Not Out of the Woods Yet

By Jacob Hopkins

News of President Obama’s climate deal with the Chinese produced much excitement in the environmental community. Cooperation between the world’s two biggest carbon polluters is a meaningful start to any sort of global treaty about carbon emissions. The deal also served as a testament to just how much relations have improved between the two countries since China led a walkout of developing nations at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. However, despite this progress, serious obstacles still remain to potentially reach a functioning climate treaty at the Paris 2015 climate summit.

In order to understand why the improving relationship between China and the United States does not necessarily guarantee a successful summit, it is important to look at the last attempt the world made to come to consensus on climate change. During the 2009 summit, President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton attempted to find the location of the Chinese president in order to have negotiations between the two countries alone. Not only did they fail to find him, but quickly realized that the Brazilian, Indian, and South African delegations were missing as well. Apparently, the U.S. had been shut out of the meeting, but after getting word of the location, decided to crash it. Though some Chinese officials attempted to stop the U.S. delegation from entering, Secretary Clinton ducked through the doors, shocking everyone in the room. President Obama followed and the two demanded further negotiations.

Underneath the rhetoric of the world’s leaders concerning climate action, there is a clear message. Action on the future habitability of the planet is subservient to the doctrine of free trade.

Far more significant than the secrecy itself was the makeup of delegations allowed to take part in the meeting. Brazil, India, South Africa, and China together form a block of countries in climate negotiations called BASIC. The four represent an important portion of the world economy, and are the main voice advocating for more lenient emission standards for developing countries. On top of this, they also led a walkout of nations that promptly ended the summit. And while it may have more power than the other BASIC members on the world stage, China is certainly not the end-all voice in the coalition. It will take the cooperation of the full bloc in order for any sort or progress whatsoever to come to fruition. Reaching out to China is a good first step in attempting to defy expectations and reach a working agreement at Paris, but several snags still remain.

For one, the Chinese have a definite vision of the future that fuels its action in the international community. Just as the 20th century has been described as “The American Century”, the Chinese desire the 21st century to be one of their own. It is this legacy-seeking that provides China with its desire to position itself as a world leader during the Paris climate summit. And in some sense, this was the easiest step in a process that will rigorously test humanity’s ability to cooperate on a global scale. There is no such evidence that the other members of the bloc share this desire, and thus pose a greater challenge to Paris.

While China is putting on a great effort to appear to the international community to be getting serious about the climate, a deeper look reveals a much grimmer picture. Since China joined the World Trade Organization, it has used trade court cases to strike down renewable energy subsidies in other nations. This makes sense for China, seeing as most of the world’s solar panels come from its factories. However, this approach has severely inhibited other nations from transitioning to renewable energy and building green economies.

Unsurprisingly, it is not only developing nations that seek legal action against potential environmental policies. The U.S. and European Union are equally guilty. Underneath the rhetoric of the world’s leaders concerning climate action, there is a clear message. Action on the future habitability of the planet is subservient to the doctrine of free trade. In a globalized economy dependent on trading across borders, it is difficult to convince both leaders and citizens that any pro-environmental policies may not affect their profits. The transportation of goods from halfway around the world, for example, is a necessary enterprise that simultaneously impacts rising carbon emissions, which further complicates the problem.

Even if Paris is a success, it would be extremely difficult to keep the treaty alive after it has been ratified without a great citizen movement.

Even if a country were to sign onto a new climate agreement, it would have to meet those new demands while also complying with World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations. If a country has trouble complying with both, which is more likely in developing nations, the climate treaty would be dropped immediately because, as of now, no nation on Earth would ever leave the WTO. For instance, Canada left the Kyoto Protocol because it had too hard a time meeting the targets set out in the treaty. So far, no nation has ever left the WTO after joining. Even if Paris is a success, it would be extremely difficult to keep the treaty alive after it had been ratified without a great citizen movement.

All this can be disheartening, but it is important to look for hope in the deal as well. It is progress, and it may even become a significant turning point in the climate justice movement. Time can only tell how the agreement will be viewed. However, one thing is certain. If President Obama had not felt pressure from an aggressive climate movement within his party, the deal would not likely have happened. While it might not be a big step, it is an important victory for the movement, because it shows that a movement can catalyze action for a better world in which emissions fail to rise year after year.

There remains great hope for the future of the world, but a warming earth is inevitable if we do not act. A movement of enormous size and passion remains all that can move our leaders, and we must answer that call. It is the best hope for Paris, and the best hope for a better world. Although the movement has gained a small victory, we are by no means out of the woods yet.

This article first appeared in print in The Kenyon Observer on December 17, 2014.

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