Can the earth be saved by bureaucrats in long meetings, reciting jargon and acronyms while surrounded by leaning towers of documents? That is what’s supposed to happen in France this month, when representatives from all the world’s nations gather for COP21, the twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (U.N.F.C.C.C.), and the eleventh session of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol. “Just like in 1789, when the French Revolution gave great hope to the world,” Francois Hollande, France’s Socialist president, said about his aspirations for the conference, “history can be written in Paris.” Leaving aside the oddity of a president celebrating revolution — what makes him so sure he’s not the ancien régime? — Hollande’s statement unwittingly raises the possibility that the most important activity in Paris this month will happen not in any meeting room but in the place where most revolutions happen: the streets.
Activists in the People’s Climate Movement, a global organization that grew out of the 400,000-person People’s Climate March that took place in New York in September of last year, have planned another march to mark the opening of the conference, and more radical action is likely in the weeks that follow. These events will be taking place in the beautiful old-world capital of insurrection. Throughout the modern age, but most notably in 1789, 1830, 1848, 1871, 1934, and 1968, the French have taken to the streets to shake their government and often the entire globe, making Paris perhaps the greatest stage for popular unrest the world has ever seen.
It’s an open question whether the official delegates to the conference will see or hear what’s happening outside, since they won’t actually be in the city. John Jordan, an anticapitalist organizer in Britain in the 1990s and now an ardent climate activist in France, wrote to me recently that “perhaps the greatest irony of the ‘Paris’ summit is that it won’t be debated in Paris at all.” Instead, the summit will take place north of the city, in Le Bourget, a town in one of Paris’s poorest suburbs. “In some ways,” Jordan added, “there is a certain victory the social movements can claim from this.”
Ever since activists from around the world successfully blockaded the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in downtown Seattle in 1999, most global summits have taken place in rustic sites that are fortified into dystopias of guards, guns, helicopters, and surveillance technologies. The enforced seclusion of these settings demonstrates the power of protest in the twenty-first century, but it also demonstrates the continued ability of the elite to insulate themselves from the masses. The isolation is particularly strange in a case like the climate summit, when the bureaucrats in the banlieue are supposed to represent “us” — that is, the general public, humans, even all life on earth.
The explicit question before the parties to the Framework Convention is whether they can commit to collectively limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The answer is almost certainly no, since we’re already well on our way to a 1 degree increase, and much of the rest is expected to come from things we’ve already done, or haven’t done, or are doing right now. So what’s the point?
I asked Payal Parekh, a onetime climate scientist who is now the program director for the climate-advocacy group 350.org. She didn’t dismiss the conference out of hand. “Of course, it’s not going to keep us to two degrees,” she told me, “but it can move us closer in that direction.” She also suggested, however, that passively waiting for the U.N.F.C.C.C. to solve the problem would be mad; if we wait, we lose: “All the frontline communities across the world that literally put their bodies on the line and make it so difficult for fossil-fuel companies and mining companies to continue raping the planet — they’re as important as international agreements.”
In other words, a good outcome at the conference is important — but the conference must not be the only place change is made. The official narratives will tell you that the meeting is where the power lies, that it is the only chance to save ourselves. If something good comes out of it, we will likely be told that it is a gift to us rather than something that we extorted through activism. This is, in part, because the power of civil society and social movements is almost always underestimated or dismissed.
When we talk about climate we talk about many kinds of power. There’s the tangible question of how we power our machines — with coal, oil, and gas, or with wind, sunlight, and water. Then there’s the question of who has the power to decide what we do — governments, citizens, energy companies. The Paris conference is theoretically about governmental power, i.e., the 196 parties to the U.N.F.C.C.C., who are supposed to represent nearly every human on earth. But some of these governments (Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, for example) are themselves fossil-fuel corporations of a sort. When it comes to climate and environmental policy, the United States can be seen, in large measure, as a country run by the fossil-fuel industry; the Canadian government has been more or less at war with some of its First Nations peoples, who have blocked the construction of new pipelines for years.
Oil companies in particular have exerted enormous global power ever since the rise of Standard Oil in the United States and British Petroleum in the United Kingdom. Their modern equivalent can be seen in Charles and David Koch’s plan to raise $750 million during the coming U.S. presidential election, or the estimated $153 million that energy companies, unions, and political groups spent in 2012 on national television ads promoting fossil fuel. Such spending is one reason the United States has done so little in the almost thirty years that the world has been contemplating the menace of man-made climate change.
One of the secret joys of following the climate movement is the realization that what we need to do for ecological reasons could also make the world better politically and socially. For example, traditional energy companies hate solar panels on rooftops, which disperse electrical generation and turn consumers into producers. This distribution of electrical power is good for the environment, but it has the added benefit of distributing another kind of power as well. Utilities in places like Nevada, Arizona, and Florida have launched a war against rooftop solar power to keep the decentralization of power generation from undermining their profit models.
The smart electrical grid, with its reliance on small nodes and networks, suggests a more democratic world where power is dispersed. We need to reduce consumption, to come up with local models for generating not only fuel but food and other materials, to withdraw from the corporate-driven consumer society. It’s no secret why many corporations, along with the politicians who front for them, deny what climate change asks of us. The fossil-fuel age must inevitably end, and with its end will come an end to the concentration of power in the hands of fossil-fuel corporations. These corporations are fighting for their life — and our death — right now.
It is extraordinary and appalling to consider that we, and they, know that what we are doing is devastating the world, and that we, and they, nevertheless continue to do it anyway. When the U.N.’s first significant climate summit was held, in 1992, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was just above 350 parts per million. In March of this year the global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide averaged more than 400 ppm. The International Energy Agency recently reported that “the energy sector emitted as much CO2 over the last 27 years as in all the previous years.”
At the same time, many people have been working hard to reverse this course. The affiliated efforts of scientists, energy engineers, and climate activists have made this a heroic age whose achievements are yet to be recognized. The scientists tell us what we must do, the engineers tell us how we can do it, and the activists push to make the possibility a reality.
One way of marking how far these efforts have come in recent years is to consider the state of the world in 2009, the year of the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit. Back then, the climate movement was still small, fragmented, and inexperienced. It advocated for doing something about climate change, but many of the scientific analyses, campaign strategies, and energy alternatives were far less developed than they are today. There is now a large, networked climate movement that is operating in many parts of the world, and the general public is far more informed and concerned.
Of course, climate change itself has helped to wake people up. We have seen Hurricane Sandy, in the northeastern United States, and Typhoon Haiyan, in the Philippines (which killed more than 6,000 people), heat waves, freak snowstorms, the grim march of drought and fire across the dry American West and across Australia, unprecedented flash floods and deluging rains, and endless broken temperature records — this July was the hottest month in recorded global history. (It’s worth remembering the part that freak weather in 1788 and a concomitant rise in bread prices played in the French Revolution. Uprisings are often born of both idealism and desperation.)
The six years since Copenhagen, which included that momentous march last year in New York, can be seen as a long buildup to Paris. Think of it as a peaceful equivalent of getting on a war footing: troops are massing not to kill anyone but to demonstrate the will to move governments, economies, and conceptual frameworks. Yeb Sano, who represented the Philippines in earlier climate talks, wept publicly and fasted when Typhoon Haiyan devastated his country; the public pilgrimage he is making to Paris will take him through India and other nations affected by natural disasters.
In June, the Vatican released Pope Francis’s extraordinary Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality. (“Today,” the pope wrote, “we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”) In August, Islamic leaders issued their own statement about the opposition between what climate change demands of us and what capitalism wants. That month, 1,500 activists dressed in ghostly white safety jumpsuits staged an extraordinary piece of tactical theater by invading one of the largest coal mines in Europe and shutting it down for the day.
The idea that we need to leave 80 percent of the known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground — a number arrived at by climate scientists and popularized by “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” Bill McKibben’s landmark 2012 essay in Rolling Stone — has become an organizing point. This summer, Francois Hollande embraced the goal. The once-radical idea is quickly turning into common sense, as the idea of universal human rights did after the French Revolution.
Michael Brune, a longtime organizer who became the executive director of the Sierra Club not long after the Copenhagen conference fell apart, told me how this moment looks compared with six years ago. “We’re more battle-scarred and know what it takes to get countries to match their action with their promises. We are relentless, and we now have a movement that is big enough and broad enough, with enough stamina, that we can fight one project after another. We won’t always win, but we will never give up. Every fracking project, every coal-export terminal, crude-oil terminal, new gas pipeline, has a group or coalition of groups or pissed-off citizens organizing against it. And I would say that for every one of those fights we have a set of clean-energy options that are cheaper, or soon will be.”
McKibben put it more directly. “Two things have happened since Copenhagen,” he told me. “One, there’s now a movement, big enough to hold lots of leaders accountable for their actions. Two, the price of a solar panel has dropped 80 percent. That makes it easier to really imagine what comes next, and allows any leader who’s actually bold to make huge changes.”
These developments have borne political fruit. In November of last year, the United States and China announced an agreement on climate change (which is unfortunately nonbinding, because binding treaties must be ratified by the Senate, which would do no such thing in this case). In June, China submitted further emissions-reductions commitments for the Paris conference, and the Obama Administration took steps of its own in August. In September, California legislators ordered the state’s pension fund, worth almost half a trillion dollars, to divest from coal companies, a remarkable milestone for a divestment campaign that is only a few years old. (It was also a pragmatic measure, as the pension funds are estimated to have lost $5.1 billion from not divesting earlier.) The surprisingly decisive victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in Canada represented in part a repudiation of Stephen Harper’s abominable record on climate issues.
But the changes we need won’t necessarily be made by leaders, at least not by the kind who head governments. Hollande invoked the French Revolution; it might be harder to see that we are now in the midst of a climate revolution — or many revolutions. The horrific breaking apart of predictable and harmonious systems in the biosphere is one revolution. The inevitability of the end of the age of fossil fuel, which will look like an ancien régime to people born in 2100, is another. Finally, there are the populist forces that are driving the transition to a post-carbon economy and fighting, on many continents, in many nations, the fossil-fuel powers. The most important question raised by the climate summit may be: Does the power to change the world belong to the people in the conference rooms of Le Bourget or to the people in the streets of Paris?