Backstage tour of the climate mobilization in France six months before the COP21

Since the beginning of the year, I am (almost) a full time observer of the preparations for the 21st United Nations conference on climate change (aka Paris Climate Conference or COP21). During the last 6 months, mobilization grew up and a few big events attracted the attention of the media, so that climate seemed to escape from the apathy it usually inspires and the COP21 became "bankable", sparking many vocations and civil society projects…
And of course this is just the beginning... the pace will continue to accelerate until the end of the conference in, almost exactly 6 months.

After I extensively wandered in this theater in construction and discussed with a large number of its actors, it seems interesting to give you an overview of the state of mind that prevails within the small community involved in the mobilization of civil society.

(This post was translated from the original in French : Paris Climat 2015, l'état d'esprit dans les coulisses de la mobilisation climatique à 6 mois de la COP21)

A small, relatively homogeneous community

But first let's set the scene: who are these people who busy themselves with the preparation of the COP21?

I was expecting to find a complex and somewhat chaotic network of actors and initiatives but it is rather a community organized in concentric circles with a hierarchy established by the access to information and decisions makers: the first layer consists of the crowd of activists, volunteers and enthusiasts who have virtually no influence. A second layer is formed by those among the previous who managed to open a few doors for themselves; they have access to backstage but do not play a significant role. The third consists of foot soldiers: project initiators, “chargés de mission”, employees from NGOs… they play an active role but their margins of manoeuvres are limited. Finally at the center there is a handful of "godfathers" (and godmothers) that can attract the attention of the media by their presence and open the doors of ministries and businesses by their recommendation, so that they almost always play a role, at some point or another, in successful initiatives (Nicolas Hulot is the archetype, but is not the only one).
Leaving aside the first two circles, one ends up with a surprisingly small community given the magnitude of the event: my guess would be approximately a hundred peoples.

The narrowness of this group has several consequences which surprised me during the last months. The main one is homogenization. Most people know and meet each other even though they represent positions that seem irreconcilable... And as there are few chosen, co-optation is often required to move from a layer to the next, leaving little room for new points of view and differing opinions. After all :

In short, if we stick to wording, everyone seems to agree: intentionally or not, the same talking points may be found in a NGOs meeting and in a coordination of big companies or used by young activists as well as old regulars who did not miss any UN conference since Rio...

Reminder of the objectives of the COP21: A binding agreement and 100 billion/year

What are these talking points? To understand them, we must first recall the objectives of the Paris conference.

The first objective of this Summit is to reach a new agreement on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (the previous agreement concluded at Kyoto in 1997 and entered into force in 2005 expired end of 2012), but not just any agreement... According to French presidency, Paris agreement should be:
  • Legally binding: it is not about good feelings and solemn promises… participants should agree on a text which once ratified will prevail upon their national legislation.
  • Universal: all countries should be concerned while the Kyoto Protocol only set reduction targets for industrialized countries (minus the United States that did not ratified and Canada who withdrew).
  • Able to limit the temperature rise to 2°C above the pre-industrial era: it is a commitment made at COP15 in Copenhagen. The figure of 2°C is fairly arbitrary but it represents a plausible limit below which humanity can still hope to adapt to the effects of global warming.

The COP21 has another important objective: allow developing countries to grow out of poverty while limiting greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, developed countries need to find 100 billions dollars per year for the Green Climate Fund (another commitment made in Copenhagen).

No one except the Paris Climate Conference to be a success...

Those are the objectives displayed by France, which will chair this conference. Are they realistic?

The answer to this question is clear: No. In all the interviews that I realized, I asked my interlocutors what they expect from the COP21, no one endorsed these goals. The most common opinion seems that the Paris conference will actually lead to an agreement, that it will perhaps be universal, probably not enough to stay below 2 ° C and certainly not binding.

Why? This pessimism reflects a widespread distrust of the UN process, but also geopolitical concerns. Russia is often cited: it could be tempted to make the international community pay for its position during the Ukrainian crisis by filibustering negotiations in Paris, especially as an efficient agreement would probably decrease fossil fuels consumption and further depress its economy. The United States arrive second in order of concerns: a binding agreement would require ratification by the Senate, and president Obama has neither time nor political capital to obtain it. If this were not enough, China is sometimes cited as opposed by principle to any binding agreement.

This pessimism is also explained by the still vivid trauma from the Copenhagen conference in 2009 (the infamous COP15). The context then was much more positive: financial crisis was not so bad after all, the Kyoto Protocol was still alive, Obama was brand-new, Sarkozy just had a huge environmental law passed and Merkel, even thought she expelled its former SPD allies from power, was confirming German ambitious commitment to renewable energies... Enthusiasm was perhaps too strong: everyone believed that the COP15 was the last chance and that the international community was going to – finally – take its responsibility… Copenhagen had to be the big day of the fight against climate change! And then nothing happened.
Greenpeace add during Coppenhagen conference
"Paris should not be a new Copenhagen", this is the watchword. To guard against a new disappointment, it seems that most of the participants have chosen to expect nothing from the UN conference, except maybe a sign that climate change still exists on the international agenda.

... But everyone is happy because there will be "a signal" and "solutions"

You think that with such prospects, the atmosphere must be sluggish? Think again: after these dark omens, your interlocutor will almost always add "but in fact it does not matter, what is important is the signal". Meaning that governments just have to pretend they care in order to push other actors - companies, communities, NGOs, etc. - to action.

What actions? Here come the “solutions” that the French Presidency put forward since the early stage of the preparation. This buzz word has been repeated and declined with zeal: Agenda of solutions, Solutions COP21, solutions crowdvoting... Even NGOs gladely joined the dynamics, although the most subversive ones indulge in a small semantic divergence: they are calling for “alternatives” as opposed to “false solutions”.

This rhetoric of solutions is certainly more effective than catastrophism to convince traditional opponents of climate policies. But it is in strong contrast with the urgency of the situation, and it also helps clear in advance the UN process: negotiations never venture on concrete topics such as renewable energies, transport or energy efficiency… These topics are within the boundaries of the sacrosanct State sovereignty and each country has to decide of its own policies. There are only 3 subjects discussed during a COP: emissions targets, financing and technology transfers. The declination in "solutions" is a matter for everyone... except negotiators and diplomats.

To be continued...

For other posts on climate and sustainability from this blog translated in English, click here.

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