Temperate Zones:   The UN Celebrates its Climate Covenant, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Apr

This past Friday the UN once again made history.   Heads of State and other High Officials from 175 states added their signatures to the Paris Climate Agreement, the largest number of states ever to sign a UN agreement on any single day.

The opening ceremony was mostly a lovefest and not without reason.   To create this consensus agreement was a truly massive undertaking, one that required states to overcome latent climate skepticism while working through some intense political considerations, including the concern that states finally finding their economic footing are being asked to break their carbon habits while the large states make only modest efforts to combat their own carbon addictions.   That states were able to overcome (or at least overlook) these and other obstacles to reach this agreement will go down as a truly historic undertaking in this age of climate trouble.  People outside the UN can only imagine the degree of difficulty associated with bringing a large number of diverging state interests together in an agreement of this complexity and magnitude, albeit with its multiple, notable limitations.

The ceremony was not entirely about hugs and congratulations.  There were warnings as well from inside and outside the UN.   In addition to the seemingly endless “we must move to action” yearnings, several more pointed critiques were made.   For instance, Bolivia was noteworthy in calling attention to the root causes of the climate crisis which in the mind of its president are linked to individualism, greed and militarism and which will allegedly require a thorough re-acquaintance with indigenous lifestyles if the Paris agreement has any chance to succeed.   Special guest Leonardo DiCaprio was equally blunt in urging states to “leave the carbon in the ground,” and transition more rapidly than at present to a more sustainable energy matrix.

Beyond UN confines other warnings abounded, often with greater intensity.  While the ceremony was taking place in the UN General Assembly hall,   twitter was exploding with images of melting ice caps, “bleached” coral and other difficult – if-not-impossible problems to reverse.  The Stimson Center in Washington DC was referring to our oceans as “the world’s largest crime scene.”   As I’m sure was the case with many others, our twitter account was engaged by groups far from New York weighing in on the “temperate” measures being suggested by UN member states for a planet besieged by massive storms and droughts, a planet now thought by many in the scientific community to be at a dangerous tipping point.

Indeed, early on, the negotiations for the Paris Climate agreement exposed an uneven sense of urgency, as large industrial (and polluting) states hedged their bets, newly developing states sought to continue their growth trajectories, and small island states sought to counter what for them is more akin to an existential threat, even in the very near term.   And despite urgings on Friday from French President Hollande for states to overcome what remains of “narrow interests,” there is legitimate concern about how much agreement implementation will actually be able to transcend the rhetorical and self-referential.  During the opening ceremony, it was only Canada’s Trudeau who specifically called for special support for the most vulnerable states, the states which, as a group, bear the least responsibility for the climate mess we now find ourselves in.

During the daylong activities, several states – quoting from the Secretary General’s climate agreement assessment – also noted that “the unthinkable has become the unstoppable.”   As I watched the ceremony, I thought about what is needed – beyond the agreement itself – to keep up our sense of urgency to reverse current trends and replace climate crisis with climate health.  And as is often the case, my mind wandered to concerns that are mirrored in more common human practices.

For instance, in counseling it is common to speak of “bargaining,” clients who agree to make changes that are not so terribly important while escaping responsibility for the more fundamental changes that they really need to make.   This tendency to focus on what matters less in order to avoid commitment to what matters more occurs in many contexts and creates numerous, well-documented problems for families and communities.

In the context of the climate agreement, bargaining by states might well spell the end for life as we know it, substituting carefully-crafted by largely token gestures for the more fundamental shifts on which, as Italy and others noted, the existence of our children and grandchildren depends.   The gifted Tanzanian youth who spoke to the assembled UN dignitaries made clear the stakes of the moment noting, almost as a warning, “I am not alone.”   If the climate agreement is to meet its full potential, states (and other stakeholders) will have to suspend all vestiges of bargaining and be willing to live with some of the highly inconvenient consequences of a climate challenge created largely on our watch.

It is also important, as several states noted during the opening ceremony, that climate health is seen as a full-spectrum responsibility and not merely one of state and even corporate concerns.    The refrain from within the UN of “common but differentiated responsibility” can be put in somewhat more familiar terms – unless we get many more capable and committed hands on deck, this “ship” will take on more and more water, agreement or no agreement.

Easily said, but there are many obstacles to filling this deck – including deep, well-cultivated habits of consumption and media distraction that impede both the development of skills that can contribute meaningfully to address the current crisis, and the strength of character to push us to continue contributing through disappointments and setbacks.  Much like teenagers behave with parents, it is just too easy for all of us to externalize blame on to states and other stakeholders, eschewing the full-spectrum engagements and commitments that bring into sharp relief just how difficult and complex the climate mitigation task actually is. Reversing habits that threaten our survival is every bit as energy and time consuming as forming those habits in the first instance.  There is no time like the present to get started on this difficult but life saving work.

At one point during the opening ceremony, the Secretary-General noted that “we are running behind schedule,” thus delaying the actual agreement signing.   For some, this seemed almost metaphorical – a response to climate threats that many fear might be just a bit too little and just a bit too late.   Others commented on the “footprint” of the signing ceremony, a huge UN room full of officials and their entourages who chose, yet again, to fly in rather than Skype in to express their climate concerns.   Like citizens and their governments, the UN also has habits to address, habits that motivate some to turn their backs on a problem we simply cannot solve without them.   People – skeptical and otherwise — need to know that the policy community, too, is willing to wrestle with and amend our habits for the sake of our common future.

As the Prime Minister of the small island state of Tuvalu made clear at the UN, climate impacts are now a global phenomenon.    Sea waters in every ocean are rising, storms are intensifying, drought and flood zones alike are expanding, traumatized climate refugees are desperately seeking safer ground.   We’re all in this now.   We must all be in this now.  GA President Lykketoft specifically cited the role of civil society groups (like our own) in keeping states on track regarding their climate responsibilities.  Clearly, we on the non-governmental side also have our own, long road to walk on climate impacts before any “all clear” signals are likely to be heard.

The aggregate message conveyed on this Climate signing day was simple and clear:  This is going to be a hard task.  The hour is getting very late.

Let’s get busy.

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