CapitalismEssaysTheory & Practice

The Paris Climate Deal: Just Words?

Or just enough to move the earth?

As the world leaders read through endless scripted statements about making history and saving the planet for our children, environmental critics were already denouncing the Paris climate deal as a fraud. It is not difficult to see why.

First, the deal contains no legal obligations for countries to cut emissions, and there are no sanctions for failing to do so. It relies solely on peer pressure, which is supposedly going to hold countries to account and compel them to keep their promises. Second, nowhere in the agreement do governments stipulate the actual steps they will take to achieve the object of keeping global temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” The deal is all words and no action. Third, even the words — the green house gas reductions promised by the 187 countries in Paris — are completely insufficient. In the uncertain event that these promises are actually kept, they would result in the planet warming between 2.7 and 3.5°C. Such an increase is already enough to cause catastrophic destabilization of the global climate and planetary life-support systems. To get to the promised 1.5°C would require either sucking back green house gases already in the atmosphere with technologies that are, for all practical purposes, non-existent, or achieving a near-complete decarbonization of the world economy in the next couple of decades. This would mean no gasoline-fueled cars, no oil-fueled ships or planes, and no coal-fired power plants by 2050.

The deal thus appears a complete sham, hypocrisy of the worst kind. World leaders were congratulating themselves on a set of promises they will never be able to keep. Machiavelli was surely smirking in his grave: “The promise given was a necessity of the past: the word broken is a necessity of the present.”

A critical assessment of the Paris deal requires more than unmasking the contradiction between promises and reality, or words and actions, however. While Machiavelli counsels hypocrisy to the rulers, he is anything but a hypocrite himself. He turns the tables on us: pretending that politics is a realm of honesty, moral rectitude and unadulterated altruism is a much more dangerous form of hypocrisy than accepting that politicians in liberal democracies are, inevitably, hypocrites. In other words, focusing only on the obvious hypocrisy of the Paris deal is to misunderstand what politics is. Moreover, and more seriously, it takes critical attention away from both the genuine advances as well as the real dangers of the deal.

Most politicians and political commentators are of course political realists if not outright Machiavellian cynics. They have been quick to emphasize that the real significance of the deal does not lie in the actual promises made, but in the fact that the deal “sends a powerful message”. The real importance of the climate deal is understood to lie in the signal it sends to the global financial markets: investing in fossil fuels has become a fool’s game. Free riding is no longer an economic opportunity; instead the real opportunities lie in the scramble for clean tech. The countries and the companies that are at the forefront of the renewable energy revolution today are going to be the winners of tomorrow. No one believes that investors and chief executives are going to have a moral epiphany about climate change; it’s just that they can now supposedly divine where the world is headed, and no one wants to be stuck in the economy of the 20th century. The Paris deal is seen as “a historic economic catalyst.”

There lies the real significance and the real danger of the deal. It does not even seriously attempt to stop climate change through traditional political means — an international political process. Instead it assumes that in today’s global capitalism we all know only too well already that when it comes to large-scale environmental problems such as climate change it makes little difference what politicians say. It doesn’t even matter much what governments do; what matters is how the markets behave. The Paris deal is essentially an attempt to stop the climate change with the same means that are responsible for causing it: free-markets and their superior ability to provide information and allocate resources in a way that no political process ever could. The optimism of the Paris deal is grounded on the redemptive power of the invisible hand.

Debunking this myth has to be the real target of our criticism. The capitalist world economy is structurally reliant on constant economic growth and cutthroat competition between companies and nations. Giving up cheap energy, cheap food and cheap raw materials is fundamentally against its logic. If we are genuinely going to tackle climate change in a way that has at least some semblance to justice on a global scale we can no longer afford to have economic growth as the goal of good government in the overdeveloped countries, but have to fundamentally restructure our capitalist economies. We have to make a controlled transition to degrowth and promote the accompanying expansion of activities not governed by the pursuit of maximum economic productivity and profit.

While we would all love to believe that stopping climate change implies exciting innovations and creates new jobs, realistically, the transition to decarbonized societies cannot be presented as an option motivated by the economic opportunities it affords. The hard truth is that it necessitates real costs, sacrifices and painful choices, at least in the global North. The most serious hypocrisy represented by the Paris deal is not the empty promises, but the fact that no politician is prepared to admit the inherent connection between constant economic growth and climate change.

Yet to simply conclude that the deal is a dangerous hoax or at best irrelevant, would mean giving the economy too much and words too little. The question we have to ask is this: if the Paris deal sends a message that the fossil fuel era is over, who is the message sent to? It is not sent to the financial markets only; it is sent to all of us. It is a message about what must to be considered the new commonsense now.

It is important to recognize that politics is performative. It creates reality through words, promises, symbols, and gestures. To put this insight in the most simple terms possible: words matter. The way we conceive and conceptualize social institutions, practices, and human relations has direct consequences for our ability to organize politically and bring about change.

At least two aspects of performativity are relevant here. Political discourses create identities, forms of subjectivity, and stipulate norms for acceptable behavior. Climate change is clearly a systemic problem that is irrevocably linked to economic processes, the infrastructure of our cities, the energy requirements of our industries and so on, but it is also inseparable from our consumerist lifestyle: the way we live, work, consume, desire, hope, and dream. It is inseparable from who we believe we are and who we can be. The ways we articulate our political options and set the parameters for socially valued practices are crucial when it comes to the radical social transformation that is required to stop climate change.

Second, the promises in Paris give global legitimacy to the radicalization of the climate justice movement. The Paris deal will not save the planet, but after it, it will be easier for a radical climate justice movement to save it. If the political slogan seemingly most fitting for climate action used to be ‘Demand the Impossible’, now all we have to do is to demand what was promised to us. The normative space for what is considered not just possible but the right thing to do has shifted. And that is no small thing.

The words are out there now: the fossil fuel era is over. We are still the ones who have to make them reality.

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Johanna Oksala

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