What’s the hold up? The slow transition to renewable energy

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Blog post by Feilidh O’Dwyer

As world leaders continue negotiations at COP21 in Paris, apparently close to sealing some sort of deal to fight climate change –  the future of nations’ energy production is an essential consideration, if this  conference is to result in meaningful change, rather than just an increase in hot air.

A recent study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research predicted that if we were to burn all remaining fossil fuel below ground, it would melt nearly all of Antarctica’s ice leading to a 50 or 60 meter rise in sea levels. One hopes humanity avoids such a fate.

In the mid mid-90s, a terrible post-apolocalyptical movie starring Kevin Costner (with gills)  called Waterworld was released. The film imagined a world in which the ice caps had melted, submerging most of the earth’s surface below water and leaving the few remaining humans desperate to discover the mythical Dryland. It’s safe to assume most people would like to avoid a future involving no land, or Kevin Costner as our saviour.

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Let’s keep those ice caps frozen, aye?

A key step in the fight against climate change is for nations to switch from “dirty” energy production such as burning coal and oil to clean renewable energy sources like wind, hydro and solar.

There are many countries who are now on board with this. In Paris, India unveiled an alliance of 120 countries committed to embracing solar power. Renewable energy technologies have existed for many decades and the environmental reasons for making the transition are extremely compelling. Yet some countries are very slow to make the shift. Why is that?

For both developed and developing nations alike, one of the major barriers to switching to renewables is… (drum roll): money. The set-up costs for renewable infrastructure are often extremely high and the roll-out of such technology may take many years.

There’s also the issue of generator capacity. It may take as many as 2077 2-megawatt wind generators to generate the same amount of power as a single nuclear reactor. This is part of the reason that despite strong public sentiment against nuclear power in Germany, the Government cannot simply switch off the eight remaining reactors which still generate 16 percent of the nation’s energy.

One of the sticking points in previous climate summits has been the amount of money developed nations contribute to developing nations to help them reduce their carbon footprint. While the transition for dirty energy to renewables may be slow and costly, one has to say, it’s kind of a price worth paying. 

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Scientists say countries need to shift away from dirty energy production towards renewables. Credit: Mikael Miettinen

Another reason for the slow transition to renewables is the power and influence wielded by mighty oil and gas companies.

As it stands, the playing field between fossil-fuel and renewable energy companies is not even remotely fair. In 2014 fossil fuels agencies received around $550 billion in subsidies world-wide. Sustainable energy agencies, by comparison, received only $120 billion.

The oil and gas industries are major employers. A 2011 report by the American Petroleum Institute (API) said there were 9.8 million full-time and part-time U.S. jobs in oil and gas that accounted for 8 percent of the U.S. economy.  That kind of workforce gives an industry influence. Few rational people would advocate for instantly shutting oil and gas industry immediately. After all, oil is used in vast numbers of consumer products most of us enjoy and changing to alternatives will take time. The argument, therefore is that we need to shift towards renewable energy sources much faster than we currently are (see graph below).

The oil and gas lobby have practically endless resources to influence politicians, particularly in the US (see here). The industry are unlikely to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs while the money is still flowing, even though the price of oil has recently dropped significantly.

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Note the difference between projected production levels and the level needed to stay beneath 2 degrees warming

By their nature, governments and politicians focus on the short-term and winning the next election. When it comes to saving the planet – thinking about the short-term is the last thing we need.

Last year The International Energy Agency singled out the Middle East as a region where fossil fuel subsidies are hampering renewables. According to their report, every day 2 million barrels per day are burnt to generate power that could otherwise come from renewables. Such renewable would be competitive if oil wasn’t heavily subsidised.  It takes bold political leadership for a nation to opt for several years of low or negative economic growth in order to transition to cleaner sources of energy production and to construct the necessary infrastructure. The real question is – in the long-term, can any nation afford not to make the change? Economic growth is a rather useless pursuit if the planet on which we all live is no longer able to support life.

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Clean energy generation seems to be the way of the future – why then are some countries holding off?

In Beijing, residents are now accostomed to “code red” smog alerts where the city’s streets are ruled off-limits, factories are closed down and cars are banned from driving until the pollution subsides. I experienced this myself on a visit to China last year. After only a few days in Beijing, my lungs became deeply congested. See this real time air pollution monitor and note the cities around the world that have either red or dark red number above them.

Saving the environment while stimulating growth are not mutually exclusive pursuits. There are already countries that demonstrate achieving both simultaneously is possible. So who are these countries?

Well, Sweden and Germany for starters.

In the 4th edition of the Global Green Economy Index report, the two nations came up trumps. The report examined factors such as efficiency, markets and investment as well as climate leadership and the quality of nation’s natural environments. It also included how green countries were perceived to be by experts (Germany was first, Sweden third) verses how well they performed in reality (Sweden first, Germany fourth).  Sweden is so good at recycling its waste – it actually imports garbage. Germany proved how quickly a country can make the transition to renewable energy. Between 2000-2014 Germany went from just 6 percent to around a third of total energy coming from renewables.

So would a country like China – currently the world’s biggest carbon emitter, consider slowing down or event halting its fantastic economic growth to transition to a greener economy? Right now, it seems highly unlikely. They have made some progressive moves such as spending more than any other nation investing in green technology last year but under current targets, they won’t peak their carbon output until 2030.

Should we exchange temporary economic growth for the long-term health of the planet?

In this TED talk climate researcher Anna-Bows Larking cites her own study saying that in order for us to prevent exceeding Earth’s climate budget: “economic growth needs to be exchanged, at least temporarily for a period of planned austerity in wealthy nations.” She makes the point that carbon emissions tend to be cumulative and can potentially remain in Earth’s atmosphere for more than a century. This means if we don’t undertake significant cuts in our carbon emissions now, we will have to make much more drastic cuts in the future.

In 2012 this paper about transitioning to a green economy was presented to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The conclusion of the report stated:

“Some sectors will feel the pain of transition, and countries that specialize in those sectors will be challenged accordingly. But while the individual losers are clearly important, it is also important to put the pain of adjustment into perspective. As noted above, it has been well documented that the costs of action are far less than the costs of inaction. In the long run, perpetuating unsustainable livelihoods is not in anyone’s interest.”

“I Can’t Believe I Still Have To Protest This Sh*t” Seven Days of Climate Change on Reddit

Jonas Kaiser
Blog by Jonas Kaiser

There’s always much to be said about climate change. During COP21, a critical and potentially future-determining event, there’s even more to be said. We have, for example, already read on this blog how journalists cover the conference, what different climate narratives exist or on how many layers climate change affects us.

What is often forgotten in the public discourse on climate change, however, is how regular people around the world make sense of what’s going on in Paris. The teenager in Newark, the student in Madrid or the businesswoman in Pune. It has often times been reiterated that climate change affects every one of us. In this analysis I will shed some light into how climate change is discussed on the “front page of the internet”: Reddit.

The Sheldon Glacier with Mount Barre in the background, is seen from Ryder Bay near Rothera Research Station, Adelaide Island, Antarctica, in this NASA/British Antarctic Survey handout photo. Sea levels could rise by 2.3 metres for each degree Celsius that global temperatures increase and they will remain high for centuries to come, according to a new study by Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, released on July 15, 2013. REUTERS/NASA/British Antarctic Survey/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTX11NGF
This picture originally appeared on Vocativ.com in a story about how Reddit’s science subreddit would no longer allow climate denial posts. Click picture to follow link

In terms of social media, Reddit is an old man among the likes of Instagram, Snapchat, Yik Yak or Voat. The social news/bookmarking site was founded in 2005 and is nowadays one of the most popular sites on the web (Alexa ranks Reddit as the 31st most visited site in the world). Ever wondered where your Facebook friends get their weird news stories or your news site the funny cat video? Well, there’s a high chance Reddit was somehow involved. The site allows you to read and post links, pictures, videos, songs or your own story to specific thematically clustered forums (so called subreddits or subs and indicated by an /r/). A picture of your puppy, for example, would be posted in /r/aww. Additionally Reddit also allows you to comment on each of these links and discuss your puppy’s cuteness with strangers all over the world, and like or dislike other user’s pets or their comments (called upvotes and downvotes). This makes Reddit one of the most vibrant and diverse internet forums on the web.

For this blogpost I naturally didn’t look at puppy pictures (well, that too) but rather how climate change was discussed in the seven days from November 30 to December 6 [1]. I scraped Reddit for all posts that had the terms “climate change”, “global warming”, “climate paris” and “cop21” in their title. This resulted in 2.020 unique submissions, i.e. news articles, videos, images or text posts. This stat alone shows how relevant climate change is for Reddit users. In a first step I looked at the amount of posts per search term and how that differed from each other.

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Fig. 1: Amount of posts per search term

We can see that “climate change” was the most used search term for the last week (n=980) and “global warming” the least (n=300). Unsurprisingly, on the first day there were the most posts on Reddit, with the amount of posts rapidly declining over the next few days. This is most likely closely connected to the media’s reporting on COP21 but, it may also relate to the tedious middle phase of the conference, where generally little progress is made and new developments are rare.

In a next step I looked at the most popular posts to see if there’s some kind of pattern. There were 8 posts that had over 1.000 upvotes (almost a guarantee for a spot on Reddit’s front page and thus to be seen by millions of people all over the world). This picture which also inspired the title of this post, has been viewed over 1.5 million times, received 5.794 upvotes[2] and 495 comments (the top comment says “I bet she uses that sign for everything.”). The second most upvoted link shows, however, that Reddit is not only about funny pictures. It can also be about politics: this article by The New York Times got posted in the politics subreddit and states that “Two-Thirds of Americans Want U.S. to Join Climate Change Pact”. It got 5.613 upvotes and 1.266 comments. The only topic that reached the front page twice was the hacking of the advertisement spaces in Paris (one of the posts linked to these images). However Reddit does not only give you the option to post pictures of news stories but it also offers people the opportunity to give “mass interviews”, so called Ask Me Anythings (AMAs). Janos Pasztor (Ban Ki-moon’s senior adviser on climate change) took this chance and answered Reddit’s questions on what negotiators looked like or how one should deal with climate skeptics.

This glimpse alone shows just how diverse Reddit can be. To fully understand the spectrum of the sites diversity I took a closer look at the subreddits. I took the amount of submissions per subreddit, the average amount of comments per submission and the average amount of upvotes a submission got and plotted these accordingly.

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Fig. 2: Amount of posts per subreddit, its average comments and its average upvotes

First of all, we can see that users posted about climate change on a wide variety of subreddits reaching from satire (/r/shittyaskscience), science (/r/science), politics (/r/conservative) to local news (/r/Calgary) (426 subreddits in total). We can also see that the majority of these subreddits are neither used frequently for posts about climate change nor get a lot of comments or upvotes. There may be two reasons for this: on the one hand many of these subreddits are not that popular and thus not very visible for other users. On the other hand, climate change may not be the most “engaging” issue for users.

Another aspect that supports these ideas is the difference between normal subreddits and the so called “default” ones (since there is no official list I used this user generated one). These are the subreddits which are mostly on the front page and to which a Reddit user is subscribed to by default and which are consequently the ones with the most subscribers and biggest reach. These default subreddits are the blue dots in Fig. 2. You can see the difference between funny (e.g. the old lady on the climate march), IAmA (e.g. Janos Pasztor’s AMA) and pics (e.g. the faux ads but also pictures of the protests in Paris which have been covered on this blog, too) and the rest. There are only few posts in these subreddits but those few had a lot of upvotes and comments and thus a wide reach and big engagement.

In stark contrast to these default subreddits stand the most active ones. There were, for example, 173 posts to /r/environment which dealt with all different kinds of topics (e.g. conference process, national politics or scientific studies) but which were barely commented upon or upvoted. This holds also true for other subreddits like /r/betternews or /r/climate. One default subreddit which is used actively for climate related news is /r/worldnews (n=94). Indeed, one of the Top 8 posts was submitted to this subreddit and dealt with the possibility of Exxon having to pay billions in a climate change lawsuit. But on the other side a lot of posts on /r/worldnews were not as successful, thus resulting in a comparatively low average upvote and comment score.

A last subreddit I want to draw your attention to is /r/climateskeptics. This “safe space” for skeptics has seen 79 submissions with an average of 12 upvotes and 8 comments per post. Covered issues were, for example, the scientific consensus (the dreaded 97%), the supposed hiatus, a link between climate change and terrorism (this actually got discussed in several mostly conservative subreddits) or the fact that a French weatherman and skeptic got hired by the Kremlin. Additionally, /r/climateskeptics is one of the few subreddits which actively promotes the term “global warming” (n=25; only /r/environment used it more often with 27 posts) next to “climate change” (n=36; /r/environment with 101 posts) thus echoing a recent study by Jang and Hart to some extent.

For this blog post I set out to look at how Reddit’s users discussed climate change. With this small analysis, I was able to show that Reddit users greatly care about climate change. The political nature of COP21 influenced Reddit’s agenda strongly in this respect. Not only were the political subreddits among the most active and engaging but also news posts of Obama’s speech in Paris, YouTube videos of the faux ads or images of rioting protesters were prominently discussed all over Reddit. Additionally, climate change was discussed on all different kinds of levels: internationally, nationally but also locally. Reddit wouldn’t be true to its spirit, if there weren’t also a few posts that looked at climate change humorously (e.g. this idea to solve climate change submitted to /r/shittyaskscience), scientifically (e.g. this remarkable study) or suspecting a big conspiracy (/r/climateskeptics or /r/conspiracy) and thus emphasizing Reddit’s thematic and user diversity.

When looking at such a diverse and multi-faceted site as Reddit there are a few aspects which have to be neglected. Most notably, I chose to focus for this blogpost on the submitted posts and ignored the comments. This analysis is thus only able to give you a broad idea of how internet users from all over the world discuss climate change and the conference in Paris and its small and the big stories.

Note: I’d like to thank Stephan Schlögl and Adrian Rauchfleisch for their valuable tips, help and insight with R.

[1] The time on Fig. 1 shows that I also scraped some posts from Nov 29. As recommended by Reddit, I used Epochconverter to get all posts from Nov 30 00:00 to Dec 7 00:00. Naturally, this somehow skews the plot but the trend remains the same either way. If you have an idea how that happened, let me know! 🙂

[2] All upvote and comment numbers stem from the time of my scrape and do not necessarily still have to be the exact amount of votes or comments. Reddit is tricky that way.

Public meanings in Paris : Analysing Twitter hashtag trends from COP21

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Blog post by Warren Pearce (University of Nottingham)

Anyone with a passing interest in climate change will know how intractably difficult international negotiations have proved in the past, reaching a low-point at Copenhagen.

Whatever the outcome this week in Paris, the preponderance of ‘square brackets’ in the latest draft document (signifying those issues still to be resolved) indicates that the task remains troublesome. While a scientific consensus on the basics of climate change has been established, a political consensus has been less forthcoming1,2. One reason for this is that climate change is not a uniquely scientific issue, but a public issue involving science3. We need to explore the public meanings of climate change, and allow these meanings to inform the debate around political responses to climate change. I suggest that one way to scratch the surface of such meanings is through the vibrant use of Twitter around the COP21 event4.

In this post, I look at tweets containing the string ‘COP21’ collected by my colleagues Kim Holmberg  and Timothy D Bowman between October 3rd and December 3rd, focusing on the hashtags used within these tweets in order to get a glimpse of the public meanings to be found ‘under the hood’ of climate change.

Following our analysis of Twitter usage around the publication of an IPCC report in 20135, we can identify two broad ways in which hashtags are being used. Firstly: to highlight public meanings of climate change in an attempt to mobilise public support. Secondly: as a means of bringing climate change to the attention of pre-existing publics with broader concerns. Many of these hashtags express familiar, enduring meanings of climate change, such as #science #environment #energy #renewables and #CO2. But here I will focus some less familiar meanings that say something about the knot of social issues that underpin climate change.

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Climate activists in Paris hold pictures of Indonesia’s deforestation

First, #KillerPalm (10,872 mentions in conjunction with ‘COP21’), has been used to raise concerns over unsustainable palm oil production methods that have negative impacts on local environments. Such methods contribute to local deforestation as ground is cleared for oil palm plantations. While the case against such actions may appear straightforward when looking at carbon emissions, complex supply chains and a difficult balance between supporting smallholders and maintaining sustainability standards points to a complex intermingling of social, economic and environmental issues6. Indeed, some commentators may question why relatively poor farmers from the global south should stifle their own development when the global north has long since converted the bulk of its forests to other uses.

This points to a second public meaning being attached to COP21 on Twitter: #climatejustice (3629). Climate justice is one of the most persistent challenges to technocratic interpretations of climate change. Agarwal and Narain argued in 1991, that instead of merely counting carbon we should differentiate between the ‘luxury emissions’ of developed countries and the ‘survival emissions’ of developing countries7. Failing to do so lets developed countries off the hook for their share of the blame vis-à-vis climate change, a situation described by Agarwal and Narain as “environmental colonialism”7. Such arguments further complicate the task of international agreement, but continue to be a raised within the tweets in our sample8 as well as maintaining a presence within the thicket of square brackets in Paris9.

#COP21 has also been used to introduce climate change to broader, pre-existing publics. Some of these are familiar from our IPCC study5: #cdnpoli (7273) and #auspol (6252) demonstrate how climate change continues to be a high profile political issue in Canada and Australia (perhaps related to their fossil fuel reserves) in a way it appears not to be in the UK. However, two new publics are visible within our sample. The proximity of the #ParisAttacks (6326) to COP21 prompted tweeters to link the two in multiple ways; for example, to express climate talks as a means to greater peace, to describe COP21’s continuation as an act of defiance, to highlight the constraints placed on climate change demonstrations in Paris after the attacks, or to argue that tackling terrorism should take priority over climate change. While these views are diverse, they share a recognition that climate change is indeed a public issue entwined with fundamental concerns over democracy.

Contrasting with #ParisAttacks, some tweeters chose to connect COP21 to #YearInSpace (3178), a hashtag used by astronaut Scott Kelly for photos of Earth taken from the International Space Station10. This echoes the role of the original ‘blue marble’ photos of the Earth in the rise of environmentalism11,12, and ties in with the global view that often frames discussions of climate change13. While this perspective may distance us from many of climate change’s public meanings, the photos provide a source of optimism both through their beauty and how they remind us of the possibility of advancement through science and technology.

Studying tweets does not easily provide us with a ‘deep dive’ into the public meanings of climate change, particularly in the brief commentary offered here. However, they do provide insight into how publics using social media interpret climate change, and a means of comparing these meanings to those expressed within the corridors of COP21.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Machin, A. Negotiating Climate Change: Radical Democracy and the Illusion of Consensus. (Zed Books, 2013).
  2. Pearce, W. Scientific data and its limits: rethinking the use of evidence in local climate change policy. Evid. Policy J. Res. Debate Pract. 10, 187–203 (2014).
  3. Wynne, B. Further disorientation in the hall of mirrors. Public Underst. Sci. 23, 60–70 (2014).
  4. Pearce, W., Brown, B., Nerlich, B. & Koteyko, N. Communicating climate change: conduits, content, and consensus. Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Clim. Change 6, 613–626 (2015).
  5. Pearce, W., Holmberg, K., Hellsten, I. & Nerlich, B. Climate Change on Twitter: Topics, Communities and Conversations about the 2013 IPCC Working Group 1 Report. PLoS ONE 9, e94785 (2014).
  6. Coca, N. Making Zero-Deforestation Commitments Work. Triple Pundit: People, Planet, Profit (2015). at <http://www.triplepundit.com/2015/12/making-zero-deforestation-commitments-work/>
  7. Agarwal, A. & Narain, S. Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism. (Centre for Science and Environment, 1991).
  8. teleSUR English. #COP21: Richest 10% guilty of 50% of carbon emissions #ClimateJustice http://bit.ly/21vy4Uo  pic.twitter.com/dZlQuAjemW. @telesurenglish (2015). at <https://twitter.com/telesurenglish/status/672194641916272640>
  9. Revkin, A. Article 3 (Mitigation), no surprise, is among the sections of the #COP21 final draft thickest with [brackets]. pic.twitter.com/BPpn8Qklbx. @Revkin (2015). at <https://twitter.com/Revkin/status/673962717682786305>
  10. Kelly, S. Oceans on our #EarthRightNow. You are the blue in our big blue marble. #COP21 #YearInSpace pic.twitter.com/q4hpHebiBp. @StationCDRKelly (2015). at <https://twitter.com/StationCDRKelly/status/672501614637359104>
  11. Poole, R. Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth. (Yale University Press, 2008). at <http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300137668>
  12. McKibben, B. What NASA’s Blue Marble Photo Reveals About Climate Change. Mother Jones (2012). at <http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/02/bill-mckibben-nasa-blue-marble-photo-climate-change>
  13. Miller, C. A. in States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order (ed. Jasanoff, S.) 46–66 (Routledge, 2004).

 

Giving climate change a local connection

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Blog by Professor Bienvenido León

From the beginning of journalism, proximity has worked as one of the main news values or criteria for selecting interesting events. This principle was later formulated in the classic handbook written by Karl Warren, for whom the most interesting thing for any human being is himself/ herself and, afterwards, what is closest –eg. family, friends, home or work.

However, the media have often represented climate change as a remote process, with little or no influence in people’s lives. It may come as no surprise that many European citizens think that it is currently affecting only some remote regions of the planet, like the poles -“Okay, ice is melting, but this is not going to change my life in the near future.”

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An image that people come to associate with climate change – but what about the local effects?

Academic research indicates that the images that are used to represent climate change are of vital importance. But, again, the most frequent icons –polar bears, melting glaciers-, are culturally and geographically distant for most people.

In many European countries, media coverage is closely related to news hooks, like international climate summits. These events are often represented as distant events that are illustrated with pictures of foreign politicians and complex negotiations.

However something may be different this time: when informing the public about COP-21, some media seem to be finally making connecting the global issue with local problems.  Relatively extensive coverage of the summit has included some examples of links to local effects of climate change that are already affecting local people.

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Photo credit: Bienvenido León

Among them, news pieces that relate climate change to health issues could be especially effective. The truth is that Europeans are already suffering some health-related consequences from climate change, like the spread of tropical diseases carried by invading species like the tiger mosquito.

In a lighter vein, some local authorities have also celebrated COP-21 and tried to establish a local connection.  In Pamplona –a small Spanish town 90 km. from the sea-shore-, the City Hall and a group of Greenpeace activists have created a “beach” in a central square, in an attempt to raise awareness on the local implications of global warming.  As the presenter stated: “It’s not about polar bears, it’s about us”.

COP-21 may be the tipping point in many aspects of climate change. Hopefully it will also be remembered as the tipping point for the local connection in media representation of climate change. We need it.

Climate justice activism under the ‘state of emergency’.

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Post by Joost de Moor (in Paris)

During the two years before COP21, a large group of French and international NGOs, unions, social movement organizations, and grassroots groups united in the Coaltion Climat 21 (and beyond) to develop and coordinate a range of actions to demand climate action and to act for climate justice. The result of this process was a call for action covering the two weeks of the COP.

These plans changed dramatically, however, after the attacks of November 13. While the climate change movement has long faced an uphill battle at COPs, since the terror attacks of November 13, its path has become extra steep.

Immediately after the attacks, it became clear that the mobilization would be strongly affected by this new situation – in particular by the ‘state of emergency’ that was installed in reaction to the terror threat. On the Wednesday after the attacks it was declared that all planned mass mobilizations during the first and last weekend of the COP were forbidden. The movement had about ten days to come up with new action plans.

How has the movement reacted to this situation?

On the Thursday after the bans were announced, organizers came together in Paris to start developing new ideas that would still allow them to voice their concerns about climate change. As certain groups in the coalition insisted on respecting the ban on demonstrations, the coalition decided to cancel the global climate march that was planned in Paris on November 29. The idea of the human chain was introduced to replace it: a chain of individuals standing next to each other on the sidewalk provided a means to show the movement’s message along the march’s original trajectory, while being likely to be tolerated by the police. But also the plans for civil disobedience actions had to be adjusted. Even though they were essentially illegal in the first place, organizers had to take into account a context with increased police repression, and the accommodating increased risks.

Anti-nuclear protesters in Paris escorted by police - Credit Robin Wood
Anti-nuclear protesters in Paris escorted by police – Credit Robin Wood

Yet the state of emergency not only affected the actions of the movement – it also changed its message in at least two ways. Firstly, soon after the attacks, many organizers realized that in order to pay tribute to the severity of the attacks, they needed to address the question of terror. They decided to do so by highlighting the interrelatedness of the climate struggle and questions of peace: climate change is already disrupting areas leading to conflict, and a future of climate chaos will only increase this situation. As such, the new situation, and the broadening of the movement’s topic could even bring unusual suspects into the movement. Secondly, not so much the attacks themselves, but in particular the state of emergency have brought in another new topic to the movement: that of civil liberties and the right to freedom of expression. Climate activists and civil liberty campaigners have found each other in a struggle to claim the right to express concerns, this time specifically about climate change.

Finally, the state of emergency affected organizers’ and activists’ perceived chances of success. While the situation may be a source of despair to some activists, others have pronounced that the repression they are facing is an indication that they are now considered a force to be reckoned with, and that they might even be winning. Director of Greenpeace International, Kumi Naidoo, used the words of Gandhi when he said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. They are fighting us, so we must be winning.”

How does this change the field of action?

While there is still an important degree of optimism, in the streets, the climate movement is facing severe police repression whenever they try to cross any of the boundaries set by the state of emergency. In fact, the level of repression became already clear before the COP, and before any action even started. 24 activists, including a member of the movement’s legal team, were put under house arrest. Moreover, a number of squats where activists were staying to prepare actions were raided by dozens of policemen.

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Scenes from the demonstrations in and around Place de la République in Paris on the day before COP21. Credit – Chris Bentley

In the streets, the activists face high levels of protest policing. On November 29, thousands of protesters defied the government’s ban on protesting by gathering on the Place de la République at the time that the original march was planned. Their protest was met with enormous police presence. All eight exit streets off the square were blocked by riot police in order to prevent the activists from leaving the square and march, as some of them had planned to do. When the situation escalated, the activists could not leave the square and a large group of them was ‘kettled’ in one corner, after which about 300 of them were taken into custody.

Actions of a smaller scale have met equally strict policing. On Friday December 4, a group of activists planned to disrupt the opening of the ‘solutions COP21’, by giving ‘toxic tours’ to highlight ‘corporate greenwashing’ to the audience and the press. On the outside of the event, hundreds of riot cops were present to control the streets and access to the venue. Inside, dozens of plain clothes police were ready to intervene once the ‘toxic tours’ started. Both activists and journalists were dragged out of the building because they spoke up for what they considered to be wrong. The small protest that emerged as a result on the outside was soon dispersed by a police force that may have actually outnumbered the protesters.

The police is not everywhere

During the past weekend, Coaltion Climat 21 held the Citizens’ Climate Summit – one of the few actions that have not been banned by the government. It combined a peasants market, a ‘village of alternatives’, a climate forum with lectures, discussions and workshops, and even a parade – with more than two people, and a political message, thereby violating the ban on protesting (!). During this event, the police were hardly visible. For the first time in my life, I experienced how relaxing it can be when there is not a large continent of police at a protest who have their tear gas and pepper spray ready at all times.

During the second week of the COP, more actions are planned, some of which legal, other disobedient. Let me conclude by saying that I honestly hope that during these actions, climate activists will be allowed to voice their concerns in a more peaceful and dignified way. Given the severity of the climate crisis we are facing, their message deserve to be heard.

Climate coverage across cultures: 9 types of media narratives at COP21

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Blog by Dr. Sara Nofri

Before dealing with environmental news reporting academically, I was involved in the environmental movement personally, since back in the 90s.

I was, for instance, at the World Social Forum which took place during the now sadly famous G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001. I was volunteering as a translator and spent several days actively participating. While there, I had the chance to attend and listen to workshops hosting prominent figures of the so called anti-globalisation movement. Within the movement, at that time, concepts, issues and stakeholders of the sustainability question were defined for an increasingly broad public – an internet-connected public. The discussion was especially relevant for a development-critical, possibly de-growth-oriented perspective. The international and Italian media coverage of that summit in particular, and the discrepancy with my own experience of the events that took place, was one of my journalistic biggest lessons so far.

During that Social Forum I thought: “Environmental awareness, sustainability, climate change… whatever the talk, the kinds and patterns of stories told are still the same old ones: take the canonical narrative schema; substitute a couple of details; use the multi-syllabled neologisms of the moment; choose high fog-factor, when in doubt; and your climate news story is ready!

However, the question of humans and how they deal with their planet is no ordinary ‘story’. I wondered why this was so, and whether different ways of tackling the question and discussing it or reporting about it exist – beyond tackling it with bare facts, which is what really matters. Some time later, I investigated environmental associations and movements in Sweden and, carried out an in-depth multilingual comparison of environmental news reporting in different cultures. I found out that reporting was highly culturally mediated. Being as I am, immersed in my own culture, I assumed there had to be ways of looking at environmental and climate issues that I was not yet aware of.

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Text projected on the Eiffel Tower during COP21

I did not know enough of cultures or languages spoken in regions of the world very different from my own. I also didn’t have the possibility to live as nomadically and multilingually as I did in my youth. So I moved on to examine environmental documentaries and started to compare those. What interested me – was the ways the story was told: I wanted to find some ways that were new, at least to me.

So far for COP21, I’ve read random news on the web over the last week from at least a dozen Western countries (mostly Sweden, Iceland, UK and US, France, Canada, Germany and especially Italy). Remembering what I learnt about Greimas, Propp and Russian tales back at university, I have observed that media coverage tends to adopt a limited number of main narrative approaches to climate change. I qualitatively grasped this idea, but did not quantify nor investigate it thoroughly. Many climate stories follow the classic story pattern of a situation that encounters opposition; action follows; sanctions may occur; a new situation is obtained.

The stories don’t always follow this pattern however. Below I name 9 (for the moment) types of storytelling in the western media I observed. I have opted for humorous categories naming and filmic associations. Hence: allow me to share with you my proto-typology on climate stories:

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Type 1, the ‘famous’, or The Apocalyptic.

There are several scientific studies investigating this particular way of telling the story. Its biblical influences have been pointed out already. Stress is put upon the disasters occurring, the details of those, and how more or less subliminally the factor “guilt” plays a role. For humans being “guilty” of what is happening, global warming surely is anthropogenic (caused by humans). Risk communication is often influenced by apocalyptic storytelling. Newsworthiness itself can depend on the extent to which events can be presented as exceptionally destructive. The approach is usable in many other kinds of stories and in other kinds of media texts. Sci-fi film directors love it.

Type 2, the ‘seller’, or The Last Chance:

This narrative approach draws from traditional selling tactics by insisting in the now-or-never side of e.g. a reaction to global warming, a specific negotiation, a certain summit; it is wonderfully applicable to other subjects and relies on the extent to which an addressee can be manipulated into their being aware of an urgency. This way of telling a story is particularly privileged by romantic comedies. As a happy ending (after the movie/summit is over) is not guaranteed either for couples nor for climate agreements, the Last Chance approach is usually used in the coverage during the first part of, in this case, COP21. Its counterpart tends to be the bitter Could-Have-Been narrative approach, which typically ensues.

Type 3, the ‘wholistic’, or Humans play God:

This climate change storytelling style sounds at times arrogant, however it tries to focus on the forest and not just on the individual trees. News stories showing the connections between desertification and wars, resources distribution and lack of democracy or even terrorism, interconnections between companies’ interest and environmental problems belong to this type. The perspective is often that of the anti-globalisation movement approach “from-below”, and is often used in documentary movies that target internet audiences and aim at going viral. The tone may be sober, striving for – and in the worst cases being absolutely sure to obtain – superhuman objectivity.

Type 4, the ‘gamer’, or Sports News

Especially adopted by climate change stories in traditional Western style, it takes for granted the deployment of teams and shows power relationships and interest groupings among the stakeholders involved, often according a dichotomy of good-and-bad(-and ugly, in exceptional cases). This dichotomy can be explicitly mentioned, covert, or just implied (North vs. South of the world; industrialised vs. developing countries; companies vs. politicians; demonstrators vs. police; journalists vs. lobbies; science vs. all; etc.). If a clear-cutting delineation of good vs. bad is not possible, sometimes frustration occurs due to sudden lack of orientation: “Now, who is the bad guy?” The case of India and the reporting on its positions over the last days is a clear example. On the one hand they appear as ‘evil’ (“So many emissions! They do not want to cut them! They claim that now it is their turn to pollute!”) and on the other hand ‘good’ (“…exploited for so many years and now hosting over a billion inhabitants with a ridiculously low amount of CO2 emission pro capita compared to us, of course they have the right to get their share of the cake!”). No need to say that Western movies à la Sergio Leone best represent this storytelling approach.

Type 5, the ‘hopeless capitalist’, or the Emperor’s new clothes

Lobbies and companies mostly feed on, and subvention, this particular kind of storytelling: technologically optimistic in their core, climate stories presenting new inventions, production ideas or sustainability best practices rely on the fact that a strong emphasis on environmental friendliness will overshadow the consumption, pollution, product life-cycle and resource distribution aspects that often are not considered in enough detail. A bright future awaits us if we buy electric cars; if we buy organic food; if we decarbonise our societies (‘decarbonise’ meaning both 1. Decouple emissions from our energy consumption, e.g. use nuclear power or renewables AND 2. Change the relationship between emissions and a country’s GDP in time); if X, then Y. Y= everything’s gonna be alright. No media text expresses this approach better than TV advertisements. Ah, the everlasting charm of novelty.

Type 6: the ‘exotic’, or the Sigmund Freud

Have you ever noticed the schizophrenia behind some apparently awareness-raising stories? It reminds me of the principle according to which: the widest the green areas sacrificed to urban projects of no relevance to the local public sphere, but of great relevance to the local corporate avidity, the more non-grassroots environmental associations are likely to stress questions affecting a place/habitat/ecosystem geographically distant from the aforementioned project.
Questions whose decision-making process structures they are not likely to have direct influence on! Talk about the Galapagos turtles having their first babies again, ignore the fourth new gas station built on your way to work. Interview the inhabitants of Kiribati to get their opinion on climate change, but please do not dare ask a Nigerian immigrant who jumped off a boat and made it to Europe because he could no longer drink the polluted water our cars deprive him of – the latter is somehow less conscience-relieving.

Type 7: the ‘Franciscan’, or Mr. Terzani

Religion can choose another storytelling path. A few month ago during his second encyclical, Pope Francis highlighted a lesser known narrative approach to climate change. This approach was highlighted in Italy by late Der Spiegel Asia correspondent Tiziano Terzani during the last years of his life in the late 90s and early 2000s. Such an approach can be described as ascetic, more-is-less, essentialist and de-growth-oriented perspective. This perspective is very underrepresented in all kinds of journalistic storytelling about climate change, because its main assumption is that too much consumption is wrong and substantial de-growth is necessary. However nobody profits from this perspective – at least in the traditional, short-term-oriented meaning of “profit”. The media and news production industry is based on profit and soaked in the pursuit of growth like any other economy sector of most industries on the planet. The media as a whole cannot just promote non-consumption: it would result in an erosion of its own foundations. In short: you can’t promote fasting if you own a pastry shop.

Type 8: the ‘creationist’, or the Balanced

As I am not writing academically here, I refuse to make an effort and mention news stories types still insisting on giving the floor to the global warming negationists. To these eight types, thanks to the climate changed documentaries I watched and analysed, I was able to add another type:

Type 9: the ‘poet’, or More Than Words

Experimental cinema, as well as some more visionary kind of journalism, try to explain the problems, the debate and the causes-and-consequences correlations by non linear means. For instance, by asking childrens’ opinion without piloting their answers and interactions. Or by not privileging climactic approaches and asking open questions instead.  Or even by showing sides to the stories that really provide a new perspective of thinking about it. An article I read on Il Fatto Quotidiano in Italy, for instance, pointed out very interestingly and innovatively the different ways we react to predictions and figures concerning climate and forecasts regarding the developments of the financial markets. The former are much more exact than the second. However, the latter one concern us more, are reported much, much more on, and affects our actions much more. The author suggests questions, rather than providing answers, still the focus is on an innovative point of view.

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As for my initial question: are there climate change narratives I am not aware of, yet? In my recent impressions and past scientific investigations, I came to think that the more distance between a culture’s way of life and nature there is, the more anthropocentric a storytelling perspective is adopted. This may affect news, storytelling, media texts in general.

Western cultures have features that are peculiar to them and that they have tended to export to the rest of the world: the need for an evil/good dichotomy of monotheistic origin, which is much less present in Asian cultures, for instance, is an example. Anglo-Saxon cultures especially tend to privilege verbal messages, according to the purest Lutheran tradition of sola scriptura – I may jokingly add – and rely on the power of subtitles, titles, written messages in general.

Mediterranean cultures, instead, are more visual and prosody oriented and seem to adopt a more dramatic (in the theatrical sense of the word) perspective. For instance, a documentary film from Iran called Lady Urmia (2012) let the Urmia lake itself, located in the North of Iran and currently disappearing, ‘speak’ about the environmental problems affecting it – through a feminine voice. Humans were just background cast members. The spontaneity of this approach from a culture probably much less anthropocentric than mine really impressed me.

Last, but not least: science itself is immersed in its culture-specific narratives of climate change (incidentally, ‘climate change’ and ‘greenhouse gases’ originated from a deliberate, US-Republican ‘nicer’ wordings than the scary, more accurate ‘global warming’). The types mentioned above cover some of the narrative options available. Researchers have absorbed during their lives, investigations and journeys, specific ways of presenting stories and stakeholders, and have reflected (hopefully) on their more or less conscious ways of ascribing them values and relationships. Hundreds of thousands of members of the academic community, as a consequence, travel around the world from conference to symposium, back and forth, weekly or even daily, to talk about old and new inconvenient truths on climate change.

I think it is time for the academic community to take an inconvenient stand: there is no point in choosing to study climate change and at the same time choosing not to reflect it in any personal life choice, apart from the occasional organic food caterer for the next meeting.

So which typology to adopt?

I wish my typology was less humorous and more scientifically accurate. Observing the media reporting on COP21 until the end will help, and cooperation among researchers from different backgrounds and cultures may boost its – if ever there will be any – validity. For the moment, I already consciously adopted type 7 within the narrative style of my own article here. As I implied, we members of the scientific community should act locally and eco-friendly and perform global online-networking, instead of flying about the place, busy in, or only telling ourselves that we are, saving the planet.

Paris Climate Summit – Media Summary – 6.12.15 Brazilian Media Coverage

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Post by Pedro Henrique Barreto

Pedro is a Brazilian journalist currently working towards his master’s in journalism and globalisation at City University London. His Twitter handle is @pedrohcbarreto

In Brazil, the political turmoil is overshadowing the media coverage of the COP21. This weekend, Venezuela had general elections which received major attention from Brazilian outlets. Nevertheless, all the main newspapers had a special section on their websites dedicated to the conference – they are updated daily with articles written by correspondents, international news agencies and opinion pieces.

O Estado de S. Paulo says that financing is the biggest obstacle for an agreement in Paris. Around US$ 100 billion are to be transferred annually to underdeveloped countries for adaptation to global warming, but how to reach that number is still in dispute. A quote from the article [translated]: “In a scenario of mutual distrust, the developed nations fear eventual corruption cases, while the developing ones have suspicions from the rich governments’ real intentions to fulfill the agreed funding”.

In another piece, the correspondent in Paris is tougher. “According to negotiators listened to by O Estado, the topic of financing is poisoning the discussions in the COP21.” The newspaper says that there is still much to be done to match the efforts of the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe – and the nations from the so-called G77 + China.

Another Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo brings few updates this Sunday. One of them is about the American Congress, whose “Republican opposition does not consider climate change a real threat”. The outlet highlights Barack Obama’s endeavour on the matter, but remembers that the Republican majority in the House of Representatives approved two resolutions to block the rules approved by the Environmental Protection Agency which aimed at the reduction of carbon emission from coal. “It was a message to the world that the United States are divided,” the piece said.

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A screenshot from the online edition of O Globo

O Globo”, the newspaper part of the biggest media corporation in Brazil, says in an opinion article today that “if the negotiators in the climate summit are being serious in the mission to stop global warming, then they must consider the use atomic energy”. The piece underlines that France is an example to be followed, because it appears at number 20 in the list of GDP per capita in the world, but it is only at number 50 in the list of greenhouse gases emitters. “This is only possible because in France the energy matrix is mostly nuclear”.

 

Why there needs to be more public debate on climate change

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Blog by Felix Schreyer

Everybody’s eyes are on Paris at the moment. For one week the climate summit has already filled many headlines, columns and articles in the media world.

It is a typical pattern. In fact, media researchers know that the conferences are rare times for climate change to get public attention. Paris is probably a new dimension – the biggest and most ambitious event ever, covered all around the world. Thus, a good time to think about what climate journalists should keep an eye on.

There are many story lines on climate change you can pick from these days. You could point to the conflict between the developed and the developing world, analyse the positions of the top-emitting countries, reports from the submerging Marshall-Islands, ponder on the sense or nonsense of protests or write one of the many overview articles. Nevertheless, when it comes to opinion the picture is less diverse. There is a lot of the familiar “We-need-to-act-now” rhetoric. In European discourses, there are virtually no contentious debates on where we should be heading with the climate. Why is that?

Unlike homosexual marriage, the refugee crisis or gun ownership the climate change seems hardly suitable for controversial debate. Rather, it would need at least two distinct camps, arguing from different normative perspectives. The climate denial debate does not count. It is about whether scientists get their facts right. By now, this a mere placeholder for saying you just do not care at all about climate change. However, the majority of media voices are merely restating the claim that efforts to stop climate change must become more ambitious. There are no serious objections to that. On a moral basis the issue seems to be clear. It is only a problem of policy implementation. Policy-makers appear either ignorant or incapable of overcoming diplomatic deadlocks. There is nothing morally controversial about this.

 

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Screenshot from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in 2014 – The climate change “debate.”

This is partly understandable, considering that the current climate policy seems to lag behind public expectations a lot. In this situation media voices either focus on mobilization or policy analysis. However, there is a problem with this. It is something that has accompanied the climate debate ever since it started in the 1980s: The public becomes dulled by the permanent gap between claims and actions. It loses interest in the topic and is more likely to fall back into political disillusionment. Thereby, they can even become more inert on climate action because they are not challenged to check arguments on either side anymore. The problem seems to be with the policy-makers, not with the public.

Journalists could stimulate the debate by framing questions on climate action as questions of justice. Questions such as: What would you want us to do, if you did not know when and where you were born in the centuries to come? Would you be willing to sacrifice your living standard to, for example, prevent Bangladesh from shrinking by almost a quarter from sea-level rise? Certainly, you would not mind having ten euros more on the electricity bill. However, you would probably not accept stopping plane travel for the rest of your life. For many people, it must be something inbetween. These questions are hypothetical. They do not take into account what is politically realistic at the moment. But, they may provoke a debate that reveals step by step how far we are actually willing to go.

Now, what would journalists need to do to initiate a bigger debate of this kind? Here are some ideas: First, the public must know more about the differences between a 1.5C, 2C or 3C-world. The Guardian recently made a start. Despite the scientific uncertainties, more graspable images need to be created to see what is at stake.

Second, there needs to be a better picture on the costs of an ambitious mitigation policy. For example, the IPCC economists estimated that the 2C-target would cost the global economy 4 to 6 percent compared to no climate mitigation at all. This is an amount equivalent to the expected world growth within a couple of years. However, there is always the problem of translating such figures. People like to know what this mean for their lifestyle.

Third, the public needs to have stories in mind of what could happen. Why not mobilise writers for drawing pictures of people living in the 22nd century? Neither as a utopia, nor dystopia, but as a more or less likely scenario. What about composing fictional encounters between different generations? What would they say to each other? There could be many ways for authors to provide powerful visions of a future world.

Although rather sketchy, I think that this could help to bring some motion into the climate debate. Certainly, it is quite a challenge for media producers. More controverisal debates could not only give people a better picture of the problem. It would also be more catchy. This could finally give climate change the public attention it deserves – even beyond COPs.

Degrees and vulnerability – A personal account of climate activists at COP21

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A blog by Professor Elisabeth Eide

Monday morning the climate summit started with scores of state leaders arriving in their black cars, delegates and press mostly in hybrid shuttle buses.

But Espace Générations Climat – the forum for all the non-accredited NGOs and activists, remained closed. They were not allowed to open until Tuesday, evidently for security reasons. The amount one has to pay to be there is rather steep. A woman representing a small NGO said they had to pay 1700 Euro for just 9m2.

The only demonstrators the delegates would see as they entered the accredited grounds of COP21 on Monday morning were seven angels with posters promoting climate justice and scorning fossil energy. The angels are Australian, and have travelled widely with their message already. “Who would arrest angels?,” – an Australian professor from Melbourne commented. After noticing how they navigated through police blocks at Place de la République on Sunday, when the going got tough, we were convinced. As they days have passed, small groups of demonstrators have made their mark inside the official Cop (the blue zone.) also, applauded by passers-by.

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A climate activist at COP21

Justice and island states

Climate justice? Yes, but where to draw the line? Before this conference, it was taken for granted that the conference was going to be about the two degree target, the aim that everyone spoke about, where the world, in a best case scenario, was heading. So far the pledges would keep global warming just below three degrees. Then again, pledges and practices are not identical entities. As the conference develops it has become increasingly clear that the Least Developed Countries (LDC’s) and G77 will not agree to a final document unless the rich nations increase their commitment to financing adaptation substantially.

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Climate activists protesting the recent forest fires in Indonesia

A growing coalition of indigenous people, island state representatives and large parts of civil society are now insisting on one and a half degree increase, maximum. This call seems to have been heard by politicians at the opening ceremony. Both Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel emphasized the island state vulnerability. Utopian as it may seem, the lower one and a half degree target was mentioned by some western leaders. Hollande even said he wanted to lend his voice to the island states. President Obama met the island leaders Tuesday. However, as a seasoned COP-participant uttered: “The politicians sound generous, the negotiators will be less so.”

Case-ification of the poor …

Another rhetorical feature is the way in which some leaders promote special ‘cases’ of the vulnerable. French minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, who chairs COP21, spoke of an elderly woman he had met in Bangladesh. Due to climate change, she had shifted home nine times and had asked him if the COP would do anything to change her circumstance. We do not think he had an answer ready at hand. President Obama emphasized his own experiences from drastic changes in Alaska, and also mentioned a young Indonesian lady in Malaysia who had challenged him to take action. The president of Honduras mentioned Maria, who, like 70 percent of his population, cooked over open fire, but was helped to cook more environment-friendly. But do these narratives bring the global leaders closer to the realities on the ground?

The state leaders, due to time constraints, held their introductory speeches in parallel sessions. President Obama and the Norwegian Prime minister Erna Solberg spoke simultaneously. So did Vladimir Putin and Brazilian Dilma Roussef. While these speeches entered our ears, press releases kept pouring into email boxes, while some printed versions still land on your desk. In the press room, reporters risked fragmented experiences, a permanent peril to anyone trying to report from this global event. Every journalist has to make hard choices.

Growth?

Can we really believe that global leaders have grasped the situation now? Competing diagnoses still exist in this forum. The president of Paraguay, Horacio Cartes has warned against unlimited growth and repeated the claim for an international court mechanism dealing with crimes against the environment. Evo Morales from Bolivia reiterated that capitalism has steered Mother Earth towards the abyss. On the other hand, many western leaders, not least Obama (Monday) and Michael Bloomberg (Friday), are increasingly enthusiastic about ‘green growth’ and the ability businesses have to save the system as well as the planet.

A row of initiatives were launched to convince the conference that we are heading in the right direction, pledging funding for positive development as well as a quota system and new market mechanisms. But few of these initiators bothered to visit the Climate Vulnerability Forum, assembled Monday. More than thirty leaders from the most vulnerable nations were there to defend the one and a half degree target. The strongest appeal came from young José Sixto Gonzales from the Philippines who told that his archipelago experiences around 22 typhoons a year. While he admitted he would rather be at home, he said he represented his new-born daughter – and all other children. He said the one and a half degree target is at the core of these negotiations. Further, he said that his countrymen, who had survived typhoon Haiyan, are in a sense experts on climate change and deserve being listened to.

José is active on social media and had gathered mountains of responses.  “Please listen to all these voices. Tell us that it is about now!” The forum applauded. The UN climate leader Christina Figueres offered her advice to the forum and asked them to let their voices be even louder, and to exploit the positive rhetoric of western leaders to the full.

 

With one week nearly done, next week we’ll see if rhetoric translates into action.

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

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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).

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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.