I’ve only been studying the international climate negotiations for a few months, but as a climate activist in the fossil fuel divestment movement, I’ve interacted with the text for a lot longer. By setting 2 degrees C as the warming level, the Copenhagen Accord gave us a number that the international community agreed it would be unsafe to surpass. This 2-degree limit is terrifying, because that level of warming will wipe out communities and cause devastating displacement and an unacceptable disruption of livelihoods. But as much as I disagree with the 2-degree limit, it gave me the ability to argue that international leaders have agreed that this level of warming is unsafe, and that we should respond accordingly by divesting from fossil fuel companies whose business models are incompatible with this limit. The text helped our campaign’s motivation and logic gain credibility in our fight against the fossil fuel industry.
So as a student, an activist, and a citizen who will in her career fight to build a just, climate-resilient world, I am digesting this draft text with an eye toward how it can be used to leverage meaningful change.
A brief skim of the vague, indeterminate language of the Paris Outcome can make it seem like all of the wiggle room left in the text is kind of pointless, since it’s all so ambiguous anyway. But in fact, the Paris Outcome will frame a lot of decisions going forward.
The first lens I used when skimming this draft is what I think of as the “Every Word Says Go” framework. A lot of sentences in the text don’t seem very actionable, and it seems like governments could get away with not doing much of anything while still technically remaining in compliance with the text. But fortunately, everywhere you look there’s a whole network of organizations, activists, subnational entities, and institutions that will leverage the words of the text to hold governments accountable to particular items laid out in the Outcome. They will go – to take action, to make their arguments, and to ensure that leaders are responsible to the goals mentioned in the text.
As a citizen and an activist, I think it’s important to consider the text through this lens because the onus of making the climate agreement something actually worthwhile is on us. It’s up to us to make our governments follow through on what they sign up for, and in the process, we can define the ambiguous terms they’ve agreed to. Using the text, we can operationalize the Outcome on our own terms. Even in something as top-down as an international climate agreement, the organized people are the ones with the power. And we can use the text as our tool.
Three examples of the text enabling activists and organizations to improve the actions of our governments follow.
- Upon hearing that Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna announced that she supports the goal of 1.5 degree of warming rather than 2 degrees of warming(!!), my friend, a Canadian climate activist said, “It’s such bullshit! Do they have a plan to actually get us there? No! Are they shutting down the tar sands? No.” But she and her fellow activists are already strategizing around this. Now they have an even stronger basis on which to lobby their government to make decisions that align with their stated goals, and to oppose fossil fuel projects that would now make the Canadian government look hypocritical. Having the stated goal in the Paris Outcome be 1.5 degrees could help leverage calls for rapid decarbonization and the halt of carbon-intensive projects in cities and nations around the world.
- Harjeet Singh of ActionAid (a really really important organization for climate adaptation) told our class that even though he agrees (almost) with India’s stance at COP21, when everyone goes home, he promised he would make his government’s life “really hard,” because his organization, along with many others, will hold the government accountable to the agreements made in the text. Similarly, Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Boll Foundation shared with us that including the words “gender equality” in the text made it easier for organizations including hers to force governments carrying out climate projects to answer questions such as Does the project actually benefit women? Are women the ones actually implementing the projects? Will this help give credit access to women and increase their access to markets and agricultural support systems? This is essential since globally women are suffering disproportionately from climate change, and that’s largely tied to financial and legal systems that discriminate against women. Liane smiled wryly, saying that the governments “didn’t know what they were getting themselves into” when they let the “gender equality” language slip into the text.
- The Local Government and Municipal Authority constituency demands that the Outcome acknowledge the importance of the “role of subnational governments and ensure the continuity of their engagement.” Why? So that they have a basis through which to insist that local governments are consulted in the development of national climate policies (when they’re not, it can be really tough to implement them at the local level).
So there are a variety of words that say “go” to organizations and activists around the world, and many of them are invisible except to the groups that will leverage them. As I slog through the the full draft text of the Paris Outcome, I’ve compiled some notes on a few of the passages that suggest a “go.”
This is an important way for me to read the text as I try to figure out where I will eventually land in this crazy global network of climate action. Who will I hold accountable, and what text will I use to leverage the goals I believe in?
You can see a full breakdown of the text in relevant articles here. Entitled "Words from the Draft Text of the Paris Outcome Around Which People Will Mobilize" it looks in detail at the following:
- Article 3 (Mitigation)
- Article 4 (Adaptation)
- Article 5 (Loss & Damage)
- Article 6 (Finance)
- Article 8 (Capacity Building)