The most important and anticipated climate change conference in years is finally underway. In some ways, as Bill McKibben and Andrew Revkin have pointed out, its success is relatively assured thanks to the number of major commitments countries have already made. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see here. “The conference isn’t the game – it’s the scoreboard,” writes McKibben. To extend the metaphor even more, you might call it the league scoreboard, giving us a glimpse of many different storylines playing out.
Here are some of the themes we’ve been following to watch out for at Paris.
The horrendous terror attacks in Paris on November 13 raised the question of whether the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change would even happen. France and the United Nations quickly confirmed it would, however.
In opening remarks this week, President Obama said the continuation of the conference was an “act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children.”
The alleged origin of the attacks in Syria and the possibility that some of the terrorists may have entered the country disguised as refugees brings us to one of the most contentious stories: climate change’s impact on national security.
Violent conflict of any kind has a tremendous number of complex drivers
A historically bad, multi-year drought in Syria that preceded the civil war has been linked in one study to anthropogenic climate change. But how exactly you draw the causal arrows, from resentment of the Assad regime boiling over into protests, vicious government reprisals, and eventually ISIS filling the power vacuum, is still actively debated by policymakers and academics. Recently, conservative commentators have accused liberals of using examples like Syria to rank climate change as a greater threat than terrorism.
The truth is violent conflict of any kind has a tremendous number of complex drivers. As explained quite elegantly in adelphi’s ECC Factbook tool, environmental factors, which can displace people and provoke communal grievances, are critical to understanding some conflicts and how to build peace.
The U.S. military, by and large, has recognized this for some time and is increasingly voicing their concerns about the effects of climate change on outbreaks of conflict, mass displacement, and disaster relief.
Retired U.S. admirals and generals recently spoke at the Wilson Center to highlight just how important climate change is to national security and military operations. Under the auspices of the CNA Military Advisory Board, a research organization based in Washington, DC, more than two dozen flag officers have been touring the country to try to depoliticize climate action for several years.
Concern over the geopolitical implications of climate change is not limited to the defense portion of the “three Ds” (defense, diplomacy, development).
Last year the foreign ministries of the Group of 7, recognizing their role as the largest block of aid-giving countries, commissioned a report on the risks of climate change in fragile and conflict-affected countries. The result, authored by a consortium of research organizations including the Wilson Center, recommends concrete steps the G7 and individual foreign offices should take to integrate climate change considerations into development and diplomacy.
Following the report’s recommendations, Secretary Kerry announced the creation of a senior-level task force to “determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities.” He also said the State Department will work with the U.S. Agency for International Development to overlay their conflict and climate vulnerability assessments to better identify climate-fragility risks.
How this integration of climate change into foreign policy plays out and whether it fundamentally changes the way the U.S. government does business remains to be seen, but the intention to change the status quo is clear.
Energy in the Developing World and China
Another reason why climate change is so important in fragile and developing countries? There are 1.3 billion people in the world who don’t have access to electricity. Elevating these and many millions more out of poverty while capping and eventually reducing global carbon emissions is a massive challenge.
The expansion of renewable energy in low income countries is critical, in this respect, and there are signs a better path to development may be emerging. Indeed, the renewable energy era may have already started, says the former CEO and chairman of the Global Environment Facility Mohamed T. El-Ashry. Last year the global economy grew without an attendant rise in C02 emissions for the first time in more than four decades. Investment in renewable sources of electricity has outpaced fossil fuels for five years in a row, according to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.
The renewable energy era has already started
China is the biggest reason why. In terms of total annual investment, China leads the world in its commitment to renewable energy. Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Ethan Zindler said at the Wilson Center that China’s scale and innovation has been the primary reason solar prices have declined more than 80 percent over the last six years.
Of course China also leads the world in coal production and consumption and it is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. The costs of its breakneck coal-driven development are beginning to come to light. Popular discontent over air pollution levels, especially in urban areas, has risen to such levels that the government is being forced to respond.
Over the last year , China has reached a bilateral agreement with the United States to eventually “cap” emissions, announced a national carbon trading system, and finalized a sweeping air pollution law. The results of this “carbon pivot” will be crucial for determining overall warming levels.
Bilateral commitments like those between the United States and China (and the United States and India) are important markers for how climate negotiations are evolving.
Wilson Center Fellow Ruth Greenspan Bell has made the case that diplomats should look to the Cold War nuclear weapons negotiations for lessons on how to split up a global, multilateral problem into more manageable components. Writing in Foreign Affairs, she noted this is exactly what we’ve seen in the lead up to Paris. More and more, countries are employing “silver buckshot” rather than rely on the silver bullet of a binding global agreement. The goal of Paris itself is to elicit pledges from every country, not necessarily a perfectly harmonious, equitable, and effective solution to climate change in one shot.
Population and “Human Capital”
One issue that’s gaining attention as more countries begin seriously planning for climate change is demography.
The Worldwatch Institute’s Robert Engelman points out that in the UN synthesis report of emissions reduction pledges made before Paris, “population” appears 20 times, much more than previously and reflecting a greater attention by governments in their climate plans. Population dynamics, including growth and density, clearly contribute to the climate change challenge, but are often ignored, he writes, because they’re “fraught with the potential for shaming of high-fertility groups and individuals and scars from coercive ‘population programs’ by some governments in the past.”
Indeed, in Pope Francis’ otherwise very pro-environment and pro-poor encyclical, which added momentum to Paris this summer, he suggested reproductive health programs are thinly veiled efforts by developed countries to reduce poorer populations.
As governments are prompted to do more long-term planning, however, it’s becoming harder to ignore demography. Engelman argues this may lead to more attention paid to population-related issues, including reproductive health and the status of women. With that attention, he urges “vigilance to assure that any policies that result are based on the rights and reproductive choices of individuals and couples.”
The biggest test of success in Paris may be follow-through
Advocates argue that addressing population in a rights-based way by expanding access to family planning in places where it is scarce – as is the case in much of the developing world – is a win-win for people and the environment. Providing access to reproductive health services to those that want it, can slow population growth rates, improve the health of women and children, and increase resilience to the effects of climate change.
A study released last year by the Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital concluded that investing in “human capital,” including access to health services and education, is more effective at reducing climate vulnerability than large infrastructure projects.
Vik Mohan, medical director of Blue Ventures, a small NGO working in Madagascar, makes the case that the “climate-resilient” development framework gaining attention in Paris in fact describes what they and others have been doing for some time – combining interventions that improve the health, livelihoods, and environment of remote communities, all in one effort.
How exactly climate change and sustainability are incorporated into various development objectives going forward, from reproductive health and girls’ empowerment to food security, will be a major story to follow.
It’s a long process. Decisions made this week and next in Paris, just like those made in New York around the Sustainable Development Goals in September, have long tails and will have consequences that reverberate long into the future. Indeed, the biggest test of success in Paris may be follow-through, years and decades of steadily larger commitments from hundreds of countries to keep warming at safe levels.
Sources: Blue Ventures, Climate Home, Dot Earth, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Holy See, International Energy Agency, National Journal, The New York Times, PNAS, Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, The White House, Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital.
Photo Credit: The COP-21 opening plenary in Paris, courtesy of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.