Climate justice as the post-Trump slingshot
Tom Athanasiou (firstname.lastname@example.org) Jan 18, 2017
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Trump’s election was a catastrophe. Coming on top of everything else, it more than justifies pessimism. But at the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me add that our new position is not without its possibilities.
We would not have chosen this path. But if we’re both smart and lucky we may be able to slingshot out of it, and into a mobilization that would not otherwise have been possible.
But we’re going to have to be brave enough to take justice seriously. Among much else, we’re going to have to work out what the pretty phrase “climate justice” actually means.
Among much else.
Before Trump there was Paris, and its celebrated goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C,” while pursuing efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” So here’s a question: When Dave Roberts, one of America’s premier climate bloggers, published a post-election reaction piece called “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees,” was he right?
I don’t think so. But I’ll grant that, if he’s wrong, he’s wrong in a complicated way. For one thing, the hope we had before Trump’s election was not itself entirely serious.
Here’s how Roberts described it:
“The truth is, hitting the 2-degree target (much less 1.5 degrees) was always a long shot. It would require all the world’s countries to effectively turn on a dime and send their emissions plunging at never-before-seen rates.
It was implausible, but at least there was a story to tell. That story began with strong U.S. leadership, which brought China to the table, which in turn cleared the way for Paris. The election of Hillary Clinton would have signaled to the world a determination to meet or exceed the targets the U.S. promised in Paris, along with four years of efforts to create bilateral or multilateral partnerships that pushed progress faster.
With steady leadership, the U.S. and China would exceed their short-term goals. Other countries would have their willpower fortified and steadily ratchet up their commitments. All this coordinated action would result in a wave of clean energy innovation, which would push prices down lower, which would accelerate the transition.”
Is this an accurate telling? I think it is, more or less, but it’s also radically incomplete. For one thing, “U.S. leadership” has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the phrase. More pressing, the “wave of clean energy innovation” that this story depends on was never going to be enough. On this front, see the bit where countries “steadily ratchet up their commitments.” This is a reference to the push for (jargon alert) an “ambition ratchet” or “ambition mechanism.” The two terms are almost interchangeable but the idea is critical, because both the Paris pledges of national action and the post-Paris pledges of international transition support are far too weak to actually achieve Paris’ “well below 2°C” temperature target.
This view – that the Paris pledges are too weak to achieve the Paris targets – is entirely mainstream. All the key studies agree. However, when you push a little farther and ask which countries are most at blame – which countries are doing their “fair share” and which are not – you find that only the reports of the Civil Society Equity Review coalition (full disclosure: I’m one of its authors) even attempts to broach the question. The coalition’s most recent report, Setting the Path towards 1.5°C, offers this simple summary statement:
“even if all the commitments in the current NDCs [national pledges of action] are met — an uncertain prospect, given the lack of financial and technological resources from wealthier countries — they would lead to a warming of about 3°C.”
The baseline truth here is that ambition is a function of equity. Unless we establish cooperative international systems by which the wealthy support the poor with the finance and technology they need to act well and decisively, ambition will remain in short supply. Which is why we’re talking about a possible warming of 3°C, though in truth 3.5°C – an extremely dangerous level of warming – might wind up being closer to the mark.
Still, the Paris pledges were widely accepted as a first installment. Their weakness, as the story went, was OK, because we’d be able to strengthen them – and properly support “stretch” pledges by countries that can’t deliver on them without help – in time to meet the Paris targets. If, after Trump’s election, this doesn’t happen, or, more precisely, if this was going to happen but now doesn’t, then Roberts has called this all correctly; we won’t make 1.5°C, or even 2°C, and we’ll have this election, and all it’s infamies, to blame.