2007 - 2021

Everyone is the Mother of Victory

Bella COP illustration 'which way' eyerricksEveryone is the mother of victory; No one is the father of defeat. Do we claim COP21 as a success, and risk watching it being used by fossil fuel failures to carry on burning humanity, and so become complicit in defeat? Do we claim COP21 was a failure, and risk being the naysayers who didn’t recognise the work needed to bring fossil fuels (instead of humanity) to an end? This Loki-esque question about our motives, about our fears for how we might appear, may seem beside the point if the fundamental question is “Was the COP a success or a failure?And there are screeds of excellent articles assessing the outcome of the Paris COP Agreement, the Agreement that is now the world’s governments’ roadmap for addressing climate change.

On the side saying it has been a failure, we have Friends of the Earth, Climate Code Red, the New Internationalist, Kevin Anderson, and a zillion other campaigning groups and scientists:

  • The New Internationalist describes the Paris deal as an ‘Epic fail on a planetary scale’ (see their cartoon history of climate negotiations) and conclude that, although “The Paris Agreement aims to keep the global average temperature rise to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’” in fact “the emission cuts contained in the agreement are based on voluntary pledges called ‘Intended Nationally Determined Contributions’ (INDCs) that governments drew up individually before the talks, . . . [and] are going to lead us to 3.7° warming of the planet.”
  • George Monbiot superbly sums up the talks, saying: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” He writes that: “A maximum of 1.5C, now an aspirational and unlikely target, was eminently achievable when the first UN climate change conference took place in Berlin in 1995. Two decades of procrastination, caused by lobbying – overt, covert and often downright sinister – by the fossil fuel lobby, coupled with the reluctance of governments to explain to their electorates that short-term thinking has long-term costs, ensure that the window of opportunity is now three-quarters shut. The talks in Paris are the best there have ever been. And that is a terrible indictment.”
  • Climate Code Red say the “plan is nothing more than business as usual. Worse, all possible gains of increased efficiency in vehicles or energy use in buildings will be negated because of increased and growing consumption [emphasis added]”. They argue: “The coup de grace in Paris was the formation of the ‘High Ambitions Group’, a grouping of developed countries led by the United States and the European Union and developing countries like the Marshall Islands and the Philippines”. While pushing for a “legally binding, ambitious and fair deal that would set out long-term targets reflecting current scientific knowledge about climate change”, this group secured ambitious targets, while allowing the USA and others to get “rid of the long-standing principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ (CBDR), which became subordinated to the idea that  “all parties must share” in the load regardless of its historical emissions”.

On the side saying it has been, or could be, a success, we have WWF, the Economist, Avaaz, and a whole host of mainstream politicians, diplomats and journalists:

  • The Economist says that “the agreement surpassed what had been anticipated, delivering a range of compromises that all parties could live with” and, most crucially, sending a signal to investors [emphasis added] that “the united governments of the world say that the age of fossil fuels has started drawing to a close”. However, they point out that the Agreement “says nothing concrete about how much anyone has to do”, and that “bottom-up processes, rather than unenforceable UN mandates” are needed to “drive up the level of action”.
  • Similarly, Tasneem Essop, head of the WWF delegation, says “The Paris agreement is an important milestone”, but WWF adds: “While the Paris agreement would go into effect in 2020, science tells us that in order to meet the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5C or well below 2C, emissions must peak before 2020 and sharply decline thereafter. The current pledges will provide about half of what is needed, leaving a 12 to 16 gigaton emissions gap.” However, echoing the point that a crucial signal is being sent to investors, WWF’s Samantha Smith concludes: “We are seeing the start of a global transition towards renewable energy. At the same time, we’re already witnessing irreversible impacts of climate change. The talks and surrounding commitments send a strong signal to everyone – the fossil fuel era is coming to an end.”
  • And Avaaz’s positive reaction had me welling up as I read their optimistic take on the talks. It was unbearable reading what I hoped was true while being fully aware that the ‘3.7 degrees and rising’ trajectory continues. Avaaz titled its response ‘Victory! The end of fossil fuels has begun . . .” Following up with: “World leaders at the UN climate talks have just set a landmark goal that can save everything we love! This is what we marched for, what we signed, called, donated, messaged, and hoped for: a brilliant and massive turning point in human history.” Reading this I allowed myself to feel – as they no doubt intended – the unbelievable relief I would feel if/ when we collectively side step this mass murder on a scale Dr Strangeglove and other terrorists can only dream of. Feeling that, welling up, I realised how much effort goes into remaining numb in the face of this, how much collective effort, hope and care is locked away in the coping strategy of frozen numbness.

What if the fundamental question is not “Was the COP a success or a failure? but “Can we use the COP to make fundamental change?” and if so: What change and how?

The fossil fuel lobby will be delighted if our painting the COP as a failure means that it signals no change to the market, does not damage their share price and future projects, and so changes nothing.

Likewise, they’ll be delighted if our painting the COP as a success means nothing changes because we think that governments will take significant action without unprecedented pressure.

Either response means allowing them to continue to define the future, which means there won’t be one.

As ever, the trick is to refuse the way those in power seek to frame the question.

Meeting a Parliamentary committee in Kenya last month, one MP asked me “Are you here to protect Mt Elgon or help the squatters?” He was framing the question in the way both sides frame the [real] climate change debate: “Are you going to protect the environment, or help the poor?”

CWHmVcuWwAAZApJHere is 350’s Bill McKibben, following up on the Avaaz positive clarion call to arms with a powerful article in today’s Guardian titled ‘Climate deal: the pistol has fired, so why aren’t we running?’

“With the climate talks in Paris now over, the world has set itself a serious goal: limit temperature rise to 1.5C. Or failing that, 2C. Hitting those targets is absolutely necessary: even the one-degree rise that we’ve already seen is wreaking havoc on everything from ice caps to ocean chemistry. But meeting it won’t be easy, given that we’re currently on track for between 4C and 5C. Our only hope is to decisively pick up the pace . . . the only important question, is: how fast . . .

“You’ve got to stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast). You have to start installing solar panels and windmills at a breakneck pace – and all over the world. The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it . . .

“The world’s fossil fuel companies still have five times the carbon we can burn and have any hope of meeting even the 2C target – and they’re still determined to burn it. The Koch Brothers will spend $900m on this year’s American elections. As we know from the ongoing Exxon scandal, there’s every reason to think that this industry will lie at every turn in an effort to hold on to their power – they’re clearly willing to break the planet if it means five or perhaps 10 more years of business as usual for them.”

What Avaaz, Bill McKibben’s 350 movement, and all the committed campaigners and scientists seek to create is a global mood/ movement/reality in which it is clear that investments in fossil fuels are going to be left stranded on a shrinking sandbank, while renewables surf into the economy of the future.

That is one of the two most urgent tasks we face. When a boat springs a leak, almost all attention needs to be on fixing that small but utterly significant hole, while some needs also be paid to the direction of travel – the second task. There’s no point fixing the hole, or securing renewable energy, if the boat is still powering us towards the rocks of social and ecological chaos.

In contrast to the action Bill McKibben invites us to get our teeth into right NOW, Kevin Anderson sums up the fantasyland of business as usual. He talks of the “techno-utopian framing of the Paris Agreement”. One that is “premised on future technologies removing huge quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere” rather than on binding agreements for immediate cuts to emissions now. He concludes that we have to make:

“Fundamental changes to the political and economic framing of contemporary society. This is a mitigation challenge far beyond anything discussed in Paris – yet without it our well-intended aspirations will all too soon wither and die on the vine. We owe our children, our planet and ourselves more than that. So let Paris be the catalyst for a new paradigm – one in which we deliver a sustainable, equitable and prosperous [emphasis added] future for all.”

Andy Skuce stated this very clearly a few days ago in ‘The Road to 2 degrees’:

“If we are to achieve a stable climate, we will need to reverse this growth in emissions over a much shorter time period, while maintaining the economies of the developed world and, crucially, allowing the possibility of economic growth for the majority of humanity [emphasis added] that has not yet experienced the benefits of a developed-country middle-class lifestyle.” And he concludes that: “Had the world got its act together twenty years ago it could have adopted climate policies that were effective, feasible and fair. Of those three characteristics of good policy, at best, we now only get to pick two.”

Last week, George Marshall, in explaining ‘Why we fear terrorism more than climate change’, wrote:

“Climate change struggles to find a compelling narrative because it has no external enemy. We are all responsible, simply by living our lives and caring for our families [emphasis added].”

I’ll now pick up on all those places I’ve added emphasis.

It’s not just whether or not we choose to return wholeheartedly to the fray of this battle for a future, it is also the way we frame the debate, the direction of travel, that determines the outcome.

“We are, above all, storytelling animals. Climate-change campaigners and scientists . . . mobilise narratives of imminent threat by focusing on enemies with clear intentions, be that Exxon, Shell, billionaire deniers or politicians, hoping to turn base data into emotional gold.”

George Marshall, having argued that campaigning on climate change is so hard because we are all causing it, and because its consequences are so vast and measured in scientific data, but not yet, for most of us, experienced as immediate and specific, says:

“We are, above all, storytelling animals. Climate-change campaigners and scientists . . . mobilise narratives of imminent threat by focusing on enemies with clear intentions, be that Exxon, Shell, billionaire deniers or politicians, hoping to turn base data into emotional gold.”

But this is not a strong enough story on its own: a story of enemies out there, when we know just how deeply our actions implicate us in this process.

We need a far stronger story, but if so, then that story is going to challenge each of us as much as it challenges the 1%/ fossil fuel failures/capitalism/ whatever we choose to call ‘them’. .

The words and phrases I’ve highlighted point to the assumption that our well-being depends on a system of economic growth. They point to our having been persuaded to believe that this growth is essential for prosperity, and that the ‘Global North’ has benefited from it and therefore the ‘Global South’ should too. How dare anyone ask the poor to forgo the emissions benefits of the rich?

As mentioned above, at a meeting with a Parliamentary committee in Kenya last month (and, yes, I fly there regularly), one MP asked me “Are you here to protect Mt Elgon or help the squatters?” I noted, above, that he was framing the question in the way both sides frame the [real] climate change debate: “Are you going to protect the environment, or help the poor?”

However, the real story of prosperity and well-being is quite different, almost the opposite. But to say ‘the opposite’ is to fall into the trap the paradigm sets you.

Luckily, we had to go and have a cuppa before the Parliamentary committee could see us, so I had the time to think how to respond, the time one normally only has afterwards – in fantasy – when it is too late.

Returning to the room I suggested that the real question was:

“Will we protect Mt Elgon in the only way possible: by securing the community lands of those whose ways of life has protected, sustained and been sustained by it?”

There is no opposition between the needs of the environment and the needs of the poor and the rest of us. Believing there is such an opposition is the first move in the old colonial game of divide and rule.

Resources are infinite if we treat them as finite, but vanish if we treat them as infinite.

There is plenty to go round if we limit the amount billionaires take for themselves, but not if we believe that our prosperity relies on their wealth.

Believing that in the end power and life comes down to money, means being persuaded that scarcity is the order of the day, that we must strive to have more than enough just to be sure to have enough (“your house is at risk”, “shares can go down as well as up”, “what about your pension”, “be realistic, knuckle down and do what you’re told”). In that framing, the question is: who has money, who doesn’t, and it’s never enough.

Remembering, instead, that in the end it all comes down to humanity, to how we live and how we die. That it comes down to making choices about the kind of society we live in and are willing to work for. In that framing, there can always be far more than enough of the effort, collective action, and achievement, more than money alone could ever be able to buy.

There are so many straightforward solutions that – implemented – would mean creating a society we could all relax and work hard in; and by doing so, take care of other societies, places and people. The contrast between that world, and living in the way we currently are (in a system so designed that we are daily implicated in the exploitation and death of other people, places, societies and ecologies), is maybe similar to the contrast between living in a war zone and living in peace: a zone that cuts right through us.

Here are just a few of the straightforward solutions that I’ve tripped over in the last few days:

  • Solving flooding doesn’t need more investment in defences, just less investment in offences.
  • The basic income for all has been tried and succeeded before. We can do away with poverty rather than the planet.
  • There are other straightforward ways to end poverty, even (or especially) in the worst economic times. One town in Austria demonstrated this in the midst of the Great Depression. Their solution was so simple it was made illegal.

The solutions are in front of us: Do we revitalise and renew our world, or allow the enrichment juggernaut to persuade us to remain part of it, as it uses us up and spits us out?

Do we continue to frame this as the needs of the environment vs the needs of the poor, or do we see how this is just divide and rule, and decide to refuse the deception and instead to end poverty in a way that recognises what true wealth is, and in a way that secures our ecologies too?

As George Marshall says, we need to change the story we are telling ourselves.

But the story needs to go far deeper than defeating enemies.

  • We need to overturn the story we have been told about what ‘reality’ is, when the story we have been told is so clearly the opposite of realistic.
  • We need to be clear about campaigning with all our might against the fossil fuel lobby, but know that they are the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that is so much deeper, that cuts through, numbs and freezes our hearts.
  • Above all, we need to remember that progressive change never happens from above, it happens from below through an ability to sustain each other and resist.

Change happens by contagion.

Suddenly realising that we are not isolated and alone, one among billions, but head over heels, hundreds to zillions, connected and effective, our every act – helpful or unhelpful – rippling out.

Looking deeply into the despair of what we are doing to our world, yet taking the leap of action grounded in hope despite all that.

That is what the fossil fuel system doesn’t want. And this is what we are capable of.


Comments (12)

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  1. Archie Hamilton says:

    Well thank goodness that you’ve taken the pressure off his young shoulders. I’m sure that Danny Macaskil will be able to sleep easier his bed tonight after this.

    1. Mathew says:

      Ha! Very talented young cyclist (and grumpy old bastard) trigger global warming article. Result.

  2. James Munro says:

    Depressingly COP21 was either a negligible success or a profound failure. Bill McKibben’s excellent price in The Guardian explains simply what must be done to stand half a chance of tackling runaway Climate Change, we won’t even get close.

    In Twenty years from now we will look back and question why 20-40 years ago we did nothing, or nothing of consequence.

    I genuinely fear for my children and their children.

  3. Dougie Blackwood says:

    I’m one of these people that is sceptical of political promises. Regardless of how many countries sign up to a CO2 reduction it will not happen in any meaningful way. We will continue to burn fossil fuel until scarcity makes the price unaffordable. As the temperature rises we will expend more on air-conditioning and maybe a little less on heating. Self interest overrides the need for action and anyway it’s for others to deal with not us.

    So long as my car has petrol and my heating and air-con keeps me comfortable then it’s for others to suffer the pain. If my politicians put forward anything that goes contrary to that idea then they will be voted out and don’t they just understand that fact all too well.

    One day we will see the light but I’m afraid that day is a long way off. Get ready for many more starving sub-Saharan Africans and drowning island communities. When London’s new replacement barrage is built and Helensburgh is under water politicians will still be telling us everything is OK.

  4. JG says:

    God what lot of verbiage over an official fantasy!

    The Truth is the Truth whether or not “an overwhelming majority” have the wit to believe it.

    Scream down the Truthtellers like Piers Corbyn or David Bellamy aw ye like, but “facts are chiels that winna ding and canna be disputed”.

    The world is cooling folks and has been since 1998.

  5. Mathew says:

    I was impressed by the Bill McKibben and George Monbiot articles but I think James Hansen nailed it when he said that the agreement was a ‘fraud’. The headlines generated at the end of the process hailed it as ‘historic’ and a ‘breakthrough’ and much was made of the goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 or 2 degrees C. The 1.5 target is complete fiction – it cannot possibly be realised. The 2 degrees target looks very unlikely too. In fact the pledges made at the conference would result in a temperature rise of between 2.7 and 3.3 degrees.
    I suppose what angers me most about the Paris COP is that 1.5 degree aim or aspiration. If something is completely impossible to put into practice then why are supposedly responsible politicians, negotiators, journalists and news outlets splashing it across the world and why has it taken so long for scientists to point out that in fact it is complete nonsense. Apparently it originated with some of the representatives of very low lying countries or islands who are desperately trying to save their territories from disappearing under the waves. But why would 1.5 degrees save these places? The 1 degree rise that we have had so far has triggered the melting of Greenland’s glaciers. The Guardian reported that one glacier in north east Greenland is currently losing 4.5 billion tonnes of fresh water into the North Atlantic annually! Does a rise in temperature from 1 to 1.5 degrees stop or slow this down? Of course not – it speeds it up. Sea level rise (of many metres) is now completely inevitable. Some may say that global warming is a problem only for the poor and that rich European countries need not worry but in fact a huge tract of western Europe will be affected by sea level rise. From Calais, north to Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark will all be affected. Nairn’s not looking too good either.
    Add in water scarcity, food scarcity, storms, fires and wars and we are likely to see mass migrations that will simply dwarf the current movement of humanity out of Syria and into Europe.
    So please tell me why, exactly, were they cheering and back slapping in Paris last week?

  6. Lesley Docksey says:

    Pledges and promises don’t go very far. Does anyone remember the Make Poverty History campaign that took place when the G7 (or was it 8?) was at Gleneagles? They hailed it a great success, all the money that was pledged to the poor to combat poverty. It turned out that most of the money had been ‘pledged’ before (some of it more than once) and never ever got to the poor.
    I fear COP21 will be the same.
    I have been watching climate change in southern England for years now, seeing the tiny changes that a warmer climate brings – trees budding earlier and shedding leaves later, birds building nests when technically it was still ‘winter’, and as for the flowers… I’ve seen wild violets, that used to bloom in March flowering in November. Same with wild primroses, which are in bloom now. Yesterday I was going to prune my rosemary bush but can’t. It’s busy flowering. The honeysuckle has already got next year’s leaves out.
    And last night I saw something that really shocked me. The wide grass verges beside a housing estate in a nearby town are always a sight in spring with huge swathes of daffodils. Here we are in the middle of December and the daffodils are in full bloom.
    The poor in undeveloped countries live close to the earth and see far more of the effects of climate change than we do. For the rich the earth is no more that a resource to be used, but we are using it up and soon the cupboard will be bare.
    It is hard not to despair, but environmental campaigners will somehow still keep going – because we have to.

  7. old battle says:

    This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate Paperback – 7 Mar 2015
    by Naomi Klein Klein tries to find away past her former scepticism through her (our) uncertainties offering for a while the “reformed green capitalism” that will adapt and transform ‘global business’ into a sustainable economic green model of new carbon-free emission- less capitalism. Then she rebukes herself (it is a long book) and comes to the only logical conclusion that current capitalist culture (weak regulations, continual demand for raw-material extractive growth, market chasing global capital without borders) not should but must be radically defeated or our grandchildren will suffer …how much?
    Bella needs a reviewer for this vital text.
    Climate and indeed weather, our natural habitat , human development and in many cases societal existence all share a common enemy ….current market capitalism.

    1. JG says:

      I’ll plow my way through the Turgid Tome if you would like?

      Mind you, you might not like what you read at the end of it!

  8. Alister Hamilton says:

    It is both interesting and informative to look at the fossil fuel sources of carbon emissions that are driving climate change. These are oil, coal and natural gas.

    The availability of oil has been studied in great detail by research groups such as the Global Energy Systems group at Uppsala University in Sweden. Physics Professor Kjell Aleklett who leads that group points out that oil depletion will naturally take care of carbon emissions from oil keeping that source’s contribution in line with a 1.5 degrees C temperature increase.


    A group of US mining and manufacturing engineers, The Hill’s Group, have recently produces a report on the status of world oil depletion using a thermodynamic/economic model that predicted the present oil price decline. They point out that crude oil will cease to provide any economic boost to the world economy as early as 2020.


    This appears to be a very clever piece of work and provides an upper limit to the oil price going forward. The current low oil price appears to be a going out of business sale!

    The question then is, what about coal and gas?

    And what will be the consequence of the imminent loss of the world’s primary transport fuel?

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