“Regarding climate change, governments still behave in a criminal way”
(I'm posting here an interview I did a few days ago, also available in French here)
Interview with Maxime Combes, economist, member of Attac France and author of Sortons de l'âge des fossiles, Manifeste pour la transition, éd. Seuil, coll. Anthropocène.
Interview by Stephen Bouquin - http://www.roodlinks.be
translation from French into English by Will Denayer
Maxime, how would you assess the situation now, a couple of days before the start of the summit in Paris? (ITV published on Nov. 20)
The situation has become much clearer in recent weeks. The vast majority of the countries registered their voluntary national contributions, or INDCs in U.N. newspeak. Several studies, including an evaluation by the U.N. itself, show that these voluntary contributions will lead to global warming in excess of 3 ° C by the end of the century. This is happening, although the heads of state gave a mandate to do everything that is necessary in order for COP21 to reach an agreement that gives the world a chance to stay below 2 ° C. It would be logical that the gap between what is desirable (2 ° C or less) and what is real (3 ° C or more) would be at the heart of the negotiations in Paris, but will be not the case. The countries should of course agree to make additional efforts. This would be sensible, but, after the PreCOP from early November, we know that it will not happen. The contributions will not be revised upwards. A negotiation about additional efforts is not on the agenda. None of the powers of the planet has the real will to address the problem.
What are the negotiations in Paris really about?
At COP21, negotiators will focus on legal instruments that will replace the Kyoto Protocol from 2020 onwards and on a series of mechanisms – one is not sure, because nothing has been agreed upon – that states will possibly implement. These mechanisms basically consist of assessment procedures. States will, at regular intervals, review their commitments and – perhaps – increase their efforts along the way. In Paris, the container will be negotiated, not the content. The rest is realpolitik. As John Kerry made clear, it was never the intention of the United States – or of the majority of countries in the world – to accept an agreement that would restrict them internationally in any way whatsoever. They are willing to accept an agreement in Paris, on the condition that it does not bind their hands. That is the reason why it is impossible that the Paris agreement will amount to anything more than the smallest common denominator that the big powers are willing to accept. The result will be an agreement that will be light years away from what should be achieved.
Why is the protocol that calls for voluntary measures criminal in your opinion?
If you base the global fight against climate change on voluntary commitments that are worked out at the national level and if you put your faith in legal instruments that do not oblige states to do much more than they are willing to do, you simply get nowhere. You just promote the liberal vision which says that everyone can do what she wants or feels like. This is disastrous. The sum total of all national measures constitutes the global action. Never mind that it is completely insufficient. It also contributes to the view that reducing the gap between reality and what needs to done is not an absolute priority. For the countries and the populations that are already victimised by climate disruptions, this approach boils down to powerlessness, to the acceptance that there are no recourses. They lack the power to enforce their rights. They lack the power to demand that the countries that are historically responsible for climate change do more and that the rich countries in general, countries that certainly can make much bigger efforts, do more. The system of voluntary commitments means, in effect, that life - and survival - of these populations is less important than the considerations and the interests of the rich countries.
This difference between the reality (an increase of 3 ° C or more) and what is desired (an increase of 2 ° C or less) is not a good starting point if you want to make progress. In terms of climate change, any delay makes things worse and complicates a transition of global energy production and provision further. During the last twenty-five years of international climate change negotiations, carbon dioxide levels rose by 60 %. According to U.N. estimates, greenhouse gas emissions will increase by another 10 % by 2030. The national commitments only reduce emissions within the framework of a fictional scenario of business as usual. They do not deal with the level of current emissions. This is fundamentally wrong. Following the proposals that are on the table in Paris, the nations commit themselves to consume almost 75 % of the global carbon budget (about 1.000 Gt) in the next 15 years: almost 75 % of the carbon budget that the world can consume in order make a chance to not go beyond 2 ° C. What will happen after these 15 years? The gap between what is real and what is necessary is the starting point for new and more climate crimes everywhere. There is no doubt that the most vulnerable populations will pay the highest price, as a new study by the World Bank shows. This is not acceptable. We need a hurricane of citizens protesting before, during and after COP 21 in order to stop these climate crimes.
Will Paris fail? Do you think it has been set up to fail? How did it come so far?
You can only speak of failure if you have significant expectations about such conferences to begin with. Our expectations are limited, for reasons outlined above. We need to remain lucid, so as to not create any unrealistic expectations about COP21. Lucidity is also necessary to bring about a global energy transition. There are many possibilities to accomplish such a transition, but none of them seems to be the subject of the international climate change negotiations. As I explain in my book (Sortons de l'âge des fossiles, Manifeste pour la transition, Ed. Seuil, coll. Anthropocene), negotiations on global warming operate as if we are intrinsically limited to look at emissions only – at what comes out of chimneys. No one looks further than that. No one wants to transform this incredible machine that heats up the planet downstream of all the chimneys. When you take a look at the text that will be negotiated in Paris the following weeks, you notice that there is no mention of fossil fuels or renewable energies in terms of values of energy anywhere. As if we can effectively fight climate change without considering energy systems that are responsible for 80 % (or more) of the global emission of greenhouse gases! There is no consideration whatsoever of new energy systems that has to be developed as part and parcel of a major energy transition. The question of access is, of course, also crucial. These new energy systems should be in public hands and available to everyone.
Even more important in my opinion is how the U.N. conceptualises the links between global warming and economic and financial globalization. I often quote Article 3.5 of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change that was established in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro as an example in this regard. It is extremely clear. There can be no question that "the measures taken to fight climate change [...] constitute means of imposing arbitrary or unjustifiable discriminations in international trade or disguised restrictions to trade." The 1992 Convention on Climate Change sanctifies the liberalisation of trade and investment. No climate disruptions, no need for regulation, however strong and urgent, can challenge the model of neo-liberal globalization. But as the results of the negotiations of the last 25 years show, this approach has reached its outer limits.
Which countries are most favourable to a binding agreement? And which ones are the most reluctant?
There are but few countries that are actually in favour of a binding agreement, that is to say, an agreement which requires countries to agree upon targets on the basis of scientific insights and to agree upon measures to achieve these targets or face sanctions. According to an assessment of the last preliminary negotiating session of PreCOP by major NGOs, associations and trade unions – it was published in Bonn (Germany) on 19 October - the contributions of the great majority of the developed countries are very far from what they should be. The evaluation assesses fairness, which refers to the principle that the rich countries are far more responsible and have greater means than the poor countries and, hence, should do much more. For example, Japan's contribution is 10% of what it should be. The contribution of the US is 20%, the contribution of the European Union is a little over 20% (1). Upstream of COP21, we witness a situation in which the North constantly points towards emerging powers in the South, while it is of course the North itself that should be more ambitious with regards to their fair share of the efforts.
What is the role and the potency of popular mobilisation in France?
We think that we have laid out good starting blocks. Strong citizen involvement will be generated before, during and after COP21. Given the attacks of 13 November in Paris and the uncertainties about how everything will be handled, it is difficult to say what will be possible and how mobilisation will take place. However, look at the success of initiatives such as Alternatibe. They managed to unite over 500.000 people. This illustrates the potential of COP21 in terms of mobilising citizens. We will mobilise on the basis of what people do already, in terms of resistance or in terms of the promotion of alternatives. I am not referring to mobilisation around the narrow agenda of the negotiations themselves. I am talking, for example, about the determination of groups that are committed to address the role of French and international banks in tax evasions. They explain to the public how these systems operate and how pernicious they are for our societies in all sorts of ways, including the fight against climate change.
On a more general level, two principles inspire the mobilisation of citizens. The first is to affirm that building up a movement for climate justice must start from what people already do and not from abstract considerations or from what governments discuss and negotiate. We need to be much broader. The second principle consists of saying that we should not consider Paris as an end point. On the contrary, we need to make it into a starting point for the future. Whatever the outcome of COP21 will be, all French organisations that are involved in the Climate Coalition 21 agree that the mobilisation for climate justice will not stop when COP21 concludes.
We plan to mobilise in Paris until the end of COP21, including the very last day. The goal is not to be mere spectators of negotiations, but to be involved in everything that will be said publicly. We fully plan to face up to the music that the world leaders produce. We will take the opportunity to explain how and to which degree the results of COP21 will lead to even more climate crimes. We will make clear why it is essential that we continue with our work in 2016.
We need more determination and more public outcry. We need to block to machinery that heats up our planet through the extraction of natural resources, big useless projects, all sorts of counterproductive developments, etc. We need to advocate alternatives and act against the TTIP and other treaties that either already exist or are being negotiated. First and foremost, we need to mobilise the fight for the disvestment in fossil fuels.
What is our view on what will happen after COP21?
These discussions are ongoing, so far nothing has been formally decided. Our further course of action will fundamentally depend upon the outcome of Paris attacks by terrorists. In the long run, my general feeling is that the ‘territorial eco-turn’ of social struggles, to borrow a term from the Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa, will become increasingly important. Many movements, such as Blockadia and Alternatiba, are adopting models from Latin America. These models combine ecological agendas with social justice, resistance and local alternatives. I think that this is really important, but, if it happens, it is essential to generate international solidarity not only with national organisations but also with local struggles.
It is really important that we do not consider space – or ‘territory’ – as some sort of a given, subordinate, category within our perspectives of transformation and social emancipation. Instead, space itself, as it is being produced through the social processes of different groups, is a living and potent agent from within which trans-local solidarity originates. Space cannot be interpreted as a mere substrate with a multitude of divisions imprinted upon it that all need to salvaged from the ravages of productivism, industrialisation and neo-liberal globalization. Instead, space – local territories – are the ferments upon which powerful transformative mobilization are based. The essence of how we see things is to unite multiple initiatives and many groups against one common enemy: those who want to expand extractivism and feed the machinery that warms up our planet. It is clear what we need to do: we need to agree upon similar objectives and objectives and fight against climate change disruption while strengthening local social-ecological solidarity.
The territory becomes the space from which thinking and experiments to overcome economic, financial and technological models that are all completely unsustainable takes concrete shape. Here the egoism of ‘Not in my backyard’ and ‘I do not care’ does not exist. In this space, everything centres upon preservation, resilience and the emancipation of local people as the ultimate and comprehensive goals.
Paris, November, 20th, 2015.
(1) See for more Maxime Combes, Les Etats préparent un réchauffement climatique supérieur à 3°C ! http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/maxime-combes/211015/les-etats-preparent-un-rechauffement-climatique-superieur-3-c .
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