil fuel industry). However we can together do something about that, which is why the divestment movement is so important. The other thing Naomi talked (and talks) about was people power (‘blockadia’). This struggle to retain a habitable planet will need all of us to be part of the solution. The politicians and diplomats cannot deliver the solutions without a huge mandate, and even then we have the challenge of huge vested interests which need our direct action of all types as well.

    Naomi Klein is right in that climate change changes everything. We all live on the same planet, so we are all as human beings one family. We have to find solutions together, and perhaps in that we can also increase our humanity.

    1. Thanks for this, Chris. I did hesitate about including the bit about falling UK emissions without a caveat about increasing emissions embodied in trade. However I think fuel switching (certainly to renewable/renewed biomass – gas is more questionable) IS part of the necessary transformation – that is what supply side change looks like!

      Having said that, according to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics, wood use for energy is currently at about 2.1 Mtoe = 88 PJ. If that’s true (I’d guess it’s an underestimate) it would displace fossil fuels producing something like 7Mt CO2, which is about 1.5% of the UK total from inland fossil fuel burning. Of course there are issues about where the wood comes from. Shipping 3000 miles (from eastern USA) and trucking 200 miles would result in about 1-2GJ oil use per tonne of wood – and about 10% of the emissions displaced by using sustainably grown wood instead of fossil fuels.

      Buying logs from woodland management within 10 miles of my home probably results in about 2-3 litres of diesel/petrol being burned per cubic metre of wood for chainsaws and transport – about 1% of the emissions displaced. But of course there isn’t enough sustainably produced wood for very many of us to do this. Personally, I would like to see a lot of UK land switched from pasture to forestry.

  4. Laurie, I don’t want to get bogged down in the biomass issue, as the core of your piece was so much wider. However, I think there is so much misunderstanding about burning biomass that I always veer towards arguing against it. We have individuals in good faith putting in woodstoves in urban settings, and buying woodpellets from abroad, and the Government subsidising Drax to convert to more and more biomass. Biomass will be part of the solution, but only if applied intelligently as part of a much much bigger response. I was particularly fascinated by this article that I came across yesterday:

  5. Hopefully innovation and imagination can help us have fun while saving energy. Getting bogged down in the technical details of which solution works best is sad when we know that what feels right is right.

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