Report (COP 24), Katowice, Poland
By David Simpson
and Jane Lapiner
As the great 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) wound down in mid-December and a fleet of trucks began hauling the dismembered pieces of the of the event’s enormous structures back for storage in Lyon, France, 23,000 government and civil society representatives and the Press began their own long treks home — or at least those whose homes were still in tact.
There is some exaggeration in this suggestion of disasters waiting in the wings, but not so large as one might hope. The last Polish COP, the 19th, in Warsaw in 2013 had been immediately preceded by a series of typhoons, one of which, Haiyan, with record-setting winds gusting up to 235 miles per hour, had destroyed coastal communities in the Philippines. It left over a half million people homeless. A leader of the Philippine delegation that year, a courageous but just then shaken young man named Yeb Sanjo, informed us in a fiery speech at the outset of COP19 that several relatives of his back home were missing or homeless. (Sanjo was not welcomed back to be part of the 2014 Philippine delegation.)
Maybe it had to do with remembering about those huge storms in 2013 just before the COP — and then seeing them in light of the similarly huge weather events that preceded COP24 just last month. Or maybe it was the frigid late-night Polish winter air that so drained us of hope or anything resembling comfort. Walking away from COP 24 with a stone in our heart inevitably brought to mind COP 19 when we left the soccer stadium in Warsaw similarly burdened.
The world — our world — had most definitely not been saved in those two weeks in 2013 just as it had not been saved five years later in Katowice. Yes, there was a grandeur of accomplishment in just bringing representatives from 197 countries together in peaceful dialogue. One of these times, though, some of these high-flying conference-devotees might find themselves going home to ashes and storm debris, victims of a disaster these negotiations were supposed to prevent.
The recent UNFCCC event (United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change) did little to assure citizens from low-lying south Pacific countries or island nations that warming temperatures wouldn’t continue to cause sea-level rise — or that the regular threat of storm surges wouldn’t still hold their homes and homelands hostage. How much did it cost to be so un-reassured? Maybe $160 million for the two week event. How much of that came from the UN? Maybe $40 million? Who paid the rest, the lion’s share? The coal and oil industries — Poland’s and many of Europe’s biggest power producers and/or distributors and financiers — picked up large shares of the cost. What did companies like Polish Oil and Gas (PGNiG) or the Polish Mining Group want in return for their subsidies?
There were over 190 representatives of the coal, oil and gas industry at the UN conference in Katowice for most of the two weeks. If they weren’t part of the actual negotiating teams, they had free discourse with them through numerous venues (open plenary sessions, side events and press conferences) where they could interact with delegates and share ideas.
In other words, the same people who brought us to this desperate point have been granted access to public sector delegates and given the position and quiet power to help carve out the solutions that will best keep their industries alive. Since they, the coal, oil and gas gang, have apparently proven themselves time after time to be far more concerned about profit than the well being of our civilization, how can they be entrusted with yet more access and power in this situation?
To harbor doubts about root causes at this moment when natural and human communities are clearly approaching a perilous threshold may be the worst thing of all — a waste to time. Time, says the IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change), the UN’s own and the world’s largest atmospheric science team, is exactly what we need the most and are least likely to get. Despite some opinion to the effect that climate scientists regularly leap too far and opine too darkly, the real truth seems to be that most have been unwilling to go far or fast enough. The physical realities of climate change seem always to race ahead of even the most well-informed prognosticators.
One of the defining factors in the development of this COP — a thing that made it important over and above its rulemaking responsibility for the Paris agreement—was the constellation of no fewer than four major scientific studies, fumbling over each to be heard. The IPCC statement mentioned above was released in October, before the COP, and gained the most recognition. If, said the report, we don’t cut carbon emissions in half from where they are now, by 2030—TWELVE YEARS OFF—our hope of containing world temperature rises to 1.5 degrees are likely to be lost. Ensuing physical and biological circumstances will draw us perilously closer to the abyss. Given this dark scenario, what is the ‘takeaway’ from the recently concluded United Nations 24th Conference of the Parties in Katowice, Poland?
On the surface things do not look good. As noted earlier, the event was largely sponsored by the Polish and European fossil fuels industries, (and their bankers) especially by coal and gas. Silesia, the region of which Katowice is a part has coal reserves in the ground capable of lasting over another 100 years.
The President of Poland, Andrzjev Duda, stated bluntly before COP24 that his administration intended to exploit the vast Polish coal deposits no matter what the cost in CO2 emissions and despite the impact that such a decision will have on Poland’s “Nationally Determined Contributions” ( NDC’s) as spelled out in The Paris Agreement.
Right now the NDCs are the strategic tool of the UN climate change negotiations. The layman should understand that this is similar to an older central negotiating term, “Common but Differentiated Responsibilities.” (CBDR) They are both voluntary mechanisms. The latter, though, is a working principle; since the rich countries having received the most developmental benefits from the burning of fossil fuel, they should have to pay the most for recovery. The NDCs are the working currency.
France, too, suffers from a conflict over how to meet its climate change commitment. President Macron has proposed a carbon tax. There is radical resistance, though, to any additional toll by the semi-impoverished small city and rural work force expressing itself in the ‘Yellow Vest’ uprising. These economic travails serve as a warning even to well-off countries as to how difficult it might turn out to be to pay their fair share of climate bills accrued on a global scale while maintaining the health of their own economies.
Then there was the US which had the audacity, after Trump’s pronounce-ment last year that he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement in 2020, to show up at Katowice. Apparently their intent was to make trouble or at least slow down the forward thrust of international climate negotiations. In one instance the US team joined with dubious allies, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and actually tried, through a troublesome choice of wording to derail the whole consensus process and discredit the burgeoning scientific bases of fact once again.
Also, the US, in a glaring act of tone deafness, presented a side event on fossil fuel ‘innovations’ featuring a panel of fossil fuel defenders under the lead of Wells Griffith. Griffith is a fresh-faced Alabaman who serves as a special advisor on energy and the environment for the President. He and the other panelists made a stab at justifying the old sham solutions, ‘clean coal’ and carbon ‘Sequestration and Storage’ (CSS). They took a terrible beating from the audience, though, when the crowd marched out of the meeting room early in the discussion laughing derisively at Griffith and company and chanting “Shame! Shame!”
Despite the chicanery and resistance to real progress inherent in all this maneuvering at the COP, there was a great potent wave of upbeat pressure mounting largely among the many young people in attendance—young people like Sweden’s brilliantly articulate Greta Thunberg who were aware that without major intervention from forces not yet in the field, their futures are far from assured.Theirs is a new foundation, a new platform from which to mount our offensive against annihilation. A literal avalanche of very smart, angry teenagers is something the denialists didn’t plan on having to face. The great race at last is actually on and it is going to be led by those with the most to lose, the young.
Finally! We no longer need to be distracted from the real task at hand. That task is no longer proving that climate change is actually happening or isn’t. We need not be further distracted or delayed or at least not on the same level as we have been in the past by the deniers and skeptics. Recent weather events of such a magnitude, such overriding fury, combined with the accumulation of such a vast body of science from such a vast majority of credible earth and atmospheric scientists are all pointing in the same direction.
That direction is unequivocally, undeniably toward a resounding Yes! Yes climate change is here. It is happening! Yes, it is extremely dangerous on a scale we have never before had to imagine. Yes, it is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and other misuse, or overuse, of the natural world by us humans. Yes, we have acted in unexcelled ignorance and in a vacuum of imagination. Yes, it is almost too late to do enough to avoid much more and graver damage. Yes, to have any hope of success it will require action on a scale even more massive and challenging than the New Deal or World War II or the Marshall Plan.
It is crucial, though, that we not let this litany of painful but necessary affirmatives be conclusory. No! It is not, it cannot, simply cannot be too late. The astounding beauty of this planet, the myriad lustrous creatures, the brilliant edifices of our infrastructure, the too-often misguided but overall brilliance of our technologies, the generations surging behind us wanting access to the reduced cargo we’ve left them for their turn, forcing us forward just as they themselves are being forced by our mistakes to evolve; these and the great joy still only available and only sometimes, through the act of being alive. All these insist that it is simply time to act. The race is on.
A closing note: what does this mean for us in Humboldt? Surely we must assume the same burdens of individual responsibility as people and social and economic institutions everywhere. That is clear. Basic thrift is everyone’s responsibility, planetary thrift. This in no way indemnifies our political and economic leaders. Theirs is a huge share of the responsibility for our current predicament. As such, they must put themselves and their careers directly on the line or surrender the stage to the honest and worthy.
We need to field candidates who recognize the centrality of climate change to all our lives and who are not afraid to challenge the power of corporate demigods to countermand the value of the land around us and our labor and creativity.
In terms of our place, this North Coast homeland, the UNFCCC/Paris Agreement, though general and non-binding, indicates the way forward for us. Article 5 of the Treaty of Paris says that “…we should act to conserve and improve the condition of sinks and reservoirs for greenhouse gases, especially forests. Multifunctional and sustainable forest management is the cornerstone for achieving climate neutrality.”
The coastal forests and rangelands of Humboldt and the entire Pacific Northwest form one of the three great forest carbon sinks on the planet. The great Cascadian rainforest at the southern edge of which we sit once grew forests composed of trees of a magnitude reached nowhere else, trees and soils that sequestered more carbon than anywhere else on our planet. Atmospheric, soil and forest scientists tell us that almost 20 % of the carbon we need to take out of the atmosphere to give us hope that civilization might survive can be achieved through restoration and wise management of these forests. Our marching orders are clear; use less, replace non-renewable with renewable sources of energy, share what we have, restore and sustain our forests, fisheries, grasslands and streams. A closing mandate — like Joe Hill’s final word, “Organize!”