Is Cancún climate deal a pig’s ear?

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Our World 2.0, Cancún, Mexico

An early version of this piece appeared here at OurWorld 2.0, a United Nations University web magazine. Many thanks to Carol Smith for publishing it.

Late last Friday I sat before a laptop in a Cancún hotel room with two fellow journalists while delegates from around the world gathered to conclude two weeks of UN climate talks.

Through a choppy video feed, we strained to watch and listen as one by one leaders of nearly every negotiating bloc gave a thumbs up to the latest version of a global climate deal almost two decades in the making. Enthusiasm in the plenary swelled with each resounding ‘yes,’ and on numerous occasions roars of applause for the COP president, Mexican foreign secretary Patricia Espinosa—and for what looked to be the salvation of the UNFCCC process—brought the show to a halt.

The general consensus between state officials, policy makers, journalists and many environmentalists is that Cancún was a success. Sometime after slamming her gavel down on Saturday morning at 3 AM, Espinosa assured the global community that this is the beginning of “a new era of international cooperation on climate change.” To match her renewed faith in the UN Negotiations, Wendel Trio, International Climate Policy Director for Greenpeace said: “Some called the process dead but governments have shown that they can cooperate and can move forward to achieve a global deal.”

Back on the east coast of the United States, the veteran climate reporter and New York Times correspondent Andrew Revkin, who was present for much of the conference, awoke early Saturday morning to write that this December’s finale was a far cry from last year’s in Copenhagen, which ended in “raucous, then deflated, division, with the resulting accord noted, but not formally embraced.”

Revkin is right. There is no mistaking Cancun’s twilight jubilance for Copenhagen’s cold, stony despair, but as I sat in my hotel room on Friday night, glancing between the plenary stream and an electrifying twittersphere, I could not muster the hope, confidence and sense of achievement that captivated many of my peers.

Climate journalists motivated by a sense of pity for humanity face an ethical and professional minefield every day. If one chooses to be a reporter, one’s task is to present the facts. However, because of the high stakes attached to the outcome of climate change and because the story unfolds at the center of almost every major subject—science, economics, politics, health, business, industry, and the humanities—the climate journalist best serves his readers by being something more: an honest analyst and open advocate for the public interest.

Writing meaningfully about climate change requires some foundational mastery of science as well as politics and economics. The interrelatedness of complex data and objectives demands journalists who are capable not only of getting facts right, but also of being able to explain their large number of relationships and probable consequences.

I am not as knowledgeable as I hope someday to be, and I certainly cannot predict the future, but those of us who are reasonably familiar with the facts know that the COP-16 deal is not enough.

We know that the emission reduction pledges made in Mexico—which are not legally binding—have put our planet on track to warm up by 3.2 degrees Celsius, a level that is catastrophic by most accounts. We know that even this prediction and its full significance are uncertain, because we grasp the basic principle of chaos theory: that when essential parts of a complex system such as the Earth’s climate pass key tipping points, they enter irreversible, intensifying runaway, and the rate of disordering of the whole accelerates to an unpredictable and uncontrollable degree.

These facts add up to a future that—because it is increasingly uncertain—is virtually impossible to prepare for. Yet the discussions between the grown-ups in charge of charting the path ahead are taking place in the language of preparation and adaptation, rather than the prevention of climate change. This puts me very ill at ease.

I want to have faith in the political process. I want to trust the system. I want to believe, as Michael Jacobs of The Guardian suggests, that a low-expectation “confidence-win” in Cancún will encourage politicians and captains of industry to do what is necessary to fine-tune markets in the small, precious time that remains before the climate comes unglued. But I cannot, because I know something about the past.

History shows that the last two centuries of increasingly unregulated capitalism pushed our societies into predictable and repeated cycles of boom and bust—which add up to almost 50 different recessions in my country alone, including our most recent global crisis, resulting in enormous human costs. I’m led to confidently fear for our future because this same ideology of trust in markets and their minimal or zero regulation forms the foundation of most of our leaders’ plans to deal with the evolving catastrophe, as Todd Stern, the lead US negotiator in charge of climate change, confirmed to me in a press conference over one week ago.

Because of the work of men like Julian Assange and his crew at WikiLeaks, we know that in addition to selectively studying history, many of our leaders don’t play fair. To praise the agreement in Cancún for restoring confidence in “international cooperation,”—to echo COP president Patricia Espinosa one more time—when evidence now coming from the US State Department’s own files shows that so much of what has been “accomplished” sits squarely upon a foundation of coercion and lies, is something akin to praising Hannibal Lecter for the organic dinner he’s served.

Contrary to what you may be hearing, men like Bolivia’s president Evo Morales and lead negotiator Pablo Solon—the sole dissenting voices at this year’s talks—did not spoil this year’s UNFCCC negotiations by demanding a climate deal that reflects the science and secures a livable planet for humankind. In all reasonable assessments, this year’s talks failed because once again our leaders placed the preservation of their offices and their economic and political powers above the well being of the people they are supposed to serve, and because members of the press and the informed class let them do it.

Until we refuse to buy this nonsense, those leaders will continue to profit by peddling sows’ ears as though they were silk purses, and we will continue to pay the terrible price.