Now we know what kind of summit it was. COP21 was the Summit of Ambition.  During the negotiations a source reported tantalizingly that there was a “Huge, Secret Coalition That Could Deliver a Climate Win in Paris.” [1] But by the middle of the proceedings, the secret was, to say the least, out. The “parties” that were conferring were quite vocally and repetitively proclaiming themselves the “High Ambition Coalition.”  “Ambition” had become the new climate buzzword.

We also discovered that “ratcheting” was the de rigeur method of deploying this ambition. In one interview, a climate pundit managed to mention “ratcheting up ambition” three times in about three minutes.  The precise meaning of this term has not usually been pinned down, but Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund enlightens us a bit. He says that “the agreement provides a framework to ratchet up ambition over time: a transparent system for reporting and review, regular assessments of progress, and strengthening of commitments every five years beginning in 2020.”[2]

So the “ratcheting” process includes reporting and review, reporting and review in slightly different words, and “strengthening of commitments.” Though there is definitely an assumption that a lot of reports will be written, we can only assume that the idea of a “framework” to “strengthen commitments” means that there is an opportunity to strengthen commitments if par hazard a country decides to a make any real commitments or to strengthen them. According to the agreement, no particular force is exerted.  I would hate to try to loosen a bolt with this kind of ratchet.  

It’s like immense

Yet, much of the media seemed convinced of the world-historical nature of the agreement. Though the Guardian is usually somewhat more perceptive than most of the mainstream press, its article “How US negotiators ensured landmark Paris climate deal was Republican-proof” exemplifies the vacuous kind of claims made for the “pact,” and the sort of breathless media boosterism that accompanied its announcement.

We are told, rather dramatically, that “White House officials needed to “craft a deal congressional Republicans would not be able to stop,” that this deal had to be “bullet-proof,”[3] and that such an achievement “required major political capital.” Even more breathtakingly, we find that “The US needed a very particular kind of deal – and it required immense political capital to achieve it.” Exactly how immense this capital was, why this particular degree of immensity was needed, and how precisely all this immensity was employed are not explained, though we are told that the whole effort was “an immensely complicated challenge.”

In spite of all these theatrics, the article quickly bursts its own bubble of puffery by giving away the big secret.  The way that the Obama Administration planned to "outsmart" the Republicans was simply to give up on anything that the Republicans would object to very strongly.  In short, if the agreement contained nothing that was of real consequence or was binding, there would be nothing for the Republican Congress to veto.  One could almost say that it was a strategy of being immensely under-ambitious.

And this brilliantly defeatist strategy for success is exactly what was utilized. As the article recounts, "under US insistence” the agreement “was explicitly crafted” to EXCLUDE: 1) any binding agreement to emissions reductions; 2) any binding agreement to financing of emissions reductions; 3) any binding agreement to fines or penalties of any kind for failure to reduce emissions. Only one thing was agreed to legally: writing reports every five years. So Paris now gives us our stirring slogan for the climate revolution: Vive la paperasse![4]

Faux pas

Even the normally sober Global Footprint Network[5] exuded fervent optimism in articles non-ironically entitled “World leaders unanimously agree to end the fossil fuel age within a few decades” and “Paris: The Mother of All COPs.” In the former, it proclaimed that the climate agreement “represents a huge historic step in re-imagining a fossil-free future for our planet” and musing that it was “nothing short of amazing that 195 countries around the world—including oil-exporting nations—agreed to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius and, to the surprise of many, went even further by agreeing to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.”  

Despite such initial appearances, the GFN had not, in fact, gone entire crazy, since a few paragraphs down it admits that “science tells us that the pledges submitted by each nation are projected to result in a temperature rise of between 3 and 7 degrees Celsius, exceeding the 2-degree limit or ‘global handrail’ acknowledged by the agreement,” adding that “the final agreement requires countries to return every five years with new emission reduction targets,” and noting that “whether this essential requirement will be sufficient to catalyze more action remains to be seen.”  

In other words, the GFN recognizes that the nations had not, in reality, made any real agreement to do what was celebrated just a few sentences earlier.  What is true is that these nations had made a big step in re-imagining a carbon-emissions free future, even as they remained practically committed to a future that is disastrously dependent on such emissions. This gap between pleasant fantasy and brutal reality provides an excellent example of bad faith in action.

The turning point

Fortunately, Democracy Now! offered its usual challenge to the conventional wisdom by presenting a very illuminating debate between Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, and journalist and writer George Monbiot.[6]  Though Monbiot is far from radical, he is highly intelligent and perceptive, so he had no trouble politely demolishing the naïve and uncritical optimism of mainstream environmentalism.

Brune joined the rest of the environmental establishment in proclaiming COP21 to be a highly significant “turning point.”  He said that “what we saw in the last two weeks was that every country around the world agreed that we have to do much, much more to fight climate change effectively, and to begin to set up a dialogue and a mechanism for rich countries to aid the poor countries, and to make room for continuous ambition moving forward.” 

But the very wording of his claim belies the existence of any real “turning point.”  If there were such a change we must assume that these countries previously didn’t agree that we have to “do more,” “set up dialogues,” or create “mechanisms to aid poor countries.” And this is absurd. However, we can grant Brune one thing: he said that the countries agreed that we “have to” do these things, not that we “will” do them. So the big (non-)deal seems to be that a lot of countries agreed that such things are really, really important. And, of course, that they will be sure to develop a lot more ambition.  One can only hope that peak ambition doesn’t coincide with the collapse of the biosphere.

Monbiot should be congratulated for maintaining a positively shocking level of clear-sightedness in the midst of the post-COP orgy of self-congratulation by the global political class and mainstream environmentalists. He remarks that “what I see is an agreement with no timetables, no targets, with vague, wild aspirations. I mean, it’s almost as if it’s now safe to adopt 1.5 degrees centigrade as their aspirational target now that it is pretty well impossible to reach.”  Which is exactly the point. Aspiration and ambition are cheap, and these are the goods that have been bought and sold at COP21.

Feet, don’t fail me

COP21 perpetuated the tendency among environmentalists and the politicians who want to appease them to substitute spectacle for substantive action. They continue to put far too much effort into the politics of gestures and far to little into massive direct action on behalf of a rapid end to carbon emissions.

Last year’s People's Climate March exemplifies the same kind of spectacularism that the Paris Summit does. The March was planned to be “so large and diverse that it cannot be ignored,” and since then has been continually hailed as “the largest climate march in history.”  But that’s exactly the problem. It was a very pleasant and upbeat way to spend the day but with its three to four hundred-thousand well-behaved attendees, it wasn’t nearly monstrous enough or scary enough to convince anyone that there are enormous masses of righteously indignant people who are ready to say no to ecocide in a very decisive way.

The March had absolutely no traumatic, transformational effect. On the way to the March, I heard people on the subway ask where everybody was going, so even a lot of New Yorkers were unaware of the event. And the attendance was only 1.5 to 2% of the metro New York City population, so this isn’t really all that surprising.  Several months later, the Pope’s turnout of six million (at just one of a series of events) in the Philippines was forty-eight times greater per capita than the much-heralded U.S. event. The size of the Pope’s event was noted in the media, but there was no particular gloating about it being “the biggest” anything in history.

The Climate March mentality reminds me of the Woodstock Festival and the “we are the wave of the future” delusion that was typical of the counterculture at that time.  The word on the street, and certainly the word out in the fields of Yasgur’s farm, was that the Festival was the largest gathering in all of human history. But there had already been many gatherings vastly larger than its 400,000 attendance. The largest gathering of human beings on the planet has for a very long time been the periodical Kumbh Mela in India, which has attracted as many as 120 million people, including thirty million on a single day.

So if the climate movement wants to experiment further with the tactic of marches and mass gatherings, it should get to work on convening thirty million people on single day in Paris, New York, New Delhi, or other centers of power and pollution, capital and contamination. The crowd wouldn’t even have to do much marching, since it would already be everywhere. Its very presence would shake the foundations of the system of domination. However, to do this would require that thirty million people would have to think that saving the planet from climate catastrophe is as important as what thirty million people go to the Kumbh Mela for.  

All aboard the train, all aboard the train

And finally, let’s return briefly to the recent spectacle in Paris for a parting thought. It seems to me that a fitting au revoir to the Summit of Ambition would have brought all the Chief Negotiators or Negatiators on stage to belt out the following Anthem of Ambition:

We are the world, we are the Parties
Ambitious ones who make a cooler day
So let’s have ambition
That's the choice we're making
We're saving our own lives
It’s true we'll make a cooler day
Ambitious you and me



[1] Ben Jervey, “The Huge, Secret Coalition That Could Deliver a Climate Win in Paris” in
 GOOD: A Magazine for the Global Citizen

[2] “Statement on Paris final text from Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp,” on Environmental Defense Fund website

[3]  Suzanne Goldenberg, “How US negotiators ensured landmark Paris climate deal was Republican-proof” in The Guardian (Dec. 13, 2015)

[4] “Long live the Paperwork!” Which it will.

[5] Matthis Wackernagel, “World leaders unanimously agree to end the fossil fuel age within a few decades”  and Sebastian Winkler, “Paris: The Mother of All COPs”

[6] “A Turning Point for the Climate or a Disaster? Michael Brune vs. George Monbiot on the Paris Accord”

Posted on December 18, 2015 .