Back in 2009, campaigners hoped that the Copenhagen climate summit could provide a desperately needed win following a string of ill omens: the 2008 financial collapse that pushed climate off the political agenda, potentially fatal flaws in the European Union’s carbon emissions trading system, and the major public relations victories that climate deniers won following the “Climategate” hoax in 2009. Copenhagen needed to produce a strong agreement building on the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding global agreement on carbon emissions reductions, which was coming to a close without a successor.
Instead, it gave us the Copenhagen Accord, which contained two ominous decisions. One, the world should aim to limit warming to a dangerous 2 C increase above pre-industrial times, and two, countries would submit voluntary emissions reductions pledges. When those pledges were compiled the next year, they suggested a rise between 2.5 C and a world-ending 5 C would occur before 2100. Political scientist Clive Hamilton summed up the spirit of the times in the title of his 2010 climate change book, Requiem for a Species.
The negotiations happening now in Paris at the United Nations climate summit are not expected to produce the kind of agreement needed to preserve a habitable planet. It’s already clear that the fight for the climate will have to continue into 2016 and beyond.
And yet the situation is not as bleak as it was in 2009. Before looking ahead to the post-Paris struggle, it’s worth looking back to see how much has changed since Copenhagen.
Changing prices, changing policies
From 2010-2015, more governments started to take a key first step in any response to climate change: putting a price on carbon emissions. While a few opted for carbon taxes, and regulations, the policy of choice in this period was the capitalism-friendly cap and trade, implemented in places like Tokyo, California, Quebec, a network of cities in China, and most recently South Korea.
By September 2015, around 40 national and more than 20 subnational jurisdictions had implemented or were scheduling carbon pricing. Even Alberta, Canada, home of the tar sands projects, announced in late 2015 it would adopt a carbon tax.
While the price of carbon slowly rose, the cost of renewables fell through the floor. By 2014, solar photovoltaic modules were 75 per cent cheaper than in 2009. In 2013, for the first time ever, renewables added more capacity for energy worldwide than did the fossil fuel industry. In 2015, solar power crossed the 1 per cent threshold of contribution to total electricity generation. Countries kept setting clean energy generation records. At the end of 2015, Stanford scientist Mark Z. Jacobson and his team had even produced a road map showing how 139 countries could go fully renewable by 2050.
All of this gave governments the confidence to make stronger climate commitments, the boldest coming from levels of government more responsive to democratic pressure. Vancouver committed to sourcing all of its electricity, heating, cooling, and transportation energy from renewable sources by 2040-2050. Hawaii the first U.S. state to legislate a target of 100 per cent clean energy, became aiming for no later than 2045. By 2030, California’s state-regulated utilities will get half of their electricity through renewables.
There was movement internationally too. The EU committed to a 40 per cent cut in emissions by 2030. In 2014, China and the U.S., the world’s two largest emitters, came to a joint statement of intent to cut carbon emissions. The G7 even announced it would completely decarbonize (albeit sometime before the end of the century).
These political and technological shifts signal a world finally taking the first steps to leave dirty energy behind. And though they came without the speed required, they must have still unsettled the fossil fuel industry — especially because it could no longer turn to its usual henchmen for help.
Right-wing denialism wanes amid new capitalist strategies
In the wake of two particularly devastating revelations, the 2010-2015 period saw the political strength of climate change deniers begin to wane.
The first came from a series of studies showing that 97 per cent of climate scientists acknowledged the consensus on climate change: that it’s happening and that humans are causing most of it. The figure killed, buried, and put to rest the denier canard, always unfounded, that scientists were split on the reality of human-caused climate change and that some large cadre of “climate skeptics” was being silenced.
But if the scientific case is so overwhelming, what lay behind so many people believing denier propaganda?
Enter the second devastating revelation. It was in these years that we came to understand that the strongest predictor for whether a person denies anthropogenic climate change is holding right-wing ideological beliefs.
Political views are an essential part of our personal identities. For many on the right, it became easier to deny reality than to admit a flaw in a free-market ideology that rejects precisely the kinds of government interventions and regulations that responding to climate change requires. Rather than the modern-day Galileos that deniers would like to see themselves as, boldly defending scientific truth in the face of accepted wisdom, their rejection of science for purely ideological reasons made them more akin to the Church’s defenders of the geocentric model of the cosmos.
By the close of this period, the U.S. Republican Party was the only conservative political party in the world still denying climate change, even as its supporters started voicing concern about it. In 2014, 10 major public relations firms publicly announced they would no longer work with denier organizations. By the close of the 2015, past support for climate change deniers was even becoming a liability; Exxon Mobil fell under criminal investigation in 2015 for financing climate denial despite its own internal scientific research having shown the reality of climate change decades earlier.
With the usefulness of climate change denial waning, fossil fuel companies opted to try new underhanded strategies. The CEOs of 10 top oil and gas companies came out in support of a climate deal at the Paris talks (BP even acknowledged that climate risks mean some oil resources must stay in the ground), but at the same time they continued to associate with trade organizations opposing climate action. How the coal industry will react to signs it may have reached its peak remains to be seen.
Other sectors of capitalism saw potentially huge political and economic gains from engaging with climate change. Renewable energy investments in 2014 were worth $310 billion, and analysts at Deutsche Bank and Bloomberg anticipate an even brighter future. SunEdison, which became the world’s largest renewable energy developer in 2014, and Solar City, the largest rooftop solar installer in the U.S., established themselves as major players in the renewable energy private sector. In July 2015, the White House launched the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, announcing the intentions of several U.S. mega-corporations to take climate action as part of the lead-up to the Paris climate negotiations. Futuristic companies such as electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors reassured those who feared responding to the climate crisis would entail the end of fantastic advances in technology.
Out of this, a dangerous narrative was taking hold: capitalism and perpetual economic growth are going to save us from climate change.
Out of the ashes of Copenhagen, a deeper climate movement
The failed Copenhagen summit was “the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment when the realization truly sank in that no one was coming to save us,” wrote Naomi Klein. Finding new rallying causes, tactics, and ways of amplifying its messages, the climate movement continued to grow after Copenhagen. By September 2014, it was strong enough to hold a historic 400,000-strong march in New York City.
The movement opened up fronts everywhere to resist extreme energy in its various forms — fracking, coal projects, Arctic drilling. But it was the Alberta tar sands in particular that the movement turned into a symbol for precisely the kind of economic model that needed to be abandoned: energy extraction at the cost of the climate, the local environment, and nearby communities. Major pipelines were contested in every place where they were to be built or repurposed to expand tar sands production. The fight against TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline galvanized the movement like nothing before, and the pipeline’s rejection by President Obama in late 2015 gave the movement its single biggest political victory.
Indigenous land defenders stood on the frontlines of the most important struggles against fossil fuel projects here in Canada. In 2010, 61 First Nations in B.C. turned to ancestral law and made the Save the Fraser Declaration to block tar sands pipelines. That same year, the Unist’ot’en resistance camp started building on unceded territory in northern B.C. directly in the path of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline and Chevron’s Pacific Trail pipeline for fracked natural gas. In Alberta, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation continued their legal fight against both the Canadian and Albertan governments to stop tar sands expansion. In New Brunswick, members of the Elsipogtog Mi’kmaq First Nation withstood RCMP attacks on their peaceful blockade of fracking projects on unceded territory. Through these and other struggles, climate change could no longer be seen as an abstract problem of atmospheric pollutants. It became grounded in the realities of place and extraction, in the unjust legacies of colonial history.
Following a landmark 2012 essay by 350.org founder Bill McKibben, climate activists found in the fight against apartheid another key tactic: divestment. By urging organizations to withdraw investments from fossil fuel companies for moral reasons, the divestment movement aims to delegitimize the industry and strip away its “social licence”— the consent society grants it — to carry on with business as usual. Sufficiently stigmatized, companies are opened up to stricter regulation, steeper carbon prices, or even the possibility of having their profits appropriated.
Divestment swept into the mainstream thanks to a new conceptual tool that came into widespread use in this period, changing the way we understand the crisis. Carbon budgets tell us how much carbon can be emitted in order to have a fighting chance of keeping global temperature rise below a certain level; the lower that temperature level, the lower the budget. Using this approach, a key report by Carbon Tracker showed that fossil fuel companies already hold more carbon in their reserves than can ever be burned if we want to keep temperature rise below 2 C.
Fossil fuels are thus “stranded assets,” excess stock that must remain underground if the world seeks to preserve a habitable climate. And since these companies base their value on the quantity of sellable reserves they hold, they become poor investments to the degree the world seeks to decarbonize. Where the moral argument wasn’t enough, the carbon budget made an irrefutable economic one.
The divestment movement had found in the fossil fuel industry a badly needed archenemy, one that allowed it to grow rapidly and win some impressive victories. By December 2015, more than 500 institutions had divested, together representing $3.4 trillion in assets.
At the same time the movement took on extreme energy, colonialism, and the model of investment, it also looked to other parts of our system. Animal rights campaigners drew attention to the links between the meat industry and climate change. Naomi Klein’s essential 2014 book This Changes Everything (and 2015 companion documentary) brought into the mainstream like nothing before it the need to challenge capitalism itself in order to stop the climate crisis.
On the eve of the next agreement
Even though the possibility for action is now stronger and more widespread than ever thanks to the changes through 2010 to 2015, the challenge remains dire.
Since Copenhagen, the global surface temperature record for hottest year was broken several times, first in 2010 and then again in 2014, and 2015 looks set to beat both. Atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from 387 in 2009 to 400 parts per million. The west Antarctic ice sheet is showing signs of approaching or having reached the point of irreversible collapse. Super typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 6,000 people and [displacing 4.1 million. California entered a four-year-long severe drought. If emissions stay near the levels reached in this period, the carbon budgets that give us the surest chance of keeping globally averaged temperature rise below 2 C will be spent in between 10 and 20 years.
Whether the changes since the climate summit in Copenhagen will lead to the big wins needed after the current round of talks in Paris remains to be seen. We should be encouraged by the waning of denialism, but be wary of the still-powerful impact it has on policy through the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Obstructionist prime ministers like Australia’s Tony Abbott and Canada’s Stephen Harper are gone. The increase in emissions reductions commitments are good signs, but nowhere near where they need to be.
The climate movement, which will be entering the the post-Paris period stronger than ever, stands at an interesting moment. Right now the need for a society powered by clean energy — made more possible than ever by increasingly affordable solar and wind energy prices — stitches together the movement’s reformist and anti-capitalist currents. But the emergence of large corporations in the renewable and clean tech industries and their insistence that capitalism and growth can get us out of this crisis opens up major questions about how the movement will engage with the reigning economic system in the coming period.
On the eve of the next agreement, we should appreciate that the period since Copenhagen has opened up new possibilities (and new struggles) post-Paris. The last six years have shown that the fight for the climate is larger than the UN climate summits, and that will remain true after whatever is decided in Paris.