For 25 years, the United States has hindered climate policies and limited their aspirations. American president George Bush Sr., at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which culminated in the issuance of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, made his famous statement that “the American lifestyle is not negotiable.” This declaration of American power led the United States to refuse to ratify the first international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, adopted in 1997. The U.S. altered the treaty’s content by inserting flexibility mechanisms such as carbon markets, ineffective and badly suited instruments that are still promoted today.
This refusal to impose any international constraints was in part the cause of the Copenhagen conference’s failure in 2009, with the United States and industrial countries mainly responsible. This recurring blockage led the architects of the Paris Accord to enact a treaty based upon non-binding law which encourages rather than regulates or imposes sanctions (soft law), with voluntary engagements (bottom up) that are disconnected from global objectives to reduce emissions and lack a clearly established roadmap, (meagre) financing concentrated on what is deemed profitable to the detriment of adaptation, and the ever increasing involvement of a multitude of private partners (multi-stakeholder approach) whose pledges are subject to neither standards nor controls.
Endlessly applauded, the political and diplomatic success of the Paris Accord came at the expense of its aspirations. Though nations came to an agreement to limit global warming to less than 2°C or 1.5°C, the accord was non-binding and lacked a precisely defined roadmap to arrive at that result. It substituted hazardous proposals, like negative emissions and carbon neutrality. Designed along the red lines set by an American Senate populated with elected climate deniers – nothing enforceable – and by the Chinese presidency – nothing that challenges the country’s economic development from now until 2030 – the details of the Paris Accord greatly limit the capacity of the tool we inherited from COP 21, and more so from 25 years of negotiations.
After Trump’s election, nations have disengaged themselves and are relying on the markets and the private sector to take the lead. In order not to tarnish the story of their victory in Paris and its after-effects, early political reactions – from the French government to John Kerry and the Paris Accord architects themselves – have been aimed at minimizing the American election results, claiming that the battle against global warming has been taking place everywhere and that economic leaders have understood the opportunities inherent in a low-carbon economy. “Under way,” “irreversible,” and even “irremediable” were the popular expressions at COP22: the markets, composed of transnational firms that will call Donald Trump to reason, and technical advances will make any move backwards impossible. After 40 years of transnationals and financial markets profiting off the public’s disengagement from economic power, we should just trust them with our mutual future, reinforcing economic globalisation that has had a great part in causing global warming to the detriment of the relocalisation policies that are ever more necessary the day after Trump’s election.
The End of the Climate Policy Story? Transferring responsibility for enacting Paris commitments to non-state actors has been offered as “life insurance” for the Paris Accord, while on the contrary we need political guarantees in order to considerably increase the ambition of local, regional, national and international climate policies. At its heart, this narrative is like “the end of History” for the climate: after the universal and universally applauded Paris accord, all that was left was to rule on technical questions, as if the climate change “solutions” were consensual and apolitical, which they are not. End of History and end of policy: market and technical forces should correct nations’ defaults, in a stunning reversal of logic! In other words, the process of negotiating between nations would be void of substance and no longer make sense.
The election of Donald Trump, who is not just a troublemaker, sends a political message: that the United States rejects any limits on extraction and fossil fuel combustion, opening the way to empowering the forces which deny the need and urgency for a planned and organised abandonment of fossil fuels. Of course, the nations, cities, communities, and social movements who initiated the transition shall continue to pursue alternatives and resist. And enlarge them if possible. But we also know that political regulations are necessary and urgent in order to assure the perpetuity of these transitions and profoundly transform the energy foundations of this planet-warming machine which is the global economy. The invisible hand of the markets is neither green nor naturally social or just.
“It is not enough to do our best, we must do what is required” (Winston Churchill), was repeated several times by John Kerry. Faced with the threat of the United States abandoning all climate policies, we cannot ignore the snowball effects of these already insufficient and fragile policies. As we await the United States’ eventual withdrawal from the Paris Accord, something which cannot be prevented by some legal quibbling, the aftermath of COP22 must be a time for a far-reaching political renewal:
- the EU’s set of energy policies (the 2030 Climate and Energy Package and the Energy Union), notoriously insufficient, is not the only option;
- the pursuit of fossil energy investments can be halted by organizing a transition that guarantees employment and social justice;
- climate financing can be rapidly unblocked by introducing a true tax on financial transactions at the European level and determinedly fighting tax evasion, which is cruelly still lacking;
- the impact of economic and financial globalisation on the climate, societies and democracy can be reversed by not ratifying new accords (CETA, etc) and by taking a fresh look at international commercial policies in terms of climate imperatives ;
- the abandonment and non-enactment of ambitious climate policies should be penalised under international law;
- climate-destructive decisions affecting the lives of millions of people should be recognized as ecological crimes and tried in international court.
It’s not enough to say, “Our children will blame us.” We need to find the legal, political, and social means to prevent regressing into irreversible effects. COP22’s indecisiveness and the absence of clearly identified models will only facilitate future climate criminality. Donald Trump’s declarations and his political pledges, if they are applied, constitute an international crime.