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.