No one has any idea if all 195 countries at the Paris climate change conference will sign a binding agreement to stop climate change from turning Planet Earth into a cosmic Turkish sauna. What is becoming apparent is that the conference, which runs for 12 days starting Nov. 30, is sucking the oxygen out of all the other worthy conservation and sustainable development efforts on our debilitated planet.
The Paris conference is formally known as COP21 (for the 21st Conference of the Parties since the landmark Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992). It comes two weeks after the Paris terrorist attacks that killed at least 130 people and puts the city at the forefront of two grave threats—terrorism and climate change—that have emerged at the very top of the international agenda.
The fight against terrorism just got more intense. The problem on the climate change file is that COP21 is a machine that mows down everything in its path. Its sheer, numbing size shows you just how easily lesser environmental causes can get crushed.
The event is to be held at Le Bourget airport—nothing in central Paris was big enough to hold it. The conference halls and pavilions will cover some 45 acres. At least 40,000 participants are expected, among them 3,000 journalists, and 300 negotiators and minions from Canada alone. More than a 100 civil society groups, from England's Artists Project Earth (APE) to Toronto's Zerofootprint, will open stalls in the vast climate souk. The direct conference budget is €170 million. That excludes the fortunes spent on hotels, meals, transportation and inevitable posters declaring Canada the "Fossil of the Day" for the Harper regime's blocking moves on climate agreements over the past decade.
After the failure of the last big COP, in Copenhagen in 2009, the Paris edition has emerged as crunch time for the long-term health of the planet and the COP process itself, which is severely discredited and in sore need of a win. In the 23 years since the Rio summit, carbon dioxide emissions have soared relentlessly, despite efforts—ranging from the hopeless to the heroic—to merely slow their rise, and only eventually reduce them. The expectations, and the demands that go with them, are high. India alone is on a mission to shake down the rich world to fund its $2.5-trillion (U.S.) carbon-reduction and climate adaptation agenda over the next 15 years.
No wonder lower-profile causes can't compete with the COP machine. The pity is that they have a chance to make the environment better now, while the COP process is obsessed with preventing mass extinctions decades down the road.
In a New Yorker article published last April, called "Carbon capture," bird lover and bestselling author Jonathan Franzen argued that the global effort to slow climate change in the future has made it hard for anyone to care about conservation today. Why bother to find ways to prevent birds from being sliced and diced by wind generators cluttering the landscape, or to preserve wetlands for ducks, if global warming is going to eradicate most species anyway? "To prevent extinctions in the future, it's not enough to curb our carbon emissions," he wrote. "We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now." But the conservation efforts will get short shrift, he says, "if the problem of global warming demands the full resources of every single nature-loving group."
Canadian climate change consultant and COP veteran John Drexhage has a similar view on the COPs. He calls the planet-sized climate change file an inadvertent "policy bully" that has largely brushed aside other environmental issues and sustainable development goals.
The United Nations set out 17 goals at a sustainable development summit in New York City in September. They ranged from ending hunger to making cities livable, green and safe. Only one of the goals was directly related to climate change, and that goal was focused on adapting to rising temperatures, not preventing them.
The messages from that summit have already been buried by the Paris avalanche, which is a pity, because you would think that fixing climate change and making cities, agriculture, forestry and industry less destructive are more or less complementary pursuits.
There are two structural flaws with COPs, especially the biggies like Copenhagen and Paris. The first is that they are all-or-nothing events. If the top polluters, like the United States, China and India, don't sign up, the event collapses. The second is that multilateral effort crowds out national efforts. No one in Paris will care that Norway is paying Liberia up to $150 million (U.S.) to stop the destruction of its lush and ample forests.
The COP process needs a radical rethink, even if, against all odds, the Paris summit succeeds. In the corporate world, "silos" is a bad word. Management consultants advise that they be broken down. But within the climate change framework, sustainable development silos need to be erected. National conservation and sustainable development goals, from preserving forests to making beaches safe for nesting sea turtles, might be only tiny steps. But if a lot of tiny steps are taken together, they can make a lunge—one that can help mitigate climate change while keeping a lot of beasties alive.