December 5, 2014
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner
Maybe it’s the Lima weather, extremely temperate and soft, just four degrees from the equator nearing the summer solstice here and it’s warm, yes, but pleasantly so, well below 30 degrees C at the peak of the day. Or maybe its just that the gravest threat humanity has faced is barreling typhoon-like toward all of us and we are scattered, disorganized and very distant from being ready to face it. Whatever the cause, there are potent forces running in a vastly complex stream just beneath the surface here at the UN climate event (COP 20) that makes the head spin and the heart race.
These conferences have been regularly co-opted by large industrial and commercial interests, modifying and tempering every final product in order to minimize the costs to the economies of developed countries. This, in turn, leaves the leadership in developing countries steaming in frustration.
The concept of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) emerged early in the UNFCC process to indicate that wealthier countries, which have enjoyed the benefits of fossil fuel-driven development, owe a greater obligation to the process of mitigating climate change than the poorer countries. To these—the developing countries—CBDR is the basis of fairness in negotiations. The developed countries, like the US, act as if someone they don’t trust has a hand in their pockets. This is a basic conflict running throughout the UNFCC process.
This event in Lima has every indication of following precedent. The problem for the forces of placation, though, is that the evidence by now is so overwhelming and the science proven so accurate, what good reason for resisting decisive action can there be? Every time the forces in support of the status quo seem to be again ascendant, some new source of scientific or technical authority, a powerful study, a new metric or prognostication sweeps in the door and tumbles the neatly spaced pins.
Here are just a few major ground shifters related to COP 20 that help bring the message home.
—Earlier this week, the Financial Times announced that the venerable Bank of England is launching an internal investigation into whether the fossil fuel industry is a threat to the world economy. The implications of this could be enormous both in terms of market reaction, investment and disinvestment strategies. Volatility is one part of the problem. The prices of some fossil fuels are currently in such rapid decline that their market value could fall beneath production costs. These costlier fuels include Venezuelan dark crude and, glory be, Athabaskan tar sands. Other aspects of any such investigation might relate to externalities—the costs of pollution to society that are not accounted for in the commercial transactions. Especially compelling to the bank investigation is the newly established surmise that in order to keep world temperatures from soaring way beyond the liveable, over 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground
—Another oil note; an outfit called Oil Change held a press conference today in Lima in which a painful contradiction was pointed out. In the past few weeks, the nations with the world’s largest economies announced that a total of 10 billion dollars will be donated to the UN’s Global Climate Fund. The Fund supports projects that mitigate carbon emissions and help the poorer countries hurt by climate change adapt. In the past year, those same countries subsidized the coal, oil and gas industries to search for new reserves to the tune of $29 billion. This means that at a time when we are fighting the dire impacts of burning fossil fuel and it has become clear that we need to let reserves stay in the ground, we are heavily subsidizing the oil companies to find more. A spokesperson for Oil Change said that it was like “trying to shovel your way out of a deep hole while someone with a bigger shovel keeps filling it in”
—One of Europe’s largest power sellers, E.ON, based in Dusseldorf, Germany, just announced that it is shifting to non-carbon, non-nuclear sources of fuel altogether.
—It seems that for the fourth time, the Philippines is going to endure a major typhoon during, just before or just after the annual COP. Last year the worst typhoon, Haiyan, struck three days before COP 19. The year before that, Bopha struck during the middle of COP 18 and the year before that, Endog terrorized the Philippines the week after the COP. This year, it’s Ruby. These are extremely costly punctuations (Haiyan caused thousands of deaths and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. It forced the UNFCCC to adopt a new sub-category for climate-related intervention, “Loss and Damages”. Little money has gone into it to date.)
The typhoon stands as a telling example of the vicious injustices involved in climate change. The people in the Philippines did not overload the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that intensify storms. Nor did they reap the developmental benefits from that loading that could have given them the wherewithal to protect their homes and families from the severity of such storms. Their helplessness should be on the hearts and minds of the well-off and comfortable, the beneficiaries of fossil-fuel based development. Instead, their reactions are, in a word, stingy.
Over 170 coal burning plants in the US have closed down since 2010. According to Michael Dorsey, a Sierra Club Director in attendance in Lima, that number will reach 344 within three more years. The City of Los Angeles and Southern California Edison have recently decided to buy no more power produced from burning coal and are studying the possibility of replacing coal directly with renewables instead of opting for an interim stage based on natural gas.
So the first week of the penultimate climate summit draws to a close. It would be foolhardy at this stage to be optimistic that an ambitious piece of work will emerge from the deliberations. It is not considered likely by the more effective climate negotiation handicappers that the ADP committee (Ad hoc Committee on the Durban Platform) will step very far outside parameters of risk that have bound the COPs in the past. That committee is enjoined to help establish the ground rules for COP 21 in Paris when a new set of emissions reductions targets and other elements of climate change response will be agreed upon. These INDC’s (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) are what countries will ultimately commit to in Paris.) Those who wish to “financialize” climate change response and take profit from it still have a very powerful hold not just on the economics governing renewables but, more telling, on our imaginations. Enough of us have to be able, first and foremost, to imagine the coming age. We need to do it in detail and then make those details reality. It’s a bottom up kind of deal, really, and we are all “interested parties”. It’s what keeps the ground shifting.
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