COP21: Opinion Piece

Forum during Women and Gender Day in Climate Generations Area, COP21, Le Bourget, France, 8 December 2014
Forum during “Women and Gender Day” at the Climate Generations Area open to the Public, COP21, Le Bourget, France, 8 December 2015. Photograph by the author

Introduction: It’s been two and a half weeks since the COP21 concluded, and it has taken as long for me to feel I could begin forming my own perspective on the events. In one of the last remaining assemblies where all nations are equitably represented, according to the aspirations of the mission, and progress is made only by consensus, 196 countries for the first time in history reached agreement in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC. The unity necessary for nations to together begin addressing industrially-produced greenhouse gas emissions was at last achieved. I believe, in part despite the criticisms of the agreement leveled by members of both the diverse global political left and and right, that when placed in the proper, nuanced, and historical perspective, the accord represents a terrific and tremendous success.  Indeed, if there was one strain of pessimism many of my friends and associates expressed before and during the conference, it was that the event would represent only “médiaques,” simply “media hype,” the image of progress without the substance of promise and action. In this post, I engage in a critical reflection on the Paris Agreement, offer my optimistic sense of what it offers, what it leaves to be done, and a speculation on where we go from here. It is my position that is precisely the image of the accord–as opposed to its actuality–that will make what it purposeively aims to do achievable. Towards this end, I also include some of my favorite images from the ArtCOP21 festival and climate-related events in which I was fortunate enough to participate.

What It Is: The Paris Climate Pact provides the structure to slow, limit, and eventually bring down pollution that has led to human-caused climatic disruption in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.

Sterling Ruby (American, b. 1972), Black Stoves, 2014. Metal sculpture, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris, On View through February 14, 2016
Sterling Ruby (American, b. 1972), Black Stoves, 2014. Metal sculpture, Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris, On View through February 14, 2016

The effort was over two decades in the making. As Fiona Harvey wrote for The Guardian Weekly, the accord is the result of “23 years of international attempts under the UN to forge collective action on a global problem.” Without an agreement, if left unchecked, carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gas emissions would have led to an average increase in global temperatures in excess of 5°C beyond the pre-industrial level. After the failed Copenhagen talks of 2009, the COP21 was the last opportunity within the UNFCCC to start the world economy on a downward trajectory with regard to carbon emissions. Climate scientists warn that anything in excess of a 2°C increase could trigger catastrophic environmental feedback loops. Consequently, the goal of the Conference was to limit emissions to that which would produce less than a 2°C rise. Excitingly, started by the delegation from the Marshall Islands, and eventually joined by the European Union, Australia, Canada, and the United States, what came to be called the “Coalition of High Ambition” emerged three days before the end of the summit. The Coalition succeeded in introducing into the final text the aim to limit emissions to that which contribute to a 1.5°C increase over pre-industrial levels. This creates some hope that polar ice sheets and glaciers

Olafur Eliasson (Danish-Icelandic, b. 1967), Ice Watch (Paris), 2014/2015. Ephemeral sculpture consisting of twelve blocks of ice from fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland arranged in clock format at Place du Panthéon, Paris
Olafur Eliasson (Danish-Icelandic, b. 1967) & Minik Thorleif Rosing (Danish, b. 1957) Ice Watch (Paris), 2014/2015. Ephemeral sculpture consisting of twelve blocks of ice from fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland arranged in clock format at Place du Panthéon, Paris which melted during the course of the COP21

might ultimately be preserved, thereby potentially saving populations in places like the Marshall Islands, and entire coastal regions from Bangladesh to the Mississippi Delta. 186 of the 196 signatories agreed to restrict emissions. The COP21 was a watershed moment in the endeavor to forestall human contributions to climate change, and comprises an international agreement that exceeds any other in recent memory with respect to collaboration towards the common good.

Global Traditions for a Sustainable Future

The French shepherding of the conference was masterful. Previous meetings were marked by divisions, distrust, and recriminations between nations considered developed and developing. To break this pattern, the COP21 was organized around small group discussions between delegates and the French hosts who were able to make the connections and go between parties to cultivate the necessary trust and solidarity. In addition, drawing upon and adapting Zulu cultural tradition, in a model for negotiations first utilized at the Conference in Durban, South Africa, negotiators turned to indabas, group discussions to solve disputes. In the UNFCCC use of the idea, up to 80 delegates at a time gathered to resolve disagreements in the text. World traditions combined to create a global climate accord.

What Remains to Be Done: As I argued in my previous piece on the COP21 at its halfway point, the accord that we hoped for–and now has come–is not an end in itself, but instead a point of departure for future efforts. Rather than a cause for worry, I believe that this represents a reason for deep optimism, and perhaps even a vital return to romanticism. The COP21 might be seen as a moment of evolution in contemporary society and international relations, and it is important to keep in mind that evolution is constantly progressive. In this way, the climate accord could be understood in light of how William Blake imagined his heterodox idea of last judgment at the very time industrial carbon began accruing in the atmosphere. Indeed, Blake wrote in a description of his now lost painting on the subject, a “Last Judgment” occurs “whenever any Individual Rejects Error & Embraces Truth.” For Blake, the last judgment wasn’t a singular event in the orthodox meaning, but a recognition of reality and image of potential to be realized and continually acted upon to make the world a better place.

It’s the same with the COP21.  Founder of the campaign Bill McKibben wrote the day after the accord was signed that with the Paris Agreement “no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane” and that the question was now one of velocity and sustained action. “How fast” can we move towards a global zero carbon economy, McKibben wrote. My take is that the endeavor is essentially one of imagination having to do with the relationship between the domain of the imaginary, the field of finance, and the environment. If there is a clear shift that was sure to come out of the COP21, it was one that would have to do with the long-term value of fossil fuel-based investments across the world’s portfolios. In as conservative a publication as Forbes Magazine, the CEO of Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital Wal van Lierop effectively expressed as much. And yet what I find fascinating is the relationship between the real and imaginary within the dynamics of investment that pertain to the carbon economy. Financial speculation regarding material resources brings them into the realm of the imaginary. Oil stocks, for instance, are a financial device that abets the extraction and production of the commodity, though at a level of separation from the material in and of itself. Hence, it’s a largely virtual basis, procedure, or capability of capital accumulation.

What we need is the development of a contemporary ecological imagination that aligns the problematic carbon basis of production, its material consequences, and the forms of finance speculation that potentialize each. If we speculate according to the climate science, it becomes clear that that basis must be a reduced, low, and subsequently decarbonized future. Accordingly, an effective ecological imagination would take the environmental reality of the conditions of production in the present, contribute to a rethinking of the capabilities of finance that perpetuate forms of environmental degradation and render such practices lucrative, and create the most livable future, for all.

How This is To Be Achieved: 2020 is 20/20: What is most vital about that Paris Agreement is that, as the text makes clear, progress will be reviewed, revised, and strengthened over time. It’s an image that’s not fixed. Indeed, the Climate Pact includes a mechanism to potentially increase progress on limiting carbon emissions every five years. As a result, our eyes should be on the COP26 to come. Now that we have achieved the beginnings of a global solidarity to confront climate change, we have both the opportunity and responsibility to participate in the efforts and the creativity it will take to actualize the Paris Agreement towards the ends of changes in our communities that will ultimately contribute to the creation of the more sustainable world we envision. While the COP21 started us on the path to imagining what a sustainable world might look like, the success of the Paris Agreement, in the end, will largely depend on the possibility of a return to a politics of civic engagement. It will up to individual citizen-actors to organize themselves in new ways to work towards this future. Taking part in the Summit for Local Elected Officials, gave me great hope, in this regard. If we build momentum by staying in touch, in conversation, and in creating and realizing purposeful initiatives with our local leaders, with the new climate art that will give us the vision to see this through, we can begin to immediately make rapid progress in showing what decarbonization can look like. It is from these actionable steps that citizens in developed nations can come together to start to enact a re-visioning of relations that begins to catalyze the necessary chemical reorganization of the atmosphere. From Paris and across the world, in this December, this year, our relation to the earth and each other has the potential for positive and lasting change.

Exhibition of political signs, at the Climate Generations Area open to the Public, COP21, Le Bourget, France, 8 December 2015. Photograph by the author
Exhibition of political signs, at the Climate Generations Area open to the Public, COP21, Le Bourget, France, 8 December 2015. Photograph by the author

[Acknowledgments:  For my time and opportunity to be in Paris and part of the COP21 this autumn, I am grateful to Professor Samuel Weber, the Northwestern Paris Program in Critical Theory, the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences at Northwestern University, and the Evan Frankel Foundation. For their intellectual generosity and kind support during my time there, my appreciation goes to Professors Sophie Vasset and Ann Cremieux, Noëmi Haire-Sievers, Professor S. Hollis Clayson, Arden Hegele, and Professor Isabelle Alfandary]