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Ulysses in Paris – Climate narratives and avoiding the siren’s song


Blog post by Professor Reiner Grundmann of the University of Nottingham

In the ancient mythical saga Ulysses, sirens were beautiful creatures with enchanting voices who would lure sailors to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island with their sweet intoxicating music.

Ulyses, curious to hear the the siren’s song, ordered his men to bind him to the mast. He implored the crew, who had their ears plugged with wax, to leave him tied tightly to the mast, no matter how much he would beg. Upon hearing the sirens’ beautiful melody, Ulysses urged the sailors to untie him but they instead bound him tighter.  The ship then navigated the narrow channel to safety: Ulysses actions had saved the lives of himself and the crew.

This ancient tale gives us a very appropriate notion of “self-binding” agreements. If we compare this myth to the Paris Summit: Who is Ulysses? What is the sirens’ song, and who should ignore their singing? Plenty of interpretations seem possible but here is my take on it. Ulysses and the crew can be seen as nations and leaders. The ropes that bind Ulysses and the wax in the sailors’ ears can be seen as a new course of action (or agreement) on climate change. The ship is the future of planet Earth and the song of the siren’s is the status quo (existing climate deals and ineffective action). The status quo is something that initially sounds sweet but were we to follow it, our ship would end up dashed against the rocks and sinking beneath the sea (uncontrollable climate change).

Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909

So in what ways should, or could, a climate treaty be self-binding? How will nations and the planet avoid the siren’s song and the dangerous rocks on the horizon?

‘The scientists have spoken, now it is time for the politicians to act.’

The above statement was heard often after the publication of the last IPCC report and during the preparation for the Paris summit, but what does it mean? Does it imply that the IPCC set targets for the international negotiations, thus assuming the role of Ulysses? Surely not. The IPCC is supposed to be policy relevant, yet policy neutral.

There are currently a legitimate and wide variety of policy proposals available to the planet. These are packaged into narratives that we can easily remember. There is, for example, the admonition that Earth’s climate future is currently “five minutes to midnight” and the summit is our last opportunity to save the planet. Even Pope Francis recently added his voice to this narrative.

Then there is the hope that if only the political will could be mustered, we could achieve really ambitious targets, such as staying below the 2° C warming limit, or even limiting warming to 1.5C. Linked to that is the belief that we do have the technologies to decarbonize our societies, and that all that is needed is for them to be scaled up.

These narratives have proven ineffective. They are either apocalyptic and therefore paralyzing, or based on wishful thinking and therefore delusional. Curiously, both tend to combine, inspiring desperate activism and deep frustration over current government policies. The message is that we are already in shallow water and should expect havoc soon.

Other narratives have surfaced and some look quite promising. There is, first of all, the acknowledgement that a top down, globally binding treaty based on emission targets and timetables will not work. This is mainly due to a fact of international politics that can be expressed as: ‘Negotiators can only sign on abroad to what they can sell at home’. The USA may be the most visible nation which exemplifies this fact, but others are no exception.

Hence the bottom up approach to collect pledges from single countries, via intended nationally defined contributions (INDCs). However, there is the problem of putting these pledges into practice: a fact of political life summed up by this expression: ‘The test of each policy lies in its implementation’. The record, even of leading countries on climate policy, does not look promising. Little real progress has been made to date, and based on existing technologies, it is impossible that this will change in the near future.

The pledges made before Paris may not be enough to reach the goals of avoiding 2 degrees of warming. So the temptation arises to make the pledges more ambitious in order to pacify climate activists or the 44 countries demanding a new lower limit of 1.5 degrees. While one can imagine pledges that would on paper meet the demands of such a goal, this approach is in severe danger of losing credibility. It would be regarded as ‘cheap talk’–promises without corresponding action. Ulysses (nations and leaders) would not be bound by such ties.

There is now an emerging narrative which addresses the need for dramatic efforts in terms of RD&D in order to obtain cheap, zero carbon energy. The Global Apollo programme is an example, even if the video clip on its website leaves the impression that it is mainly about extending solar and wind energy.

Existing innovations in energy technology are conservative. They will not be enough to achieve what is needed. Radical innovations are called for, but it is unclear where they will come from. Innovation is an unpredictable process. What is clear though, is that it needs resources and long-term commitment through public funding. Private companies have proven woefully inadequate in this respect. Ulysses does not have a ship that will get him out of trouble.

As co-author of the Hartwell Paper which was published in 2010, I see both the pragmatic bottom up, and the research development and demonstration (RD&D) narratives in a positive light. Countries making pledges based on credible actions at home would be a good start. And recognizing the need to mount a global RD&D effort would be a sign of realism for the conference of the parties.

Too much has been invested in old technologies and old narratives, and they have acquired a momentum of their own. It will be difficult to push them back. The song of the sirens is everywhere, also on board the ship.

Perhaps the Paris summit will produce a document that contains pledges, commitments and is more pragmatic. It will be a symbolic statement that could become self-binding on nations, provided it contains practical ways forward, and does not restrict itself to ‘cheap talk’. As no one assumes that COP 21 will solve the problem of climate change once and for all, it is moot to speculate if it could be seen a success. Officials will see the mere continuation of the process as success, no matter what it will deliver in reality. I will see COP21 as success if it spells out the challenges in a realistic way and manages to create a self-binding dynamic that leads to real solutions.

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