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Janet Redman of IPS and Dimitri Lascaris of The Real News report on the COP 21 challenges in Paris that could isolate the US

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. World leaders from over 150 countries have gathered in Paris for the 2015 Climate Conference to address the irreversible damage done to our planet by us, our wellbeing, and our health, due to CO2 emissions. Many activists and scientists are saying that this is the last chance to save the planet and perhaps even humankind. With record breaking global temperatures and extreme weather events causing more deaths than ever before, according to the UN, for the first time in 20 years the UN is aiming to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. On Monday, heads of state delivered their opening speeches at the conference. Let’s have a look at what President Obama had to say. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And what should give us hope that this is a turning point, that this is the moment we finally determine we would save our planet, is the fact that our nations share a sense of urgency about this challenge and a growing realization that it is within our power to do something about it. PERIES: With us to discuss the key issues surrounding this conference, we are joined by two guests. Joining us from Paris, France is Janet Redman. Janet is the director of climate policy program at the Institute for Policy Studies. And joining us from London, Ontario is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a partner with the Canadian law firm Siskinds, where he heads the firm’s securities class action practice. He’s also a board member of the Real News Network. I thank you both for joining us. JANET REDMAN: Thank you so much for having us. DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: So Janet, let me begin with you in terms of what happened on the ground in Paris today. REDMAN: Yeah. So today was an exciting day. Of course, the mood has been set by the marches that happened around the world yesterday. Over 2,000 events happened with more 570,000 people taking to the streets to demand climate justice, to demand action on climate immediately. And so that was really reflected this morning in the heads of state messages. Every leader from every country who spoke this morning talked about the urgency of climate change. Everyone recognized that climate change is here now, and that we’re feeling the impacts of climate disruption today in all of our daily lives. I think what important piece that many countries pulled out, including President Obama, that those who are most poor, those people living in the global South, are the people who are most impacted by climate change and the least responsible for causing the climate crisis. And so it was interesting about Obama’s speech, is that he said that the United States recognizes its historic responsibility in causing the climate crisis, and is ready to do something about that. PERIES: And did he happen to mention what that was? REDMAN: Well, that’s the interesting part, and we’ll see what his policies are, play out over the next two weeks of negotiations. But he hit on three pieces in particular. He talked about finance. He talked about supporting adaptation, which of course is how do people in climate-impacted communities deal with a warming world. He talked about mitigation, reducing climate pollution. And he talked about transparency, making it clear what everyone is doing. But I think what’s really important to note, and what’s been actually leaked in the news over the past 24 hours, is that the United States is actually in some ways working to undermine what we hoped would be collective action. So what’s the world going to do together on mitigating greenhouse gases, on reducing climate pollution? What’s the world going to do together, particularly developed countries, on delivering finance that actually enables poorer countries to take action on climate change? The U.S. unfortunately is saying we want to make decisions for ourselves, we don’t want other people to make decisions for us, so let’s have every country do what they can do and then we’ll add it up to see what happens. Unfortunately what we need to see happen instead is that the science says we need to take collective global action and then divide that up, share the burden of that action amongst countries, again, with those who are most responsible for causing the climate crisis taking on the higher burden of responsibility. PERIES: And Dimitri, you’re on your way to Paris to cover the conference for the Real News Network. What do you see are the crucial issues at this conference and what the binding agreement should contain? LASCARIS: Well, I think the key concept that should govern thinking at the global level about how to deal with the crisis is the carbon budget. And this is the amount of carbon that can be burned without causing global temperatures to increase in excess of 2 degrees Celsius, and this was the threshold that was agreed upon in the 2009 conference in Copenhagen. And that conference, by the way, was described after the fact rather colorfully, but I think aptly, by Greenpeace as a crime scene. Because there are many countries around the world, many experts around the world, who believe that 2 degrees Celsius is too high. A more respectable and conservative safe number would be 1.5 degrees Celsius. At 2 degrees Celsius some island nations are likely to disappear. You could see global sea levels rise by up to 20 feet. And many of the impacts that we’re already seeing having raised global temperatures by a little less than 1 degree Celsius will become far worse. So the carbon budget was calculated by the international, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be approximately 1 trillion tonnes of carbon. And as of 2011 a little more than 50 percent of that had been burned, and we were on pace to burn through the remaining budget by 2045. And in fact last year since then, since 2011, global emissions of CO2 have continued to increase. And last year we set a record of I think it was 37.5 billion tonnes of carbon. So we’re nowhere near on track to do what the IPCC says we have to do, which is to peak in 2020 and then steeply decline thereafter in terms of carbon emissions. In order for us to do this the bottom line is we’re going to have to leave approximately 85 percent of current fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Rather than do that, companies, the market, governments are acting as though we can burn it all, and they’re even trying to expand the reserves of fossil fuels companies. And you know, ultimately we’re going to have to keep it in the ground. And the Canadian government, this is, you know, the government whose policy positions I’m most familiar with because I live here, steadfastly refuses to commit to freezing the expansion of the major source of fossil fuels in this country, the tar sands in Alberta, and in fact is talking about building pipelines, for example Energy East which would cross the country, which would facilitate the expansion of the tar sands. So all of the commitments, all of the verbiage that you’re hearing, as promising as it may be, and the global recognition that we have a problem, is not being met with the level of commitment that we need. And one thing that’s particularly concerning, you know, Janet talked about Obama’s position somehow, to some degree undermining meaningful action. The last I heard from the Secretary of State John Kerry was that the U.S. government was not prepared to enter into a globally binding treaty. And you know, even in the best of circumstances it’s questionable whether governments will comply with their emissions reduction targets. If we don’t have a globally binding treaty I think you can basically assume that a lot of governments are not going to do that. And the commitments that we have are inadequate as they are. We’re going to see a rise in global temperatures if those commitments are respected of 2.7 degree Celsius to 3 degrees Celsius. So we need a binding treaty, and we need reduction, emission reduction targets, which are far more aggressive than those that we’re seeing now. And we need to recognize that we have to leave the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. PERIES: And Janet, what are the obstacles to a binding treaty? REDMAN: I think there are a number of obstacles. Of course when we talk about a binding treaty we should parse out two ideas, because I think they’re important. One is about a legally binding agreement, which is what we’re talking about here in Paris. A second piece is a legally binding set of commitments. So we could have a legally binding agreement. We could have an agreement where all, we all say, yep, we’re going to abide by this agreement. It’s a different thing to say, and in this agreement we promise to do X, Y, and Z. That’s not–that’s what the U.S. is actually advocating not to do that. We’re trying to say we don’t want to–we want to do whatever we want to do at home. We’ll make our own promises, we’ll bring them to the table. We’ll review them in five years, we’ll try to ratchet those promises up every five years. But unfortunately there will be no consequence if we don’t meet what we’ve pledged to do. I think one of the barriers is kind of conceptual. So there’s an interesting tension that’s happening between what civil society is demanding outside, one of the strongest calls is for 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. It’s important to think about how we get there. Are we doing that with large solar arrays, are we talking about decentralized energy systems. So there’s 100 percent renewable energy outside. And then you’ve got folks on the inside, one bear is the U.S. administration, that says what we want to see is actually carbon neutrality, or decarbonization, by the end of the century. 2100, that’s way too far out in the future to have accomplished decarbonization. Then you’ve got India saying, we don’t want any conversation about decarbonization at all. And then you’ve got countries like China saying, okay, we could talk about reducing emissions. But when we say reducing emissions we’re actually talking about we’ll still burn coal, but we’ll take the emissions from coal and we’ll bury it underground. And so we’ll have no emissions, we’ll just keep–unfortunately it’s a techno-fix that doesn’t actually get at the problem, which is our economy is too dependent on fossil fuels in the first place. As Dimitri mentioned we have to actually move off of fossil fuels and to renewable energy, not trying to take our pollution, bury it underground, take our pollution, burn it to make more energy. Take our trash, burn that to make “renewable energy”. We actually have to stop using dirty energy. PERIES: And Dimitri, clearly the science is saying, and for so long the slogan of what’s in the ground must stay in the ground, it seems to be the solution. But there is no indication that at this conference, or even elsewhere as in Canada and the tar sands, that this will actually be able to be agreed upon in any, any serious way in Paris. LASCARIS: Yeah. The way I look at it, forgive me if I sound like a cynic, is that we’ve moved beyond the denialist phase, where denying the science of climate change was mainstream or almost mainstream, into what I like to call the branding phase, where people are openly acknowledging people like President Obama, Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, even the leaders of China, India, are openly acknowledging the science but are doing everything they can to appear as though they are taking sufficient action when in fact they are not even close to taking sufficient action. And we saw some of that here in Canada recently, when Justin Trudeau the new prime minister convened a meeting of the ten premiers, and in a moment I thought of quite stunning candor, the premier of Quebec, who relatively speaking is a leader–you have to understand here that the bar here has been set very low in Canada. But relatively speaking is a leader on the climate issue. Said, you know, we need to engage in a rebranding exercise. Well, this is not at all about rebranding. And at the same time the leader of British Columbia, so is also perceived to be a leader, relatively speaking, here in Canada on climate change, said that Canada’s reputation in regard to the environment is undeserved. I mean, you have to live on another planet to actually be of that view, in my opinion. At the end of the day we’re still now in this phase where people are more concentrated on the appearance of action rather than meaningful action. And time is becoming alarmingly short. This rebranding phase is going to have to come to an end real fast, and people are going to have to actually put their money where their mouth is. And thus far that’s not happening. I think this is shaping up to be not the disaster that Copenhagen was, I think we’re going to very likely make significant progress, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be at this stage of the negotiation. And frankly I don’t see much of a prospect that we’re going to get there in the next ten days. PERIES: And Janet, what do you think of what Dimitri’s saying? REDMAN: I think he’s right on. I think that–I love the idea of it being branding or being a PR move. I think that’s exactly right. It’s incredibly frustrating, as someone who follows climate change as an activist, as an advocate, as a policy person, who hears these kinds of announcements and the words coming out of these leaders’ mouths, but then you look at the policy. And in the Obama administration not much has changed since the last Republican administration. In fact, many of the policies have gotten worse. So what’s I think incredibly frustrating is that civil society needs to be taking actually a stronger role in calling out these leaders. There’s a real tension here. I think we’re really on a balance point where Dimitri’s right, that time is running out. We need urgent action. And that urgent action I think largely will come when civil society pushes our elected officials to do the right thing, to take on policies that actually reflect the words that they’re saying about wanting to avert climate catastrophe. But I think we’re in a really scary place, where if we continue to be cynical, if we have a doomsday approach to the way we talk about what’s happening here, I think we risk losing a lot of civil society support. We end up kind of deflating the climate movement. So I think what’s tricky here and what’s frustrating for me is how do we call out our elected officials and say, gosh, they’re not actually walking their talk without being so cynical, without being so doomsday that we lose a lot of civil society? And I think for me what’s been really hopeful is then thinking about what’s happening back at home. for us in the U.S., of course, that means after the Paris talks are done we still have a huge fight around the Clean Power Plan and ensuring that the state-by-state power plans that are reducing emissions are actually moving from dirty coal, away from oil, away from gas even, to real renewable energy. So not toward nukes, not toward burning waste, but actually taking on how do we do solar? How do we do wind? How do we make that affordable in our states, how do we make those affordable in our communities so that everyone gets to benefit from renewable energy? I think that’s how we have to start moving in the direction–when we leave Paris it just means a lot of work back at home in all of our countries. PERIES: And Dimitri and Janet, let’s take up some of the ways in which we can talk to our elected officials in our next segment with both of you. LASCARIS: Sure. Happy to do that, Sharmini. REDMAN: Very good. PERIES: 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.

Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer that focuses on human rights and environmental law. He is the former justice critic of the Green Party of Canada and is a former board member of the Real News Network. You can follow him @dimitrilascaris and find more of his work at