In the contentious arena of climate governance, universal accords or agreements between nation-states, non-governmental organisations, and civil society more generally, are stunningly difficult to reach. Despite estimates that 90% of deadly natural disasters are now climate related, that climate change is perceived by publics around the planet as the greatest threat to Earth, and that the occurrence of wars, conflicts, refugee and agricultural crises, and international instabilities will increase dramatically with climatic change, governments have so far ‘talked the talk’ on the governance of climate change but have failed to ‘walk the walk’. Instead of the legally binding reductions once idealistically pledged in the Kyoto Protocol, today, connections between talk, decisions, and actions break down: “policymakers view [climate governance] decisions as independent organizational products, not necessarily connected to action.” (Geden, 2015) In other words, promises are made in theory – and then celebrated politically and publicly – only to be broken later on, in actual practice. So, with the recent COP21 climate conference, and its ‘Paris Agreement’ now being lauded as “extraordinary” and “the world’s greatest diplomatic success” (Harvey, 2015) – a “major leap for mankind” according to the French president, François Hollande – this leads us to ask: has a successful and effective governance of the climate finally been achieved at COP21? What does the Paris Agreement actually do to safeguard our planet from pending catastrophe? What message does COP21’s supposed “success” send to the world about climate governance today?
Held in Paris, France, from the 30 November - 12 December, 2015, the Paris Agreement was established at the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21), under the auspices of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC). It was met with immediate political adulation: a “monumental triumph” declared UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the Paris Agreement “sets the stage for progress in ending poverty, strengthening peace, and ensuring a life of dignity and opportunity for all.” (UN News Centre, 2015) Yet, what does the Paris Agreement actually do? Its primary victory is a political consensus to establish the status-quo of climate governance: that all states conceptualise sustainable development and economic growth as no longer being antithetical to one another, but as integrated within a shared international acknowledgement – made by all states and parties – that climate change is indeed an urgent existential threat demanding a concerted global response. This response – the ‘Paris Agreement’ – introduced long-term mitigation goals for states and secured universal agreement on a 5-year review mechanism to take stock of each state’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), or the promise of each state to reduce their carbon emissions (and by obvious implication, shift their economies away from the burning of fossil fuels). In this light, the Paris Agreement is indeed a cause for celebration when diplomatic acrobatics are considered, even amongst environmental activists: finally, 196 states had agreed that climate change was a problem that “marks the end of the era of fossil fuels. There is no way to meet the targets laid out in this agreement without keeping coal, oil and gas in the ground.” (Boeve, 2015) As The Economist triumphantly declared, “The Paris agreement marks an unprecedented political recognition of the risks of climate change” by signaling to investors that the era of carbon-fueled economic growth, is evaporating (2015). On the surface, therefore, it appears that COP21 was a success.
However, the Paris Agreement’s purported reach – according to Ban Ki-moon, the realisation of prosperity, political accord, and freedom “for all” – is an enormous task for a single nation-state to accomplish, let alone for today’s international society or world order to establish in a single international treaty, protocol, or conference. Indeed, this is why we talk of “global governance without global government” (Weiss, 2013: xiii). Without a top-down government, the eventual success or failure of the Paris Agreement hinges upon each state voluntarily reducing their own carbon emissions, so as to keep the Earth below the quantified temperature targets established under the agreement in Article 2.1a, and which – since the end of COP21 – have been the cause of great media publicity and global public acclaim:
“[States will respond to climate change by] Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (UNFCCC, 2015: 21)
Based on the science collated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN also admits that a failure to keep the planet below 2°C temperature rise would elicit a global climatic transformation that “represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet” (UNFCCC, 2015: 1), portending social, natural, political, and economic catastrophe – and even collapse – at unprecedented scales (see the IPCC’s Fifth Assessement report, the AR5). In sum, even a temperature rise of 2°C risks upsetting cycles of the Earth system that have remained undisturbed for millennia, drastically altering the conditions for all life on Earth and ushering in a new ‘dark age’ (Gail, 2016). There is, therefore, very little breathing room for deviation from these targets if future generations of humans and animals alike are to share the same Earth that life has enjoyed and thrived in, during the Holocene epoch of the past 11,500 years.
If we look beyond the celebratory rhetoric of COP21, there sits an elephant in the room; and it is both global, and potentially deadly. Not only is this 2°C temperature target old news, but it is now impossible to reach. As scholars such as Geden have noted, “The 2°C target had already been adopted at COP16 in Cancún 2010, but action has been insufficient ever since, contrary to climate economists’ modeling” of potential carbon emissions scenarios (see Geden, 2015). One such scenario posits the deriving of clean energy from ‘negative emissions’, or from carbon sequestered from out of the atmosphere and stored underground, and transformed through these bioenergy feedstocks into power. This bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technology could offer new ways of providing humans with heat, light, and energy (Gough and Upham, 2010). However, this radically optimistic plan would also require an immense overhaul of global energy (and hence economic) infrastructures, well beyond the scale of anything experienced during the implementation of the Bretton Woods systems set in place after the devastation of World War II (see Chichilnisky, 2016). Even the academic gold-standard publication of climate science, the journal Nature, has declared this 2°C target as a “fantasy” unless there is an unprecedented and immediate global socioeconomic and political transition, because “As it stands, the world is on a path to nearly 3°C of warming by the end of the century, and even that assumes substantial emissions reductions in the future” (Tollefson, 2015). Sadly, if states do manage to meet their (non-binding) goals claimed in COP21’s INDCs, the Earth’s temperature will still rise by 3.5°C by 2100, with its carbon budget for the 2°C target – at current emissions rates – exhausted by around 2020. In the likely possibility that states fail to enact the promises made in their INDCs, temperatures might rise to a terrifying 4°C to 5°C above current levels, transforming the Earth and its biosphere in ways and scales currently incomprehensible or unimaginable to us in the present. This makes the even more aspirational target of a 1.5°C limit – that which was paraded to the media and the public – appear ludicrous – and downright bizarre – upon inspection. As Geden astutely notes, “This approach relies on some very dubious calculations and assumes the existence of technologies whose risks have not been adequately studied, let alone discussed publicly” (Geden, 2015b). It is more talk than walk, yet it also glibly glosses over the looming ramifications for all life on Earth.
This hints at the paradoxical and tragic question now lurking in the background of global climate governance like a ticking time-bomb, and which will surely arise in the future: Why have policymakers, world leaders, the UN, and the COP, trumpeted and celebrated global temperature and emissions targets and limits that they are well aware are impossible to reach? What is going to happen to global governance and international politics – notwithstanding the fate of the planet, its current world order comprised of nation-states, their peoples, and all life on Earth – when it becomes clear that these targets were always, from the beginning, a chimera? A ‘fantasy’? What will the peoples of the Earth think about the promises and declarations of climate governance, of states, of NGOs, of non-state actors or civil society organisations, and of international organisations such as the UN?
What the COP21 temperature targets and their emergence as the “world’s greatest diplomatic success” thus represents, is a new form of politics and governance hitherto unprecedented. It is not simply the case that traditional ‘international politics’ between states is being displaced by new forms of global governance encompassing new actors, mechanisms, and scales (see Pattberg and Widenberg, 2015). Instead, the Paris Agreement’s celebration of impossibility is a glimpse into a new political rationality, undergirding what many scholars now call the Anthropocene epoch (Crutzen, 2000); a new, human-induced geological epoch in which the destructive force of humanity itself now rivals the impact of the Earth’s own natural systems, thereby ending the Holocene and creating new conditions for all life on Earth (for insight into the Anthropocene and international politics, see Harrington, 2016; Burke et al. 2016).
Considering how we understand and conduct our international relations and climate governance, the Anthropocene upsets the underlying ‘political rationality’ – the general style of thinking or way of rendering reality as stable and hence thinkable – with which IR is familiar, and with which the twentieth century, by calculating, controlling, and imagining nature as a stable and secure background for the ‘hard politics’ of economic and geopolitical calculations, has brought itself into being. Now, our new style of political thought that we can witness emerging in events such as COP21 – and thus, its concomitant mode or style of global governance concretised in accords such as the Paris Agreement – is implicitly (and ironically, considering its celebratory rhetoric) – a rationality of powerlessness (Hamilton, 2015). This rationality underlying the politics of the Anthropocene aims not to avoid failure (because the celebrated 2°C target will obviously not be reached), but is admittedly structured, oriented, and comprised by failure’s inevitability. The Paris Agreement is, paradoxically, an agreement designed to fail, but to fail together, thereby reframing ‘success’ in governance as the sheer act of making the agreement itself, rather than the taking of the substantive post hoc action desperately needed to reach the proposed targets within the terrifying reality of the present circumstance. Talking the talk, and shaking hands; no immediate walking required. Success in the Anthropocene comes from immediate consensus, not future action.
Where does this leave climate governance after COP21? Four long months have passed since, and only recently have states gathered at the UN on 22 April, 2016, for a signing ceremony in which 175 signatories (174 states and the European Union) made “steps” towards making the Paris Agreement official, since states still need to ratify the agreement at their national level to account for 55 parties comprising 55% of global emissions. It is an agreement to agree even more, and even later on. Yet, instead of a resounding agreement for the successful future of Earth and the global climate to reach the purported 1.5°C limit, there looms this background rationality of powerlessness, or the inability to reconcile our science and nature, with our politics; the Anthropocene’s new climate governance of denial. This denial was evident in the events following COP21, “When Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, gaveled the agreement through in the evening there were cheers, tears and shouts of jubilation” (The Economist, 2015), again, for the sheer making of the agreement itself, without any of the substantive action promised within it taken, made, nor (as we still see in April, 2016) ratified nationally.
Now, this is not to belittle or demean the sincere efforts of diplomats, NGOs, etc., who participated and negotiated in the COP21; surely their intentions and celebrations were authentic, their battles exhausting, and hard-fought; climate agreements are not easy to come by in this ongoing tragedy of the global commons. Indeed, the notable failure of COP16 in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 (see Harris, 2013), demanded intense negotiating at COP21 and placed immense pressure on diplomats to reach an agreement. Simply put, the COP21 had to work, because otherwise, leaders could not go home to their citizens empty-handed again without delegitimising the UNFCCC and COP, the ethics and normative power of international collaboration, and the authority and capacity of the UN (and member states) to govern for the welfare of their citizens (Geden, 2015). As Monbiot astutely phrased it: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” (2015)
So, the celebration of The Paris Agreement’s most recent “historic” success does not disqualify, but exemplifies, the Anthrpopocene’s new politics of denial: a politics of future past, where science is disconnected from the politics based on it, depending on it, and emanating from it. Theory in the present trumps practice in the future. The familiar cycles of nature which have guided human civilization for millennia in the Holocene (see Gail, 2016), and which have also oriented how we have come to understand the successes or failures of governance processes – such as the annual COP conferences (i.e. as cyclical events, or Chronos) are now being replaced, implicitly, by an unpredictability (Kairos) that we now deny in our Anthropocene epoch: the failure to adjust society, politics, economics, and governance, to yield action that might avoid “the coming climate cataclysm.” (Northcott, 2015). In the face of sheer uncertainty and powerlessness, we talk the talk, and deny the walk that we know, deep down, we’ll eventually have to take.
Whether, and how, we might rethink the underlying rationalities, aims, and goals of this outdated type of governance – so as to lead to actual future action in new and unpredictable forms, or to ‘walk the walk’ in the Anthropocene in new ways – is something to which this article hopes to catalyse. But, let us all hope that, going forward, talk of climate governance in a distantly imagined future ceases to overpower and blanket the more essential, substantive action needed to be taken urgently, effectively, and immediately. To walk the walk, we must govern the future; unknown perhaps, but action nonetheless.
Scott Hamilton is a PhD candidate in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He recently edited Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 44, and has published on global governmentality, climate governance, and the philosophy of climate change. His research lies at the intersection of international relations, continental philosophy and governmentality, and climate change and the Anthropocene. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org . For his other work, see: Academia.edu.______________________________________________________________________________________
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