It was the biggest environmental extravaganza of the 21st century. This month’s acronym-studded 21st Conference of the Parties (CoP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was said to be the largest gathering of politicians in the history of the planet. In attendance were more than 100 presidents and prime ministers and scads of lesser leaders among the nearly 50,000 UN officials, environmentalist NGOs, government bureaucrats, business moguls, media and green celebrities who support the $4 billion a day international climate change industry. As they converged on Paris, tens of thousands more activists demonstrated around the world to hail CoP21 as the “last chance” to save the earth from global warming.
“Never before has a responsibility so great been in the hands of so few,” intoned Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCCC, in her opening speech at the summit. “The world is looking to you. The world is counting on you,” added the Marxist daughter and sister of a Costa Rican presidential dynasty who chose global warming as a career because of the extinction of a beloved childhood toad. The mission, she solemnly informed the delegates from 196 countries, was to forge an agreement to curb carbon emissions and avert the looming threat of a two degrees Celsius warming of the earth’s surface.
Squadrons of private jets and motorcades had delivered the delegates and their entourages to the recently constructed 160,000-square-meter conference centre protected by 120,000 security personnel. Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived with a delegation of more than 300 – twice that of the United States and thrice the United Kingdom – at a cost of $770,000 just for transportation. It included emissaries from most of the provinces: Ontario sent 22 politicians and staffers, and Alberta 13, including three security guards, to the recently terrorized City of Light.
Just jetting to Paris, summit attendees were estimated to have spewed about 300,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The UN set up an online carbon offsetting site so delegates could voluntarily shrink their carbon footprint by donating to environmental causes – a de facto indulgence for the sin of traveling. It didn’t evoke a very Catholic response though. By the end of the conference less than two percent of travel emissions had been offset with donations.
No matter. Carbon taxes are for other people to pay. The planet’s saviours had bigger fish to fry. “Never have the stakes been so high at an international conference,” declared French president Francois Hollande, whose country had been invaded by ISIS two weeks earlier, leaving 130 dead and 368 injured. CoP21, said Hollande, “[is] about the future of the planet, the future of life.”
Indeed, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said climate change may itself be a root cause of terrorism, and U.S. President Barack Obama said the climate conference would be a “powerful rebuke” to the Paris attackers. If nothing else, his speech may have terrorized them with its apocalyptic images of “submerged countries, abandoned cities, fields that no longer grow”. So great was his resolve to achieve “world confidence in a low carbon future… and regularly updated targets” that the president spoke for more than twice his six-minute allotment, ignoring five times-up buzzers that tried to cut short his oratory. The only thing missing, said Politico, “was the orchestra to drown him out like a weeping Oscar-winner.”
The show went on. British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that “the earth is in peril.” Chinese President Xi Jinping, showing no ill effects from Beijing’s first-ever red alert smog warning nor any self-consciousness about China’s grossly underreported emissions, used the phrase “win-win” six times and promised China’s CO2 output would peak by 2030. (Considering the country’s plummeting birth rates from decades of forced birth control and looming labour shortages, Xi’s “target” is likely unavoidable.) Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, reputed climate change heretic and eastern European neo-imperialist, appeased the gathering when he spoke of Russia “contributing actively to addressing global warming.”
There is that old maxim about choosing your battles. Why spoil lunch? Especially when it’s a five-course spread at the summit prepared by Michelin star chefs and includes scallops and stuffed celery confit with veined spinach cream, freshwater caviar, Reblochon au jus scented with myrrh and caraway wood plus a citrus compote and light cream with praline for dessert.
While climate change has been implicated in horrors as diverse as dampened sex drive, domestic abuse, potholes, and even the return of smallpox, few do climate change as scary as His Royal Highness Prince Charles. The “scorching of the earth and the rising of the waters…magnifies every hazard and tension of our existence,” he told the CoP. “It threatens our ability to feed ourselves; to remain healthy and safe from extreme weather; to manage the natural resources that support our economies, and to avert the humanitarian disaster of mass migration and increasing conflict.”
Everyone will have to make sacrifices to bring emissions down and prevent the seas from boiling over, but the Prince is leading by example. He runs his Aston Martin on wine and has converted all of his Jaguars, Audis and Range Rovers to run on biofuel made from cooking oil. Couldn’t we all be so selfless?
The latest apocalypse
Prince Charles’ words about “architects of our own destruction” on our “increasingly crowded planet” would not have been out of place at the 1972 Stockholm Convention, the first ever UN Conference on the Human Environment. One of the stars of that event was Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, who declared: “It is clear that the environmental crisis which is confronting the world will profoundly alter the future destiny of our planet.”
In 1972 she and many others believed pollution was cooling the earth, not warming it, however, and would hasten another ice age. Theoretically that might have solved another apocalyptic scenario that was all the rage in those days – overpopulation.
Stanford biologist and “population bomb” prophet Paul Ehrlich featured prominently at that first global environment gabfest. Its main organiser was Maurice Strong – the Canadian socialist and oil multimillionaire with Rockefeller connections who suggested at the time that Canada might have to implement birth restrictions similar to China’s one-child policy.
(These views helped inform the ideas of a young Canadian fruit fly biologist named David Suzuki, who in 1972 was hanging out in hippy communes “getting off” on the idea that people are maggots. Time hasn’t mellowed him much. Just before CoP21, he said working in oil was the “same thing” as keeping slaves.)
Gandhi’s government soon got draconian about population control and forcibly sterilized about 10 million men in the 70s. That prompted a big political backlash, and since then India has focused on sterilising women – with the help of international aid. Ehrlich’s population explosion forecasts have long since turned out to be grossly exaggerated, and his credibility suffered a nuclear attack in the New York Times this year. Most demographers are talking about population implosions now, although many climate change enthusiasts are still on the same page about “crowded earth” as end times old-timers like Prince Charles and David Attenborough.
As culling humanity was impractical for the UN, the herd still had to be fed. Strong energetically promoted the redistribution of wealth from the developed world to poor nations through a centralized global government. In the 1980s, as founding director of the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP), he was also captivated by the then-fringe idea that the earth was warming. The UNEP rounded up the little group of meteorologists who believed in the theory and created the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
How Mo Strong became Father Earth
A few years later, Strong masterminded the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was attended by 105 nations and 20,000 UN-funded environmentalists. And it was there that his ideas for international wealth redistribution in the name of saving the environment came together in “Agenda 21”, a blueprint for global governance in the 21st century. This achievement cemented his legacy as “the man who invented climate change”. It also prompted the now defunct Canadian conservative newsmagazine Alberta Report to publish a scathing cover story about Strong, under the sarcastic headline “Father Earth”.
The Earth Summit was first of a train of ever-growing climate conferences charged with implementing Agenda 21 to create government-supported “sustainable development.” They are held almost every year – in Kyoto, Montreal, Copenhagen, Durban – each attended by marches, protestors in polar bear costumes, celebrities, and “fossil awards” for notorious eco-laggards such as the former government of Canada under Stephen Harper. In Paris the street theatrics were constrained by security concerns in the wake of the terrorist attacks so Parisians artfully left their shoes in the street where they would have stood. But the message of the empty Guccis was clear: CoP21 must produce legally binding emissions controls and fixed carbon pricing. Celebrities including actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Redford and Sean Penn echoed the demand inside the summit. The latter intoned that “the days of dreaming have given way to the days of doing,” and stumped for reforestation with a message of “here come the trees”.
As one of the 6,000 journalists who didn’t get one of the 3,000 press passes for the conference, I watched all this live-streamed for 12 days. For the most part it was excruciatingly boring. But then, I’ve never been a fan of soap operas, unlike Yvo de Boer, a former Dutch civil servant and UN climate chief known for his “trenchant views”. De Boer told the Guardian that “the CoPs actually remind me a lot of Peyton Place and As the World Turns – in the sense that every episode is really exciting, but if you don’t watch for three years, you haven’t missed anything.”
The gruelling work of NGOs
He’s right about that. Back in 1997, I attended one of the more low-key interim Agenda 21 events in Rio de Janeiro as a journalist. It was the first five-year follow-up to the Earth Summit. I had to step over little Rio street kids sleeping on the sidewalk as I made my way to the five-star Sheraton Hotel on Ipanema beach where delegates were being flown in by helicopter. Maurice Strong, flanked by a host of security guards, gave a speech or two and there was the mandatory tribal dance. James Wolfensohn, then president of the World Bank, talked about financing sustainable development.
There were a lot of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres served on silver platters by the pool. It was my first introduction to Canada’s Green Party of one leader Elizabeth May, who was then with the Sierra Club. She and David Suzuki and a little entourage from Canadian NGOs were taking pineapple pizzas and cocktails underneath the palm trees courtesy of the Canadian International Development Agency. One evening, we were chauffeured to the opulent white colonial governor’s palace for more cocktails. NGO work can be gruelling.
It was at Rio+5 that Strong, Steven Rockefeller, Mikhail Gorbachev and a few others including one of Suzuki’s children (then a famed child environmentalist), introduced their Earth Charter, a mash-up of Nineties New Age Sacred Earth Aboriginal Spirituality and gender-balanced Marxism that summarizes the progressive ideology of Agenda 21.
PM Trudeau, who may have got this bug during his stint with Katimavik, got the tone just right at CoP21 when he said in his “Canada’s back” speech: “Indigenous people have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. The rest of us have a lot to learn and no time to waste.”
The speech earned Trudeau a standing ovation and legions of delegates seeking selfies with him, but not everyone was clapping. A Guardian columnist insisted Trudeau was all talk and no action, and accused him of breaking promises to Indigenous peoples, being secretly in bed with big oil, and, worst of all, having the same emissions targets as the Harper Conservative “gang of apes” who preceded him.
Al Gore’s search for truth
As the climate conference soap continued after Rio, new actors entered the drama. Former U.S. vice president Al Gore became a star following his lead role in the 2006 documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, which earned two Academy Awards and $50 million at the box office.
The film featured Gore, backed by a “slide show” of graphs and charts and climate porn video clips, saying that global warming “is really not a political issue, so much as a moral one” – a message conveyed over and over again at CoP21. Though riddled with scientific errors, the film also won Gore the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. In his famous “Earth has a fever” acceptance speech he predicted the Arctic ice cap would vanish entirely by 2013. Inconveniently, satellite photos that year showed it had increased by 920,000 square miles.
The climate change movement is built on predictions like Gore’s, and more than a few haven’t panned out. Not that it changes anything. The negligible increase in global mean temperatures since 1998 – a.k.a. the “lull” – has been dismissed by the faithful as a talking point for oil industry funded professional climate change deniers and their useful idiots in the media. When pressed, they speculate the missing heat must be going “deep into the ocean,” where it will eventually wreak all kinds of new climatological havoc.
Few “deniers” reject the idea of global warming outright. They just don’t think everything in climatology can be explained by computer models. But even this mild scepticism is treated as heresy by the believers, who insist there is an “overwhelming consensus” and “97 percent of scientists agree” the earth is facing catastrophe from man-made carbon emissions. As Gore told Congress in 2007, the year of his unfortunate polar meltdown prediction, the “science is settled”.
At CoP21 there was hardly any science talk – no new ideas on how to improve the accuracy of global temperature-taking or how to assess the earth’s optimal temperature. The modern Ptolemists are deaf to the new Copernicans: if the old science says we need more fuel taxes and subsidies for windmills, we don’t need new science. All we need to keep the earth at the centre of the green universe are hard targets and deadlines for carbon restraints.
The science is settled, dammit
There was, however, a stalwart band of climate change sceptics from the Heartland Institute who hosted a sideline event at the summit. They brought in a panel of scientists who disputed the data, charged that global warmists had politicized and corrupted scientific debate, and asserted that liberals who used to be anti-establishment now were the establishment and were silencing everyone who opposed their agenda. As if to prove their point, green activists invaded and shouted down their press conference.
American climate heretic Marc Morano also premiered his new documentary, Climate Hustle, during the CoP at a theatre in central Paris. The film is an unapologetic rebuttal of settled climate science that vigorously attacks Gore and his fellow Agenda 21 summiteers as “Lear jet liberals.”
Morano’s point, and it’s hardly original, is that the global warming cause is a front for a raft of other liberal causes. For example, just days before the start of the summit, the Trudeau government announced a doubling of “fast-start climate financing” for developing countries over the next five years. The $2.65 billion will ostensibly be used to help poor countries adapt to climate change and transition to low carbon economies. But for a clue to how at least some of that money will be spent, look no further than the $41 million Canada gave to a clean technologies initiative in Nigeria, where another $3.4 million was tacked on for CUSO to provide “guidelines to stakeholders on integrating gender perspectives into climate change.” And that cheque was written in 2009 by the Harper Conservative government!
In the same spirit of climate multi-tasking, the UNFCCC devotes hundreds of thousands of euros to reporting the gender balance of each delegation and to special females-only workshops for the Women’s Environment Development Organization and the Global Gender and Climate Alliance.
All the money sloshing around in the layers and layers of climate and development bureaucracy creates many temptations. Even Mo Strong couldn’t resist. He had to retire from a front line role in 2005 when he was caught filching $1 million from the UN’s Oil for Food programme meant to feed starving Iraqis. He thence retired to be with his friends among the Chinese communists in Beijing.
Strong was taken from the earth on November 27, just as CoP21 was about to begin. There was a moment of silence for him at the summit, recognition that without him none of them would have come so far, and talk of his “ghost” influencing the negotiations.
Those negotiations went long into the night last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. They were called the toughest parleys yet, but with a hitherto unseen spirit of unity and momentum. A “coalition of high ambition” of 100 countries – which did not include the big polluters China and India – rallied to close a deal. Inside the conference, activists carried long lines of red fabric to symbolize their objection to “red lines” in the text that threatened some of their demands. Outside, Greenpeace members abseiled off the Arc de Triomphe to create stirring visuals for their next fund raising campaign and “Green Warriors” from Norway handed out condoms to warn of the link between overpopulation and global warming. As the summit went into overtime Friday evening, high-level negotiators huddled behind closed the doors to finalize the text.
At long last, a deal
Saturday morning, the Paris Agreement was unveiled. It was variously hailed as “universal and ambitious”, “powerful yet delicate”, “balanced” yet “robust”, and a “historic turning point”.
CoP21 president and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius delivered the climactic announcement and urged delegates to seize the momentum of the day or “Our children would not understand this, nor would they forgive us…The world is holding its breath,” he pleaded. “It counts on all of us.”
If everything goes according to the plan, the global temperature will only increase 1.5 degrees Celsius, down from the original goal of 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The Agreement establishes a legally binding framework for all countries to set lower emissions targets, but does not legally bind countries to meet those targets. It also includes a five-year review program to try to hold signatories to account, with a framework to expand the program beyond 2020 in pursuit of an entirely fossil fuel free planet.
On Saturday night, Fabius banged his green gavel for the last time and declared the Paris Agreement adopted. There was a prolonged standing ovation, accompanied by much hugging and kissing and joyful weeping.
The Agreement will now have to be ratified by the governments of all the signatory nations. Then they will have to set new national emission targets. And then they will have to meet those targets, assuming their publics will let them adopt the drastic fiscal and economic policies that will enable them to do so. For all the hype, the Paris Agreement looks and sounds a lot like the all the climate deals that came before it. Is this the one that saves the planet? Beats me. All I know for sure is that five years from now there will be another opulent and melodramatic episode of the climate change soap opera.
Celeste McGovern is a Canadian writer living in Scotland.