Big deal on climate change?

Two events from yesterday evening: the climax of the Paris climate talks involving thousands of delegates from most of the countries in the world produce a document hailed as a historic breakthrough. And in an ordinary office somewhere in Belfast a dozen or so students settle in for another night of Occupying Queen’s University Belfast’s Finance Department.

The deal in Paris is unexpectedly good in some respects. The additional funding of a hundred billion dollars a year to help developing countries make the transition is welcome. The idea that we should not only bind ourselves to a two-degree limit in terms of the global temperature rise, but that we should also aim for 1.5 degrees is remarkable. Of course it may not happen. There are many who will drag their feet, and indeed some who will do their level best, and throw their considerable resources into fighting this deal. And as critics from the green end of the debate have already pointed out, the current commitments to action fall short of what’s needed if even the easier target is to be reached.

Bill McKibben has already claimed that ‘the power of the fossil fuel industry is reflected in the agreement, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done’.

There is, as many have pointed out, no legal obligation built into the text, so it lacks teeth. Or does it?

This is where the demonstrators nonviolently but directly making their point in Belfast come in. It may seem like small beer compared to the Paris deal, but in fact it is, in its way, just as big a deal. Because we have seen all too often what happens when national leaders all get together and announce that they have made a major agreement to act. They don’t. They move on to the next big thing. They water down the practicalities. They promise to be the greenest government ever, then set about openly dismantling all the green ‘crap’ they can get their hands on. They try to privatise the Green Investment Bank under terms and conditions that will mean it may not have to fund, you know, green projects.

The only way we will make sure our leaders live up to the commitments they have made is to do it ourselves. By living a less destructive life, of course, but also by means of direct nonviolent action, whether that is simply a case of asking awkward questions of our local authorities and institutions or, like these young people, staging a sit-in to call for their own University – and it is their University just as much as, if not more than the Finance Director’s – to pull their money out of the fossil fuel industry. The same industry that managed to weaken the Paris agreement, as McKibben pointed out.

There’s no doubt McKibbon would applaud the students: he founded 350.org, and championed divestment campaigns that have swept the globe – over 500 organisations have now committed to divesting some $3.4 trillion from fossil fuels, with 100 of those organisations joining in this last few months. This is a movement that says, we are no longer content to let our institutions talk clean and buy dirty. This is about people acting to make organisations act.

This is the sort of campaign being waged by Fossil Free QUB.

Queen’s, despite making a big deal of its green credentials, encouraging staff and students to reduce energy consumption and so on, has perhaps millions of pounds invested in oil companies like BP. BP, a company still being sued for ongoing damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. It has invested in Shell, a company with a notorious record of spills and alleged links to human rights problems in places like Nigeria. Queen’s has invested in this and other such fossil fuel companies. And they want workers to switch off the office lights to cut down emissions?

‘Oh, we will’, you can imagine the demonstrators saying; ‘we’ll switch off this office light when we leave. We’ll do our bit. You need to do yours’. Their ‘bit’, according to the campaigners, is to come up with a five-year plan for pulling investments out of fossil fuel companies and investing it elsewhere.

Some people are already claiming the Paris deal marks the end of the fossil fuel era. If so, it will not be because heads of state decided spontaneously to bring this about, still less because the oil companies thought it would be a good idea. It will be because of countless thousands, tens of thousands of campaigners like these students who are making specific, targetted and timetabled demands that the institutions in which they are stakeholders clean up their act.

So two climate-related events this weekend both intent on making fossil fuels history; one spectacular, and guaranteed to make the headlines, one much quieter, involving far fewer people and no heads of state. But both significant, both vital.

Both, taken together, a big deal.

13 December 2015

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