Paris: Optimism, Pessimism and Realism

Brian Heatley argues that the real meaning of the Paris Climate Agreement is that it is now almost inevitable that there will be 3-4 degrees C of warming by 2100, and that we urgently need to face this and its political implications

A climate agreement has been signed in Paris. After years of squabbling all the Great Powers, followed rather less enthusiastically by almost the entire international community, have, for the first time, come to an agreement. Optimistic upbeat press releases claim that this at last is the deal that will put us on the way to limiting dangerous climate change to a manageable and safe 2°C, or even 1.5°C. Obama has his ‘turning point for the world’ and the world is on the way to being saved! And enthusiasm for this second great Treaty of Paris and French diplomatic triumph ominously matches that for the Treaty signed by the Great Powers almost a century ago at Versailles.

The rich world’s environmental movement’s public response has largely reflected this optimism: Greenpeace UK concluded that COP21 shows the end of fossil fuels is near.  The message from environmentalists up until Paris has been that if the world’s politicians act now, drastically cut emissions and invest massively in renewables, then the climate will by and large be OK, and the massive investment required will spark a new sustainable economic boom, dragging us out of the great recession. Otherwise we are all doomed, on a planet that will fry us. We contemplate nothing in between, or at least try very hard not to think about it, and the main point therefore is to prevent climate change, not to be forced to live with it. As for Paris, of course there is much more to be done, but the agreement is a big step in the right direction.

In reality, despite the hype, Paris punctures this optimism. The world has not been saved any more than it was in 1919. Too little has been agreed far too late. The real meaning of Paris is that dangerous climate change by 2100 is now all but inevitable, and that after 2100 it will get worse. It was probably already too late before Paris. Many poor-world environmentalists already knew this, despite their quixotic but successful quest for a reference to a now impossible 1.5°C rise in the agreement. A lot of us in the rich world already really knew it too, but didn’t like to come to terms with it, or even talk about it. This is probably because it conflicts with our deep belief in and commitment to progress; the idea that the world, for everyone, and despite setbacks, is getting better and better. And with progress in mind, many have a pervasive faith that technology will somehow clear up the problem. However, even if the world sticks to the path implicitly agreed in Paris, at the very best we are now locked in to global warming of at least 3 - 4°C by 2100, and more thereafter. At worst it may be much more, and either way we face many uncertainties including catastrophic runaway climate change.

The main argument of this piece is that the Green movement has to come to terms with this awful fact; we have failed in our mission to prevent damaging climate change. Acceptance of that will have profound consequences for our politics:

  • while we must of course continue to act to prevent further climate change, we must also begin to prepare for the world as it will inevitably become;
  • that world in 2100 will be profoundly altered, where perhaps a billion people in the poor south will die from famine or disease or migrate, and even places less directly affected like the UK will face huge challenges; and
  • two cherished political ideas, currency not just of the green movement but also of all on the liberal left, progress and human universalism, and explained in greater detail towards the end of this piece, face crumbling before an assault by brute events.

We first set out why Paris won’t work. Then we speculate on the consequences of a 3 - 4°C rise by 2100, and more thereafter, for the world system, by first looking at regional climate change and then considering the likely economic and political effects. We turn then to what this means for the UK and its politics and security, ending with a plea for progressives to forget progress, at least for a hundred years, and be realistic about how far human universalism can be preserved.

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