Will the Paris Agreement Save the Earth?


Chris Williams says that most countries have no objection to signing the agreement because the bar is set so low and there are no legal ramifications for not implementing it

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

More than 130 nations, maybe as high as 155 nations, are due to sign the Paris agreement at the United Nations in New York on Earth Day. Here to discuss all of this is Chris Williams, environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University, and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crises. Chris, so good to have you with us today.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Thank you, Sharmini, for having me.

PERIES: So, Chris, let’s first describe the magnitude of the problem that we’re trying to deal with, and then describe if this Paris agreement will get at it.

WILLIAMS: Well, we’re talking about the need to completely rearrange the whole way in which society is organized, principally around how do we obtain our energy, which is overwhelmingly currently produced from fossil fuels, both for transportation and for electricity. So we need a gigantic change. Why do we need to get gigantic change? Because we are already only 1 degree C about average temperatures for the Holocene epoch, and we’re already seeing, as you mentioned in your introduction, massive amounts of disruption around the world with droughts, increasing wildfires, the spread of disease to new areas. Huge human migrations, massive dislocations all across the planet, in the natural and the social world.

And so we urgently need to reverse course and completely rearrange how we organize society, as I mentioned, in order to really affect the kind of changes we so urgently need if we are going to live on a planet that even vaguely resembles the one that we’ve grown up on, because one recent report out from the journal Nature says that the policies that are implemented today actually have implications for millennia into the future. Longer than human civilization has been around we will be affecting the planet. So what we do today is, is absolutely critical.

PERIES: So according to calculations made by the nonprofit organization Climate Interactive, the current submissions to the UN, and the agreement that is being signed, if enacted it would put us on a collision course to go even to 3.5 degrees or higher, as you say. And this is a pathway, a collision course, to disaster. What is the expectation that we could find ways to try to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is the minimum required according to many scientists?

WILLIAMS: I think we’d have to get rid of all the current world leaders and elect some new ones who are more responsible and accountable to ordinary people. Because actually, if you look at polls, ordinary people are very concerned with this because we’re the ones who are having to live through it. Particularly in the poor communities and in countries ravaged by colonialism and racism.

So what is the expectation that this will happen? I think the bar has been set so low by the Paris agreement, I mean, I don’t think it’s worth the trees that are going to be cut down to print it, that countries have no problem signing on to it, because they know it’s all voluntary. And it’s taking us to a planet that is completely unrecognizable. I mean, already we’re seeing the Great Barrier Reef, 93 percent coral bleaching this year. If we go to 2 degrees, that’s predicted to be 100 percent. So we could lose all the coral reefs, which are not only beautiful, amazing places, but also absolutely critical for future generations of fish and many other kinds of sea life.

So I don’t see any real expectation that this agreement, even if it’s implemented, does the kind–comes close to doing the kind of things that we need to do. And in fact, the only really legal thing about it, the one thing that the countries of the north forced into the text, is the fact that they are indemnified legally against anything, any kind of legal action, should they not live up to their commitments and should bad things start to happen, worse things start to happen. And countries tried to sue the countries most responsible. So they are actually, the Paris agreement prevents that from happening. That’s the one thing that they made sure was there.

So I think it’s very problematic, because even the things they talk about doing we would not want them to do, in terms of more fracking, which means more earthquakes in Oklahoma, for example. It means a greater reliance on nuclear power, carbon capture, and sequestration, which doesn’t even work. Biofuels, which were a disaster. And the further privatization of the forests. So none of those solutions are actually, in fact, genuine.

PERIES: Now, coming back to the United States here, the climate agreement is, of course, dependent on individual countries. Therefore countries like the United States have to actually come up with plans to ensure that they meet this agreement. And President Obama’s EPA Clean Power Plan is currently being blocked by a number of states. How, in your assessment, how well are we preparing ourselves to meet the minimum requirements outlined in this agreement?

WILLIAMS: Very, very poorly. Especially as, I mean, the Obama administration is highly contradictory because on the one hand they say that they want to do something, and so they implement the Clean Power Plan, which actually really only focuses on coal, of which there are very few new coal plants, if any. And on the other hand, they open up the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico to more seismic drilling and prospecting for more of the stuff that we’re supposed to not take out of the ground. We literally need to leave 80 percent of known reserves of fossil fuels in the ground if we’re going to come anywhere close to not raising the temperature by an average of 2 Celsius.

So what plans exist in the Paris agreement? Fossil fuels are never mentioned. The word energy only comes up twice, once in relation to the acronym for the International Energy Commission, and once in relation to Africa. So how serious is the agreement in any case? And the Obama administration is continuing to look for more fossil fuels and facilitate that process, and continue to advocate for the building of more deep sea ports to take coal, for example, if we’re not going to sell it in the U.S. then it’s going to be sold to China. So the U.S. is being opened up to coal export terminals. There’s so much fracking going on in the U.S. that they want to build liquefied natural gas export terminals around the country to export that.

And so what serious moves are there to actually start thinking about a genuine transition to a non-fossil fuel future, as is being touted as if this Paris agreement is on the road towards that? I don’t see that reality at all. And of course, you know, on the extreme right end of the political spectrum, you’ve got some Republicans saying, well, we don’t want the Clean Air Act. We’re going to try and get rid of the Clean Power Plan, which is pretty limited anyway.

And so where is the hope in all of this? I think the hope is the same place as we’ve always found it through human history, which is in the struggles of ordinary people to get rid of the current set of leaders and get some better ones.

PERIES: Now, do you think that there is enough such programs underway in order to address the problem at hand, even if there’s no great commitment to keeping what’s in the ground in the ground? Is there enough other motivations here?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there could be a lot more. Because the other thing is we know from the International Monetary Fund that subsidies to fossil fuel corporations and incentives to find more run into several trillion dollars. Over $5 trillion. So we should be removing those subsidies, which are more than enough to pay for a buildout of the kind of things that we could use in terms of various forms of renewable energy, wind and solar, distributed across the country, and distributed in centralized ways. There are plans, well-thought out, well-analyzed, scientifically rigorous, technologically rigorous plans for powering the planet from renewable energy reliably without all the pollution that’s caused from fossil fuels. Because I mean, it’s not just climate change. I mean, people are choking on this.

Just a couple of days ago the state of the air in the United States says that 166 million Americans breathe unhealthy air, predominantly because of the burning of fossil fuels, power plants and cars. So why aren’t we talking about, rather than electric cars or driverless cars, why aren’t we talking about investing in public transportation and rebuilding the infrastructure that so urgently needs and self-evidently needs rebuilding? And not just rebuilding, but replanning and designing, so that we build cities for humans, not for cars and the transportation of capital. I think that we could live in an amazing place and have an amazing world if we liberated the 7 billion people who currently live on it and subsist under this horrendous social and ecological catastrophe.

If we reorganize the whole of society to have different goals, not this endless growth that doesn’t get us anywhere, but thought about, well, what does it really mean to have a high quality of life and how do we provide it for people equitably over the longer term, in terms of thinking about long-term perspectives as opposed to short-term profit.

PERIES: Chris, I guess part of the problem is that all of these sort of new and innovations and investments that are required seem somewhat abstract for people in terms of putting it into effect and envisioning that kind of change. Is there an example out there that we could look at that has come close to meeting such reorganized society?

WILLIAMS: I mean, I would say, I mean, there’s a couple of things that have been done. Germany, for example, is the fourth-largest economic power in the world and they have 40-50 percent of their electricity provided by wind and solar. They’ve closed down their nuclear program as a result of the Fukushima disaster and public protests. So that’s one example.

PERIES: And this is an economy that has historically been rather dependent on coal and mining and so on.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And historically explains a lot of what has gone over the last, on in the 20th century with regard to trying to access oil in terms of the wars. So that’s one example. I think Cuba is another example whereby people have taken, the government has taken actions to limit fossil fuels and turn towards organic farming and different ways of limiting energy while increasing and trying to improve people’s health.

So there are some limited examples around the world, and there are more opening up all the time. For example, in Inuit communities in the Arctic, and other places around the world that people actually have been living sustainably for a long time, and we can learn a lot from them about how communities exist more equitably with less pollution if we also connect all of those things up to what we know from science and technology actually will work.

And I don’t think, you know, trains, trams that used to exist all over the country in the United States, that’s not so abstract. We could be pouring money into improving subway lines, access to that. It would be far less, cheaper in terms of healthcare costs, in terms of lost lives. I mean, since 9/11, 400,000 people have died in car accidents since that period, the last 15 years in the United States. So cars are not only polluting but extremely dangerous, and highly inefficient, aside from the climate impacts. So we could have, like I said before, an amazing country if we redesigned things differently and thought about what society’s priorities should be as opposed to making the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time, which is destroying both people’s lives in the short term, and over the long term as we destabilize the whole of the biosphere.

PERIES: Chris, I thank you so much for joining us on this Earth Day as we face, I guess humanity faces the greatest crisis it has ever faced on earth. Thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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