Marrakesh (COP 22) 2016
Report #1, So Much to Lose

David Simpson and Jane Lapiner traveled to Marrakech, Morocco from their home in Petrolia, California last week to attend and report on the United Nations climate summit.  

Report #1
November 12, 2016
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner

So Much to Lose

The BBC weather woman, with an outline of almost the whole Mediterranean region on the wall just behind her, was conventionally brisk and unbothered by the forecast she was making. She had chalked in a series of curlicues on the board behind her that represented storm cells ranging unabated in a long line running from the Holy Land to Gibraltar and then off to the west to spend the last fits of anger over the Atlantic. As if to affirm the obvious connection, between the virtual and hard-nosed reality, the night’s sky outside of our windows–the real sky–was riven over and over by complex, jagged thrusts of lightening followed by the inevitable claps of thunder. Rain came down in sheets and the night, taken as a piece, had become a tempest, filled perhaps with portents and threats of dangerous shoals ahead for the beleaguered mariner that is our civilization.

By the time the tens of thousands of delegates, observers and press representatives had arrived in Marrakech at the United Nations’ 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP 22) on Monday morning, November 7th, the storm had reduced itself first to steady light rain and then to gentle showers. The field at Bab Ighli, the ‘Italian Gate’ (the walled city of Marrakech was built in the late 11th century around seven gates) where the event was housed in a long series of barnlike translucent portable buildings, had been turned in many places to mud which made Humboldt travellers like us feel quite at home.

The politics of the COP were, if one can say this about any aspect of the UN mechanisms set up to deal with climate change, clear. It is basically a year after the legendary COP 21 in Paris where a treaty had been negotiated and loosely accepted with a great self-congratulatory outburst from the assembled participants. The treaty was to be put into force one month after a minimum of 55 (of 193) nations, who collectively accounted for 55% or more of the annual contribution of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, formally submitted their papers of ratification.

Only a few weeks before the conference, two giants in the game, the United States and China, submitted their papers and brought the initial process to a conclusion. The Paris Treaty was to achieve ratification a month after the basic terms were met. The end of the month waiting period was November 4th, three days before the COP was to open. And today (Tuesday the 8th of November) Japan signed on, bringing the ratification total to 101 countries. Though the Treaty of Paris is not in truth legally binding, there is substantial moral force behind it: no country wants to be perceived at this stage as a climate slacker.

The relative rapidity, by some reckoning, with which the treaty was ratified offered cause for optimism, albeit guarded given a history of a rather craven lack of ambition in these processes. Also weighing on the side of optimism, though, was the general attitude toward this COP. It’s been called, variously, the ‘Action’ COP or the ‘Implementation’ COP because of how it has been set up.

The “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC’s) which each country participating in the Paris Treaty was asked to submit were hereafter expected to act without the ‘intended’ claim and become full-on commitments to accomplish specific emissions reduction, adaptation and technology transfer projects. ‘Technology transfer” is the catchphrase used to describe the bestowing by developed countries of clean technologies on developing countries that urgently need them in order to safely develop.

Imagine, the possibility, though still distant, of making real plans followed by real work accomplishing real emissions reductions rather than more of the labyrinthine acronym-basted, uber-legalistic language-making that composed the vast bulk of the work of previous COP’s. Perhaps some important things are on the verge of getting done. Was Caesar busy inventing acronyms while Rome burned?

A third reason for guarded optimism, though of a twisted sort, bears on another title often used to describe COP 22–the ‘African’ COP. Morocco, after all, is a part of that great continent, though its culture at least in places seems to be somewhat weighted toward the Mediterranean and perhaps could count Spain and France as equally important influences as, let’s say, the Berber or the Tuareg.

Africa has come to be considered the heart of the most massive collective social problem faced by the nations of the world—economic inequality through unequal access to energy for development. The 54 nations of Africa count among themselves several of the world’s poorest. With the total human population on the continent approaching one and a third billion, and massive drought encroaching ever deeper into cropland and pasture, climate disaster on a previously unequaled scale threatens much of the continent. Well over half the human population has no source of power and children cannot go to school because they have no light at night to study by. The challenge for civilization–expressing itself through the UN climate directorate–is to provide the energy- starved with the possibility of decent lives without increasing atmospheric pollution beyond the irretrievable. So it is time to tackle the dual issue of poverty and pollution at last. This is the opportunity of the ‘African’ COP.

It is important, though, to remember the UNFCCC’s long history of obfuscation, foot-dragging and just plain procrastination, largely, it seems, in defense of the wealthy economies, has wasted almost 30 precious years of opportunity to fully challenge climate change. The wealthy nations of the world have not yet been willing to fully face the fact that their wealth has been bought at the expense of the poor and that there is a debt owed upon which, interestingly enough, the salvation of civilization now depends.

So INDC’s become NDC’s and the Treaty of Paris becomes the African COP. A problem with this setup is that the NDC’s will not become actional until 2020. Even then the total effect, at their current level of commitment, will doom the world to average temperature rises of between 2.9 and 3.4 degrees C above 1870 levels. Most scientists feel that even 2 degrees rise is too much and that 1.5 degrees-after Paris, the preferred target but maybe no longer even in reach–is about as high as we could have afforded to go without intolerable consequences to our civilization. Many are asking why, in this circumstance, are we waiting four more years before we jack up our expectations of the NDC’s in order that the odds for our survival are actually increased.

The long day that started in a tempest has come to a close now. At home, the elections are underway. By the time this essay reaches the public eye, the US will have a new President. Here, some people tease us about Trump. Others politely express bewilderment and frustration. Given his statements on the issue of climate change, a Trump victory could provoke a different sort of tempest or at least greatly complicate the already far-too complicated road map forward.

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