Gaius Publius: How to Think About the Paris Climate Talks

By Gaius Publius, a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States and frequent contributor to DownWithTyranny, digby, Truthout, and Naked Capitalism. Follow him on Twitter @Gaius_Publius, Tumblr and Facebook. Originally published at at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.

The Paris climate talks — officially COP 21, or the 21st “conference of the parties” to the UN’s climate treaty-making body, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) — are much in the news these days, and I imagine most people have no idea how to think about them. That is, they don’t think much will happen there that will help, and beyond that, it’s just numbers and speeches, stuff that flies over people’s heads.

So here are four points to consider as you listen to the reports and analyses. For easy reference, these are:

  • The most ambitious emission pledges on the table would still result in catastrophe.
  • Two degrees warming is still too much.
  • Paris, at best, is baby steps and a scoreboard.
  • The media can spin, but nature bats last.

If you remember these things, especially the first and the second, you’ll have the least you need to know to understand the Paris climate conference. I’m drawing much if this from Mark Hertsgaard’s recent article in The Nation, as well from Bill McKibben’s Paris conference piece in Foreign Policy. Both pieces are worth a full read.

Finally, as a reminder, a fifth takeaway from me:

  • This isn’t a discussion. It’s not a negotiation. There’s a lot of money on the table, and it’s going to take force to make the Bigs walk away from it.

Nothing I haven’t said before, but in light of the above, it seems to need saying again. The conference will produce “some” progress, but given the speed we need, it will take force to get us the rest of the way. Click the link for a brief discussion. Now the four points from the list above.

The Most Ambitious Emissions Pledges Would Still Result in Catastrophic Warming

From a climate standpoint, all of the national pledges (whatever that means without retributional force) to reduce emissions, if implemented, would still result in a climate-killing 3.5°C warming. Hertsgaard:

The road to hell, it’s said, is paved with good intentions. A case in point is unfolding at the landmark United Nations climate summit in Paris, where president Obama and other world leaders seem eager to define a scientific failure as a political success. This triumph of political spin over scientific reality is unfolding for understandable, even well-intentioned reasons, but its effects would be ruinous for human lives and institutions now and for generations to come.

“There is such a thing as being too late,” Obama said today in his speech to the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “And when it comes to climate change, that hour is almost upon us. But if we act here, if we act now, if we place our short-term interests behind [those of our children’s future], then we won’t be too late for them.”

This lofty rhetoric, however, clashes with the actual proposals the United States, China, and other big powers are putting forward at the summit. As Obama noted, more than 180 countries have outlined pledges for future reductions in heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But the combined effect of these voluntary pledges—even assuming, generously, that each is fully implemented—would still result in global emissions continuing to increase for decades to come, soaring well past the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above the level that prevailed prior to the Industrial Revolution. Temperatures would instead rise to 2.7 to 3.5 C above the pre-industrial level, a catastrophic amount.

The takeaway here — some improvement, but not enough.

Two Degrees Warming Is Still Too Much

The best takeaway from Hertsgaard’s piece is the recognition, which I’ve seen many places, but never in the news, that two degrees warming is way too generous a ceiling. One-and-a-half degree is almost all we can tolerate, given that we’re at one degree warming now, and the climate is already going out of control (my emphasis):

Bear in mind, 2 degrees is often described as a “safe” guardrail, but the latest science and real-world observations demonstrate that in fact it marks the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” warming. Just ask the leaders of Kiribati and other low-lying Pacific island states who are already planning the evacuation of homelands doomed to disappear within decades beneath rising seas. Or ask farmers in the Sahel region of Africa and other areas that already endure hot and dry conditions. Man-made warming has already increased temperatures by 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels, worsening droughts, heat waves, and storms, with predictable impacts on crop yields, rural incomes, and hunger in much of Africa and other poor regions.

Thus the majority of the world’s governments urge a temperature limit of 1.5 C. This view is virtually absent from the US media, perhaps because these governments represent the world’s most vulnerable nations and the US government dismisses the position as unrealistic, but the disagreement is likely to permeate the rest of the Paris summit.

It’s pretty simple. Global warming of 1.5°C is already in the pipeline, guaranteed. We have to … well, stop now.

Baby Steps and a Scoreboard

On the plus side, at least they’ve started making commitments. Will they honor them? If past is prologue, not likely. But still, baby steps?

Here’s how to think about what happens in Paris over the course of the next two weeks: The conference isn’t the game — it’s the scoreboard. …

We won’t win the climate fight; we won’t even come close. But at least we’ll know the score — and we’ll know how much we have to do in the next few crucial years.

As McKibben points out, the 2009 Copenhagen meeting ended with an expressed desire to keep global warming below 2°C, and nothing else. Paris will be more than nothing else. Baby steps?

The Media Can Spin, But Nature Bats Last

All the bought political spin in the world won’t change the facts. Science — the natural world — bats last. Senators can hold all the snowballs they want in their hands. The laws of physics aren’t paying a dime’s bit of attention. Hertsgaard:

Science does not care about humans’ emotions or political conundrums. The laws of physics and chemistry do not compromise; they don’t know how. We must either find a way to respect these laws or, our good intentions notwithstanding, we will find ourselves on a road to hell.

And those are your takeaways; the rest is expansion and explanation, something I and others will gladly provide later. This, though, is all you need to know if you want to remember just what matters.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Steve H.

    – It’s going to take force…

    So releasing energy at an increasingly rapid rate is what it’s going to take to stop the release of energy?

    The Empire of Bases has not made the world a more stable place. The ‘Global temperature record’ shows increasingly broad oscillations and chaotic behavior. The nearest simple model that fits is a cranked-up r in the Verhulst Equation, after dropping off a stable maxima. Extrapolating indicates greater chaos to come, but even at the maxima, there was plenty of species diversity, it was just above the Arctic Circle.

    It’s rare for this site to support the dominant paradigm, of letting war pigs and self-deluded apes see who can throw rocks the farthest. Bad call, Ripley.

    1. reslez

      The linked article equates lawsuits with force.

      It’s going to take force, not discussion, to end the death grip of the carbon industry, and lawsuits are force. Just ask the tobacco industry.

  2. Steve H.

    I made the error of assuming the post indicated the opinions of the site. May I apologize with a quote:

    You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      It also helps to read the post or do a little research on the author. Let your finger do the research if you’re not up to it, click on the link in the post, for instance, before jumping to conclusions; the “force” Gaius is talking about is, ” a RICO suit against the big carbon companies.” You feel perhaps the judiciary branch of our government is too much like brute force or too corrupt? (alas, you may have a point :o(, but in theory, that’s the right place to deal with criminal behavior).

      The link embedded in the text, “it’s going to take force” is:

      See for yourself.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Oh yes and the other types of “force” Gaius points to in the links are political force and the force of public opinion.

        1. Gaius Publius

          Thanks, Brooklyn. Also the force inherent in destroying the market value of a company and/or its stock.

          For example, a RICO or Martin Act lawsuit that prosecutes a FF company for fraudulently overstating the value of its unmonetized carbon reserves ought to cause investors to flee, at least until its reserved are correctly revalued and the stock price finds a bottom.

          Divestment campaigns have that effect as well.

          Sarbanes-Oxley prosecutions that threaten to put the C-class execs in prison would make that market disruption spread to internal management and replacement hiring. (Ask yourself: If Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson were in jail for signing fraudulent annual statements, would you take his place at the big table? At any price?)

          All of this, and more, counts as force.


          1. Susan the other

            I confess I’d love to see Tillerson perp-walked. The thought makes me smile. But there is a higher god. It’s name is Finance. Whoever controls finance controls the world. So far it’s the EU, Japan, the US, and China. A good mix to enforce effective climate mitigation. Not that it is a done deal; but we should all buy a few pair of long johns and plant shade trees. And stop eating so damn much.

  3. financial matters

    Here is what Gaius meant when he was talking force

    “”It’s going to take force, not discussion, to end the death grip of the carbon industry, and lawsuits are force. Just ask the tobacco industry.

    Look, this business has to die, selling carbon as fuel, and at the fastest possible rate. To ensure the best possible future for ourselves and our children, we need to switch to 100% renewable energy starting now and at a WWII “wartime production” pace. Yet this industry is so wealthy and so “connected” — after all, both Obama and Clinton have supported more extraction, even while speaking against it — that its executives will not stand down, will not stop, until they are forced to.

    This is the crucial question, isn’t it? Are we willing to force them to stand down? Many of us are; perhaps many of you are as well. If so, god and the U.S. criminal code has given us an incredibly powerful tool. The tool is, in fact, so powerful that on consideration, I fully understand why Loretta Lynch and Barack Obama may be afraid to use it. Given what’s been revealed about Exxon already, a RICO suit against the big carbon companies would be a slam dunk.

    I’d bet money that the government is afraid to use it … precisely because it would work. “”


    As Naomi Klein has put it

    “Klein is happy with some of the changes she has seen on the environmental front; Obama’s decision to turn down the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Shell withdrawing from Arctic drilling operations and Alberta’s NDP government opening up to diversifying its economy are all examples she cited.

    But, she said those changes wouldn’t have happened without pressure from social movements.”

    1. Crazy Horse

      Unfortunately the only “force” that I can conceive of with the power to reverse the direction of climate change that an industrial revolution based upon burning fossil fuels has created is a total collapse of industrial civilization back to a level of population and technology where the human race is just one of many species sharing the ecosphere. After a few generations the planet might start to return to its former fluctuating equilibrium.

      Homo Sapiens has become a brilliant inventor of technology in pursuit of ever more individual power and wealth. But as a social entity the species is little advanced over it’s tribal roots.

      Technologies like the LFTR thorium reactor are cast aside unless they are the means to more
      control in the hands of the Malignant Overlords, even if they could power industrial civilization for another 1,000 years. And while surplus energy is the fundamental necessity for perpetuating industrial civilization, even free energy is insufficient to permit sustained exponential growth in population and resource consumption.

      Geoengineering at the scale that people like Bill Gates envision might even be capable of altering the climate worldwide, but there is little reason to believe that the Gods of Technology will ever obtain the necessary wisdom and knowledge to use it wisely and controllably.

      So what will play out is some form of social collapse accompanied by a continued reduction in the suitability of the Planet for human occupancy. The speed and interaction of these two tendencies is impossible to predict, but they will occur.

  4. Norb

    The only hope seems to be an awakening in the consciousness of the people. The internal realization that exploitation cannot be the guiding principle of a culture and way of life. Living differently is the only option. Listening to world leaders and elite progressive activists spin their tales of progress or plans for the future is a fools errand. They are exploiters all.

    It seems the capitalist mindset for dealing with global warming is to protect ones position in the profit game.
    The force that is needed is to relentlessly advocate for a change in our social structure, not in trying to make that structure somehow change its inherent goals. Capitalism is the striving for profit born through exploitation-period.

    The culture of the exploiter is one of migration and movement. Strip the local environment of all value and them move on to the next opportunity. It is a culture of staying that we need. Of relearning how to care for the environment in which we live. Of building local economies that can sustain the local population. Of gaining the language and tools to fight and resist the rapacious appetites of large corporations.

    Death is nature batting last. The mindset of the exploiter is that they always think they can cheat death. Since they live out their lives dishing out pain and suffering instead of being on the receiving end, they have no empathy or true connection to anything except themselves.

  5. Susan the other

    In 2008 somebody stopped the world. It has been restricted to a minimum of industrial activity since then. All good for the planet. And us. To transition to a new “economy” (we need a better word) most of us humans have tried to avoid hardship, for ourselves. Remember that we didn’t let Lehman crash until after the Beijing olympics. It’s a juggling act. And one of the knives we are willing to drop is ocean rise imo. We have calculated those losses already. If we can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere we are home free. But I don’t believe it. We need to adapt to new ways of living. I don’t hear much about that. What I do hear is talk about how we can create new devices that will allow our insane lifestyles to continue using less energy. And I not only do not believe that, I think it is a blatant and self-serving lie. Because our “economy” needs to have a profit – what we need are economies that do not rely on profits.

    1. Lambert Strether

      On “stopping the world” it’s true that the flattening growth may have bought time on the carbon front.

      That said, when class disparity is taken into account, I feel that the powers that be slammed on the emergency brake, but are still pressing the accelerator.

  6. Malcolm MacLeod, MD

    Most nations are not willing to accept the adoption of the simpler lifestyle that would be
    necessary to even lessen the rate of global warming. For this reason, we have damned the
    planet and most of its creatures to Ragnarök.

    1. different clue

      How much simpler a lifestyle would everyone in the world have to accept in order to reduce the standing carbon-skyload? How many people in the complex-lifestyle nations would be willing to adopt that level of simpleness in open view so as to have the credibility to speak of simpling-down to their fellow complex lifestyle co-nationals?

      For example, not one of the Three Hundred Million Indians who live without electricity will accept staying without electricity. They WILL HAVE their electricity. And the Modi Administration WILL REDBALL-GREENLIGHT all the coal plants needed for Three Hundred Million Indians to HAVE their electricity. So . . . how little electricity would normal everyday Americans be willing to live on in their daily retail-residential personal end-user lives? If Americans were willing to live on that little electricity, would they (we) then have the moral standing to insist that residential retail end-user Indians also live on that same amount of electricity per day? Is such an approach worth a try?

      Does anyone here even know how much personal end-user electricity the average residential retail-level American uses per day in living herm’s own life in herm’s own home? Has anyone even bothered to try and find out that number?

  7. HarrySnapperOrgans

    Not in the least detracting from the scepticism of prior posters re. fine words versus necessary action, something very positive could come out of this down the road: development of a (global) sense of a shared interest and purpose, at odds with the competative instinct, economic and political. Climate misery might be just what it takes to save us from a bigger and more violent incineration.

    (Not soon of course. But at +3C say, possibly around the end of the century.)

Comments are closed.