Taking Climate Action to the Next Level: Reflections by UN Climate Chief

By: Kennedy Graham, MP (New Zealand)

As the ink dries on the Paris Agreement concluded in December, the significance of the event is now being weighed up.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are extremes in views.  At one and the same time, it is an ‘historic moment of hope for humanity’; it goes ‘nowhere near far enough’; and it is even a ‘fraud’.  

Which is correct?  It depends where you are coming from.  

For Christiana Figuerres, Executive Director of UNFCC who, perhaps more than anyone, has shouldered responsibility for global climate policy in recent times, the Paris Agreement was an historic moment. Speaking at two public events recently, Figuerres allowed herself some reflection. The Agreement, she says, “establishes a new model of 21st century diplomacy”. After two decades of meandering, the negotiating countries have ‘discovered their higher purpose’, and risen to the challenge of dealing with climate change.

Paris sets a new standard for dealing with complex global problems. “Climate change is a very, very good example of how we are moving to a completely new social contract from the last century”. The social contract that is going to underpin the 21st century has “very different ways of dealing with challenges and very different ways of delivering solutions”.  

The essential difference is that the Paris negotiations involved governments, business leaders and campaign groups.  It is the ‘new model for diplomacy’ and “it is the way we are going to operate increasingly in the 21st century”, she says.  

The essential difference is that the Agreement abandoned the idea of a traditional international treaty with clear rules and fixed obligations.  This was necessary to accommodate the United States whose Senate would not ratify such a traditional deal.  Instead, the Agreement relies on countries to come forward with plans for cutting emissions and then review those plans at regular intervals to make ‘even deeper cuts’.

This perception is shared by leading US international lawyer, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who has written: “By the standards of a traditional treaty, it falls woefully short.  Yet its deficits in this regard are its greatest strengths as a model for effective global governance in the 21st century. The Paris Agreement is a sprawling, rolling, overlapping set of national commitments brought about by a broad conglomeration of parties and stakeholders.  It is not law.  It is a bold move towards public problem-solving on a global scale. And it is the only approach that could work.”  

The opposite view is offered by reputed US scientist, James Hansen. It is, he says, ‘a fraud rally, a fake’.  “For them to say, we’ll have a 2°C warming target and then try to do a little better every 5 years, it’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.” Hansen calls for a carbon fee of US$15, rising $10 per annum.  Failing effective action, “it will become a question whether global governance will break down”. Yet, “I think we shall get there, because China is rational”.

It is the scientist in him: scientists, he says, are trained to be objective. “I don‘t think we should be prevented from talking about the implications of science. … It’s all embarrassing, really.  As a scientist, you realise after a while that politicians are not rational.”

One politician who is prepared to at least go for broke is US presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.  Sanders criticises the Paris Agreement for going ‘nowhere far enough’, and he proposes a carbon fee starting at US15 in 2017.  Whether that meets Hansen’s definition of rationality is a moot point.  The figures are the same.  But whether that advances Sanders’ political prospects of power, or not, is debateable.  That is the ‘rational’ dilemma for any politician, including Greens around the world. At what proximity to ‘scientific rationality’ (i.e. what is required to save the planet’) does one accept while remaining within the perimeter of ‘political rationality’ (i.e. attaining power to implement the strongest possible policy consistent with the science)?

US lead negotiator, John Kerry, takes the political view: “I have great respect for Jim Hansen. … I understand the criticisms of the Agreement, because it doesn’t have a mandatory scheme and it doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism.  But we have 186 countries, for the first time in history, all submitting independent plans they have laid down, which are for real, for reducing emissions”.  

The heads of two leading scientific / academic centres (Schellnhüber, Potsdam, and Rockstrom, Stockholm) have estimated that the 2°C target requires carbon neutrality by 2070 and 1.5°C requires it by 2050 (with the developed countries by 2030).

What to make of this?  In fact, all of the above are correct.  The Paris Agreement was a remarkable diplomatic achievement; an historic breakthrough in the sense of getting the international community of states to begin to act as a global community. That much we can be pleased about; far better than a second Copenhagen-style failure. But it is merely a precondition of attaining success.  

It may well prove to be the ‘diplomatic model’ of the future, the new social contract of the 21st century.  In mid-20th century, we strengthened the traditional model of ‘legally-binding obligations’ with a view to averting war.  Those were the zero-sum days and war-avoidance that was the precise obligation that could, more or less, be precisely violated.  But even then, our ‘peace-loving member states’ of the United Nations tended to dodge and weave.  

The global problems of the 21st century are different; they are not zero-sum; they invite the tragedy of the commons through national free-loading.  If the deficits of the Paris Agreement are also its greatest strengths in this new form of global governance, then we are in for an exciting ride.  Inviting 196 parties to save the planet rather than requiring them to do so is a nice way of playing roulette. And experience suggests that naming-and-shaming will not do it.  

And as I have indicated in previous blogs, and as the scientists quoted above make clear, the magnitude of the challenge is huge, and unprecedented.  So, we are at the starting-line for the most strenuous political marathon in history.

Global governance in the 21st century is going to require some gentle shock treatment. And if it does not come from governments, in the name of Paris, and within the next five years, not fifteen, then it will require the peoples of the world to revolutionise their governments – in the name of Paris.