Pace University’s Chris Williams and IPS’ Janet Redman say UN commitments have not made substantial difference because the elite refuse to address fossil fuels

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. On Friday the head of the Catholic church, Pope Francis, continued his U.S. tour with a visit to the UN General Assembly to deliver a speech on climate change. One of the major topics of his speech was addressing the need for effective solutions. Let’s take a listen to what he had to say. POPE FRANCIS: The adoption of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope. I am similarly confident that the Paris conference on climatic change will secure fundamental and effective agreements. Solemn commitments, however, are not enough, even though they are a necessary step towards solutions. DESVARIEUX: That was Pope Francis. One place United Nations members looked to find solutions is at the Conference of the Parties, also known as COP. It first met in Berlin back in 1995 and two years later leaders signed the Kyoto Protocol, which committed developed nations, except the United States, to reduce greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels. The agreement became enforceable in 2005 with wealthier nations recognizing that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere were caused by industrialization in the Northern hemisphere over more than a century ago. Now in the leadup to COP 21 in Paris, which kicks off on November 30, for the first time participating nations look to draft an accord to lower emissions even further. But the question remains: will these commitments lead to anything substantial? Now joining us to get into the pope’s address and the UN’s climate record are our two guests. Chris Williams is a longtime environmental activist and professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University. Also joining us from Washington, DC is Janet Redman. Janet is the director of climate policy program at the Institute for Policy Studies. Thank you both for joining us. JANET REDMAN: Thank you. CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: So Janet, let’s start off with you. The pope talked about solutions, not just commitments. But it seems that a lot of the UN’s work is making these commitments. Can you sort of put all of this in context for our viewers in terms of these COP agreements? Have they achieved anything substantial? REDMAN: Sure. I think the congress of the parties, and the UN framework convention on climate change, which is the convention they’re meeting to talk about, certainly is important. It’s the first–it’s the only convention that has a multilateral framework that addresses climate change, the drivers of climate change, greenhouse gases, and the effects of climate change. How can countries adapt to the loss and changes that we already have because of our fossil fuel economy. So in terms of having a multilateral space I think it’s actually an important place for leaders to be coming and talking to one another about a global issue. The reality of course, what those conversations have yielded, is a little bit more disappointing. You mentioned the Kyoto Protocol, which is the only treaty that actually addresses greenhouse gas emissions, the climate change that’s caused by those. And commitments were made 20 years ago, now, talking about reducing the emissions. You spoke about that, the Kyoto Protocol going into force in 2005. Here we are, ten years later. And clearly we have not solved the problem. In fact, emissions have increased. Things have changed in our global economy. There are countries that weren’t covered by the Kyoto Protocol and are emitting more. But really at the core of the problem is that the developed countries, countries like the United States, countries in Europe, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, are also increasing their emissions. There are places, of course, where emissions have gone down. Some countries can actually claim that they have made the, they have achieved the commitments they made. But largely that’s because of economic slowdown and shifts in the global economy that were in place anyway, not necessarily because of a climate orientation. I think a piece that’s really key in how we talk about this in the broader context, and what the pope talks about very clearly in his statements, are that when we’re addressing climate change and we’re addressing ecological disruption that comes about from climate change, we actually have to center that conversation on the question of shifting inequality and fighting inequality. So what the UN convention has not done, necessarily, is squarely look at what are the kinds of solutions to the climate problem that center on building a more equitable society? It talks, of course, about addressing climate in the context of sustainable development, but that doesn’t squarely put in the center of our conversation how do we move away from the same drivers of the climate crisis that are at the same time driving inequality? Corporate power, fossil fuel industries that are completely out of control, that are unchecked, and a resistance to shift our economy to one that actually is looking at humans’ basic needs and ecological balance as opposed to making it less, the least uncomfortable as possible for our energy system to shift to one that’s less emitting. That’s a core part of our problem in the broader context of the climate convention at this point. DESVARIEUX: We were talking off-camera, and you guys mentioned that COP 21, as I mentioned coming up in November, there is no mention of actually ridding the countries of fossil fuels, saying we’re going to shift our economy to renewable energy completely. There’s no specific discussion on that sort of elephant in the room. So Chris, do you feel like we have to be able to at least address this, look at fossil fuel industry in the face and challenge them directly before we can make any real changes? WILLIAMS: I mean, absolutely. We have to be looking at production rather than talking about emissions. We need to be discussing how we can phase out over the next 20 years fossil fuels for energy production. And we know that the technologies exist. We know how to create solar, wind power, and so on. We know that in many cases they are cost-competitive with fossil fuel alternatives, particularly if you take away all of the multi, $750 billion in subsidies given to fossil fuel corporations around the world. So the technical side of this, while certainly it could be improved, obviously, is largely answered. And therefore it becomes much more of a social and a political question. And that’s why we have to talk about inequality and changing the structure of the economy, which is absolutely nowhere to be found in previous IPCC reports in terms of the words ‘fossil fuels’ don’t appear, in terms of the word ‘production’ doesn’t appear. So if we are going to do that then we need government regulation in order to say, well, we are going to phase out coal production, we’re going to phase out nuclear, and we’re going to phase out natural gas. And we’re going to be replacing and thinking about not only how we can reduce, conserve, use less energy, because capitalism is inherently wasteful and actually requires–the more waste, actually, under a capitalist system, the better because you sell more stuff. And so we have to think about not just efficiency, but also how do we come up with a realizable plan which also exists for transitioning the economy away from giant, centralized fossil fuel plants towards more of a mix of renewable energy that is, some of which is centralized, some of which is decentralized, in a way that involves the stakeholders, the people themselves making the decisions. I think that’s the key point, that we need a lot more democracy and say from ordinary people about how we should produce. Why don’t we get to vote on these things? Because I think most people would vote differently to the corporations. DESVARIEUX: That’s a perfect segue, because I was going to say, let’s pretend we’re at this COP 21, at the table as they’re discussing what this agreement should look like. So Janet, what specific policies and enforcement mechanisms would you be advocating for? REDMAN: I think there’s a whole chunk of discussion we actually haven’t talked about right now, which is–and is a huge part of the conversation that’s happening in leadup to COP 21. One piece of, or set of policies around repaying our climate debt in particular, the U.S. of course has refused to say the words ‘climate debt’, the pope has laid that out on the table. But that’s basically enshrined in the convention and talked about in a way that says, there’s actually a financial cost, financial fee that is owed to developing countries because they’re now having to, they’ll now have to develop energy systems, industry in a way that they can’t, that we did. So there is no more room for cheap fossil fuel development in the way that the U.S. and other developed countries have done. So part of what we actually have to see at COP 21 that would be helpful would be, what are the volumes of money that developed countries are willing to put on the table? And it can come from a number of places. It can come from reducing our military budgets at home. It can come from putting a financial tax in place like the Europeans are doing and raising billions of dollars. What’s the money we’re putting on the table, where does it come from, and what are the institutions that can manage that money? Institutions that are democratic, unlike the World Bank, that can say yes, this money is absolutely going to the decentralized, democratized energy systems that Chris talked about. There’s one whole set of policies there. DESVARIEUX: Yeah. Chris, same question to you. Are you in agreement that the United States and other developing countries need to recognize this climate debt? Because I could imagine they’re going to say, you know, when we were developing and we were industrializing, we didn’t even know about climate change. So why should we even have to pay for this? WILLIAMS: Well, I think that that’s a good question. But they should absolutely be paying back. The reason that developed countries became developed in the first place is on the backs of people from the global South, and quite literally, in the case of slavery. So–and also fossil fuels. You can’t say, well, we developed, now you can’t develop because we’ve already polluted the place. And we’ve got all this money. There are trillions and trillions of dollars awash in the global financial system, being wasted on weaponry, on the national security services, on advertising, on [inaud.] on any number of things. And we don’t have that money available for real human need. And so the rich by any set of statistics that you want to look at, we know that inequality has grown hugely of the last 30 years, and accelerated even more so just like climate change, over the last ten years. And so how do we reverse that? How do we move to a more equal world? And part of that has to be financing a transition in the global South, paid for by Western banks and increases in taxes on corporations. Two-thirds of U.S. corporations pay no income tax. There’s loopholes galore. And increases in taxes back onto the ultra-rich and the 1 percent. And so we would have more than enough money to transition to a globally more equitable and energy-efficient and less polluting economy if we rearrange things in that regard. But of course there are going to be some losers, right. The people at the top. And seeing as the people at the top are the only ones doing the negotiating, then they’re not going to go for those solutions. And that’s why we’ve seen 20 years of very little happening. Everybody’s writing off Paris already. Obama’s talked it down. Other people have talked it down. Christina Figueres, the head of climate change in Europe, has said, well, we’re already on track for a 3 degrees world with current pledges, which she says is better than 4 or 5. but it’s like, well, that’s still the end of all the coral reefs, and a lot of island states by 2100, or 2050, even, in the case of coral reefs. So the level of ambition is so poor in terms of action because it requires you to take away social power from where it’s been moved towards over the last 30 years of untrammeled capitalism that the pope talks about. And that relates to his statement about making the UN, or making the environment have equal rights with humans. Well, it’s all very well to have equal rights. But who has equal rights? Who’s enforcing the rights of indigenous people, the rights of people to water and air, which are enshrined–clean air, which are enshrined in some of the new sustainable development goals. And they’re going to go the same way as the millennium development goals, which is nowhere, if we don’t rearrange the social power question in the world. So I think that that is the real stumbling block to progress, and points towards a solution that is about future organizing all across the world as it’s going to happen, as many protests are going to occur, both a day of action on October 14, and across the world in November and December. And then particularly in Paris, [inaud.] shut it down. DESVARIEUX: We’ll certainly have to get you guys back on to discuss all those actions that are coming up. But Chris Williams as well as Janet Redman, thank you both for joining us. REDMAN: Thank you. WILLIAMS: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Janet Redman currently works with Oil Change USA, and is the policy director at Oil Change International. Previously, Janet was the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provided analysis of the international financial institutions' energy investment and carbon finance activities. Her studies on the World Bank's climate activities include World Bank: Climate Profiteer, and Dirty is the New Clean: A critique of the World Bank's strategic framework for development and climate change. She is a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network.