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Is rejoining the Paris Accords really cause for celebration? The Climate Justice Movement says otherwise

February 2, 2021

Thank you President Biden for making one of your first priorities to rejoin the Paris Accords! This has been an important issue to Mayors across our country as we believe it is critically important for the United States to being a part of leading the world on climate action.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss posted these words on her Facebook page recently, words that are worth examining in this post.

On an emotional level, I get why Mayor Bliss, and anyone else for that matter, would celebrate the fact that the Biden Administration is rejoining the Paris Accords. The level of climate denial in the Trump Administration was off the charts, so returning to the Paris Accords seems like a step in the right direction.

However, just undoing some of the Trump era policies is a pretty low bar. More importantly, as many political commentators have pointed out, the status quo that existed before Trump is what led to Trump. This is especially the case when it comes to Climate Change, Climate Justice and the Paris Accords.

The context of the above comment from Mayor Bliss, is rooted in her role with the Climate Mayors statement, which also celebrated a return to the Paris Accords. But what do we know about the Paris Accords and what does the rejoining of these accords by the Biden administration actually mean for Climate Justice.

Patrick Bond, a South African writer and Climate Justice activist, wrote an important assessment of the Paris Accords, just after the Biden Administration had announced it was rejoining. There are many points that Bond makes in his recent article, but one point he makes is worth including here:

My additional concerns are about how during the 2010s, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) policy was manipulated by Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry (Secretary of State from 2013-17) and other staff from the Obama-era State Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (including former pro-fracking EPA head Gina McCarthy, now Biden’s senior climate advisor). From Copenhagen’s 2009 United Nations Conference of the Parties COP15 to the 2016 Marrakesh COP22 – and especially at Durban COP17 in 2011 and Paris COP21 in 2015 – their corporate neoliberal agenda held sway. This group’s climate-policy imperialism did enormous harm and it’s vital to recall why.

Bond goes on to identify what the major short comings of the Paris Accord are:

The Paris Climate Agreement failed to:

  • adopt sufficiently deep and binding global emissions reduction requirements, fairly distributed (in contrast to voluntary 2015 Nationally Determined Contributions that will cause at minimum 3-degree heating by 2100 – with only vague hopes of ratcheting up ‘ambition’), combined with a make-believe 1.5 degree aspirational target which is simply a talk-left distraction, while walk-right pollution continues unabated;
  • establish accountability mechanisms including penalties (e.g. ‘border adjustment tax’ climate sanctions);
  • apply carbon taxation judiciously and democratically (not regressively and top-down, as imposed in France and Ecuador in 2018-19), and dispense with failed carbon trading and offset gimmicks (implicit in most scam-riddled ‘net zero’ and ‘carbon-neutral’ claims, within the resurgent emissions-trading markets);
  • respect historical ‘polluter-pays’ responsibilities for the ‘climate debt’ to cover ‘loss and damage’ and to compensate for poorer countries’ unused carbon space;
  • ensure a job-rich Just Transition away from carbon-addicted economies (thus entailing new commitments to localized, labor-intensive production processes that had been eviscerated by neoliberal globalization);
  • allow poor countries to adopt climate-friendly technology without Intellectual Property restrictions;
  • convincingly incorporate and cut military, maritime and air-transport sectoral emissions (three areas long considered by imperialist powers as illegitimate for regulation); and
  • compel fossil fuel owners to cease new exploration (and most current extraction) and simultaneously revalue their ‘unburnable carbon’ as ‘stranded assets’ accordingly (instead of allowing an extremely chaotic global commodity market and unreliable fossil financiers to bear this burden).

Essentially, what Patrick Bond and other Climate Justice proponents argue is that the Paris Accords are largely a market based solution to the Climate Crisis. 

In addition, one thing that is problematic about the Paris Accords is that the agreement was created without consulting frontline communities in the fight for Climate Justice, particularly indigenous community and groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network, which made the following statement about the Biden Administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Accords:

“We stand by our principles that such justice on these stolen lands cannot be achieved through market-based solutions, unproven technologies and approaches that do not cut emissions at source. Climate justice is going beyond the status quo and truly confronting systemic inequities and colonialism within our society.”

Frontline Climate Justice groups have been making these kinds of statements for several decades and they have consistently been against the Paris Accords because it isn’t a strong enough framework to fight the Climate Crisis. What follows is their assessment of the Paris Accords back in 2015:

The Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 is a dangerous distraction that threatens all of us. Marked by the heavy influence of the fossil fuel industry, the deal reached at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) never mentions the need to curb extractive energy, and sets goals far below those needed to avert a global catastrophe. The agreement signed by 196 countries does acknowledge the global urgency of the climate crisis, and reflects the strength of the climate movement. But the accord that came out of the UNFCC’s 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) ignores the roots of the crisis, and the very people who have the experience and determination to solve it.

Our analysis of the Paris Agreement echoes critiques from social movements around the world, led by those most impacted by both climate disruption and the false promises that governments and corporate interests promote in its wake.  In order to effectively develop and support our next organizing steps, we must have a clear and honest understanding of the challenges and conditions we are facing. We have five core concerns with the content of the Paris Agreement:

The Agreement relies  on voluntary versus mandatory emission cuts  that do not meet targets scientists say are necessary to avoid  climate catastrophe.

The Agreement advances pollution trading  mechanisms that allow polluters to purchase “offsets” and continue extremely dangerous levels of emissions.

The Agreement relies  on dirty energies and false  promises including hydraulic  fracturing  (fracking), nuclear  power, agro-fuels, carbon  capture and sequestration and other  technological proposals that pose serious ecological risks.

The operating text  of the Agreement omits any mention of human rights  or the rights  of Indigenous Peoples and women.

The Agreement weakens or strips  the rights  of reparations owed to the Global South by the Global North.

Again, we cannot be content with just returning to the business as usual norm. We really need to listen to those on the frontlines of the Climate Justice Movement!

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