'COPOUT 21' gets underway

World leaders fly into Paris for what Mort Rosenblum calls 'COPOUT 21.' Is an accord on climate change still possible?  

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November 30, 2015
Environmentalists walk behind a banner which reads, "Climate Emergency. Summon to Resistance" ahead of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), in Paris, France, Nov. 29, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

At the moment, Paris seems locked down tighter than a Rothschild wine cellar. Airport freeways are closed, along with city centre arteries. Sirens howl. Riot cops even hassle the clochards, bums under the bridges armed only with corkscrews for rotgut red anti-freeze.

But the operative word here is "seems," as it is so often these days with so much that matters. A costly, disruptive show diverts attention from the looming crisis that underlies it.     

The fuss is not about the Islamic State. French jitters have calmed since the Paris massacre, and panic-prone tourists bailed. But 180 world leaders are arriving to produce enough hot air to raise global temperatures up another notch.

This should be the most important global gathering in history: the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — COP21. But, barring surprises, COPOUT 21 is closer to it.

Scientists' repeated urging to cap carbon emissions are not even on the table. Proposed action is nowhere near enough, even if implemented. National commitments are voluntary, subject to waffling and political opposition at home.

Last night, amid the blaze of Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysees, I watched a funky little wind turbine crank out a few kilowatts. In a small rink, some people rode bikes rigged to generate a dribble of clean energy.

Then, walking home, I stopped for an eight-car motorcade, with wailing motorcycle outriders, bringing the Korean delegation from the airport in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

For the big picture, too complex to summarize, here are some keywords: Kyoto Protocol, Copenhagen COP 15, Al Gore, George W. Bush, China, India, just about any other country, corporate greed, stupidity, bullshit.

The heart of it is simple: If we do not stop spewing carbon into the air, nothing else matters. Unless those who will suffer — all of us — push governments to real action, the planet we leave behind will be uninhabitable.

It is not as if we didn't see this coming. In the '70s, some of us reporters wrote about mounting scientific data. Editors yawned. Little changed in the '80s, except that delete keys replaced those old copy desk spikes. In the '90s, when evidence was dead plain, big business and governments obfuscated.

Effective mitigation would cost far less than damage from climate chaos and rising seas (beyond, coincidentally, averting mass die-offs).  But governments and corporate boards resist short-term sacrifice for gains that accrue beyond their mandates. Instead, they fight over who gets to win most before everyone loses.

This reality is so unthinkably overwhelming that we focus on distracting side issues like penguins and polar bears. We argue over time frames and past blame.  And most people tune it out altogether and obsess instead over insane U.S. politics or distant conflicts beyond our ability to resolve.

Accord is possible. Rich countries can compensate disadvantaged poor ones, helping them reshape local economies. That would also stem the flow of desperate climate refugees. Aid tied to transparent governance limits rampant corruption and makes it harder for corporate greedheads to game the system.

COP21 at least moves us in the right direction. But we cannot depend on token measures akin to confronting massive water deficits by turning off the tap when brushing teeth. We need comprehensive, legally binding commitment based on science, not politics.

Consider the irony. A handful of zealots murdered 130 people in Paris two weeks ago, a horrific tragedy but an anomaly not likely to be repeated often in this metropolis of eight million. Paris was hardly burning and yet for days on end the world talked of little else.

Today, the biggest story of all time is barely noticed. Alas, it is slower moving, with a headline that is too elusive for a world used to focusing on the moment: Paris Is In Danger of Burning Up — Along With Everywhere Else.

That may be too alarmist, perhaps, but only by a few degrees. Do we really want to stake our kids' lives on exactly how many?

This article first appeared on mortrosenblum.net.