Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail?

From the end of this month through early December, much of the world’s attention will be focused on Paris, the site of the upcoming round of UN climate negotiations. This is the twenty-first time diplomats and heads of state will gather under the umbrella of the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a document first put forward at the landmark 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro – the same global conference where the elder George Bush told the world that the “American way of life is not negotiable.” The UNFCCC process has had its ups and downs over the years, including the approval of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the first international agreement to mandate specific reductions in climate-disrupting greenhouse gases.

As this year’s conference approaches, people around the world are suffering the consequences of some of the most extreme patterns of storms, droughts, wildfires and floods ever experienced. Western wildfires last summer reached as far north as the Olympic rainforest, and unprecedented mudslides earlier this fall in a corner of drought-baked southern California nearly buried vehicles caught on the route from Tehachapi to Bakersfield. Central Mexico recently experienced the most severe hurricane to ever reach landfall, and the role of persistent regional droughts in sparking the social upheaval that has brought nearly a million Middle Eastern refugees to central Europe is increasingly apparent. It is virtually certain that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded, with several months having surpassed previous records by a full degree or more. While we are always cautioned that it is difficult to blame the climate for specific incidents of extreme weather, scientists in fact are increasingly able to measure the climate contribution of various events, and rising temperatures also heighten the effects of phenomena such as the California drought, which may not have global warming as their primary underlying cause.

The last time this much public attention was focused on the climate talks was in the lead-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At that time, the first “commitment period” of the Kyoto Protocol was about to expire shortly, and Copenhagen was seen as a make-or-break opportunity to move the process forward. Even as close observers decried the increasing corporate influence over the preparations for the 15th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN climate convention, most observers held onto a shred of hope that something meaningful and significant would emerge from the negotiations. There was a huge public lobbying effort by Greenpeace and other groups urging President Obama to attend, and China put forward its first public commitment to reduce the rate of increase in their greenhouse gas emissions. While the Kyoto Protocol’s primary implementation mechanisms – tradable emissions allowances and questionable “carbon offset” projects in remote areas of the world – had proven inadequate at best, the Copenhagen meeting was seen as the key to sustaining Kyoto’s legacy of legally binding emissions reductions. Perhaps, activists hoped, the negotiators would agree on a meaningful plan to prevent increasingly uncontrollable disruptions of the climate. It soon became clear, however, that Copenhagen instead set the stage for a massive derailment of the ongoing negotiation process, and unleashed a new set of elite strategies that now render the Paris talks as virtually designed to fail.

Officials in Copenhagen were determined to spin the conference as a success, no matter what the outcome. Still, even before the conference began, they began to proclaim the advantages of a non-binding “political” or “operational” agreement as an incremental step toward reducing worldwide emissions. As described in my book, Toward Climate Justice (New Compass Press, 2014), the assembled delegates from nearly all the world’s nations failed to accomplish even that. COP 15 produced only a five-page “Copenhagen Accord,” with no new binding obligations on countries, corporations, or any other actors, and the document was not even approved – only “taken note of” – by the conference as a whole. The accord essentially urged countries to put forward voluntary pledges to reduce their climate-disrupting emissions, and to informally “assess” their progress after five years. Every substantive issue was hedged with loopholes and contradictions, setting the stage for most of the global North outside of Europe to simply withdraw from their countries’ obligations under Kyoto as the 2012 renewal deadline approached. Still, all but three countries – Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua – went along with this scheme; one main reason was that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had promised skeptics that the US would raise $100 billion a year in funds to assist with climate stabilizing measures, a promise that is still to be realized in the halls of Paris.

Revealing the US Strategy

Just what did the US actually bring to the table in Copenhagen beside a vague pledge by President Obama to reduce emissions? An article in the September/October 2009 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs offered some important clues as to what would transpire in Copenhagen and beyond. Readers may be aware that Foreign Affairs is the official organ of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an organization that has been seen for many decades as both a weathervane and an active arbiter of elite opinion in the US, and lists most recent US presidents and numerous other senior government officials among its members. Lawrence Shoup, author of two books on the Council, describes it as “the world’s most powerful private organization,” specializing in networking, strategic planning and consensus-forming for US elites. In a 2009 article titled “Copenhagen’s Inconvenient Truth,” CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi outlined the US government’s apparent strategy for Copenhagen.

“The odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are vanishingly small,” Levi would need to have written during the summer of 2009, in preparation for the journal’s September publication. His alternative proposal was to essentially replace international emissions standards with a patchwork of voluntary, country-specific policies with the thoroughly inadequate goal of reducing world emissions of carbon dioxide by half by 2050. Under Levi’s scenario, China would step up investments in renewable energy and “ultra-efficient conventional coal power,” India would become a pioneer in smart grid technology, and countries with emissions mainly from deforestation (especially Indonesia and Brazil) would be offered incentives to protect their forests and raise agricultural productivity. The main US contribution would be to push for a detailed agreement on “measurement, reporting and verification,” one area where US surveillance technology would clearly hold an advantage.

The Foreign Affairs article pointedly blamed developing countries for the world’s inability to agree on meaningful emission caps, echoing frequent statements by various US officials. Levi argued that the Chinese and others lacked the capacity to accurately monitor their emissions and would simply ignore any limits that they proved unable to meet. Unfortunately, this is precisely how Northern countries had behaved since Kyoto; indeed Levi cited Canada as a key example of a country that repeatedly exceeded its Kyoto limits and faced no penalty for doing so. For these reasons, efforts to develop binding caps for developing countries are described as simply “a waste of time.”

A key challenge for the US in Copenhagen, according to Levi, was to avoid “excessive blame” if the conference were to be seen as a failure. Rather than expecting a comprehensive agreement to come out of Copenhagen, he argued, the conference should instead be seen as analogous to the beginning of a round of arms control or world trade talks, processes which invariably take many years to complete. “This ‘Copenhagen Round,’” he argues, mirroring the typical World Trade Organization language, “would be much more like an extended trade negotiation than like a typical environmental treaty process.” Overlooking the fact that a substantive, albeit flawed, agreement was actually signed in Kyoto, the article emphasizes that it took several more years of negotiations before that treaty could be implemented.

Since Copenhagen, progress toward a meaningful climate agreement has continued to be stifled by big-power politics and diplomatic gridlock. Annual COPs have happened in Mexico, South Africa, Qatar, Poland, and Peru, with each year’s proceedings proclaimed a diplomatic success, despite the fact that the parties may be farther than ever from a legally enforceable plan to reduce emissions. The agenda of voluntary national pledges was finally ratified – over Bolivia’s strong objections – in Cancún in 2010; in Durban, South Africa the following year, the parties agreed that no new climate treaty would come into effect until 2020, with the terms to be finalized in Paris in 2015. National “pledges” turned into “commitments,” and last year in Lima, Peru, they were further watered down to “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” to emissions reduction (INDCs). Contributions in some cases could be based on reductions in the carbon intensity of an economy, even if those reductions would be overwhelmed by economic growth, as in the case of China. Further, the US and other rich countries have pushed to dilute the long-standing focus on “common but differentiated responsibilities” for climate mitigation that was enshrined in the original UNFCCC, and abandon the more explicit language on climate equity that was approved in Kyoto and has long been an underlying principle of the negotiations.

Still, proponents of the “voluntary contributions” approach continue to spin it as the best possible outcome of the process. In a 2014 article in Yale’s environmental web journal, former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle argued that the current paradigm offers the most promising possible “bottom-up” approach, and one that “builds on national self-interest and spurs a ‘race to the top’ in low-carbon energy solutions,” while shifting the focus from “burden to opportunity” and from rhetoric to “tangible action.” Unfortunately, none of the global South delegates who staged a walk-out of the massively industry-sponsored COP in Warsaw the previous winter saw it that way at all. Without any meaningful enforcement measures, how can nation states be held accountable for honoring their voluntary “pledges”? With fossil fuel interests still dominating domestic politics in many countries, can the world settle for a diplomacy based mainly on cultivating a sense of moral obligation on the part of national governments and global corporations?

Indeed a 2013 speech by Obama’s lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern, made it clear that the primary US role in the process remains one of obstruction and obfuscation (the full text is available on the State Department website). Stern blamed poorer countries for resisting an “agreement applicable to all parties,” and celebrated the focus on “self-determined mitigation commitments” instead of legally-binding obligations to reduce emissions. He dismissed the “loss and damage” debate that would come to dominate the 2013 Warsaw COP as merely an “ideological narrative of fault and blame,” and insisted that no significant public funds for international climate aid would be available beyond the meager $2.5 billion that the US has committed annually since 2010. Further, he thoroughly rejected the long-standing principle of responsibility for historical CO2 emissions, insisting, with unsurpassed arrogance, that, “It is unwarranted to assign blame to developed countries for emissions before the point at which people realized that those emissions caused harm to the climate system.” Ethics aside, Stern would have us all forget that at least half of all cumulative emissions have occurred since 1980, and a much larger share since the first scientific observations of rising atmospheric CO2 levels in the late 1950s.

Managing Expectations

In recent weeks, laudatory headlines have accompanied the news that formerly reluctant countries, especially China, India and Brazil, have now announced their intended climate “contributions” for the decade of the 2020s. Unfortunately, despite some incremental progress, these quasi-pledges don’t really add up. Two independent analyses of all countries’ climate pledges to date were released in early October. The MIT-affiliated Climate Interactive projected that the existing pledges would result in 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 °F) of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, far short of the Copenhagen goal of a maximum of 2 degrees. The Climate Action Tracker, a project of four independent research organizations with support from international environmental groups and the World Bank, among others, put forward a more optimistic estimate, projecting a global temperature rise between 2.2 and 3.4 degrees C by 2100 if current pledges are fully implemented. These represent a significant improvement over the business-as-usual scenario of 4 to 5 degrees of average warming projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year, but not a huge step beyond the modest carbon-reduction policies that various countries already have in place. The Climate Action Tracker now projects a 92 percent probability of exceeding 2 degrees this century.

It is important to note here that even 2 degrees C is far from a “safe” level of climate disruption. Research suggests that 2 degrees is more accurately seen as the level at which there is roughly a 50 – 50 chance of avoiding insurmountable climate “tipping points,” a statistical coin toss. Given that warming to date of around 0.8 degrees C has correlated with a far higher level of climate chaos than predicted, this is far from comforting. Small island nations and others in the global South have put forward a potential “safe” level of 1.5 degrees warming. The pace of reductions in CO2 emissions also matters a great deal. The much-lauded climate agreement between the US and China last year advanced a scenario whereby China’s emissions would not begin to fall until 2030. A 2013 paper by climatologist James Hansen and over a dozen colleagues from around the world suggested that much faster reductions in carbon pollution are necessary if the world is to avoid a scenario where extreme climate disruptions will continue for hundreds of years into the future. Time is of the essence, and the Paris negotiations appear to be rooted in the false premise that we have plenty of time.

Another new study, endorsed by leading international anti-hunger groups, as well as Friends of the Earth International, WWF and, among others, offers a more direct challenge to various countries’ announced “contributions” to climate mitigation. While there is still considerable uncertainty about how specific emissions levels translate into global temperature changes, scientists broadly agree on the absolute amount of additional CO2 that the global climate system can tolerate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other leading scientific authorities have all endorsed this concept of a total global “carbon budget.” According to the new report, “Fair Shares: A Civil Society Equity Review of INDCs” (available at, countries’ total pledges to date amount to less than half of the reductions that are needed in absolute emissions levels. When countries’ historical responsibilities for climate disruption are taken into account, as well as their capacities for action based on current incomes and living standards, it appears that the world’s wealthier countries have pledged less than a quarter of their calculated fair shares. The methodology here has been under development for many years by the group EcoEquity, which has presented a detailed equity-based approach to emissions reduction at several recent COPs. The report suggests that current US and EU pledges amount to about a fifth of their calculated fair share, Japan’s about a tenth, and Russia’s doesn’t represent any significant contribution at all.

Meanwhile, the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s analysis of the last official working session of the UNFCCC prior to Paris, held in Bonn in late October, concluded that “the parties remain far from reaching any agreement.” Countless issues, both large and small, are still far from resolution. “Procedural wrangling” appeared to dominate the discussions in Bonn, and civil society observers were barred from the meeting rooms where various “spin-off” groups were working to try to clarify the final text. A draft text from what is described in UN-speak as the “Co-Chairs’ non-paper” remains the primary focus for discussions in Paris. The more obstacles that remain to finalize a Paris agreement, the less likely there will be any meaningful progress on thorny issues such as enforcement, accountability, and how changes in the world’s energy systems will be financed.

Still, virtually any agreement that emerges from Paris is probably going to be proclaimed a “success,” as has occurred at the end of every climate COP since before Copenhagen. Indeed, as a report from the Global Forest Coalition explains, “The extreme hype around the Paris deal being desperately needed to ‘save the world’ is scaremongering people into accepting a disastrously bad deal… If we are to make Paris about saving the planet, then it should be about rejecting the false deal that is on the table.” While many international environmental groups continue to raise hopes for an adequate agreement in Paris, people on the ground there and around the world have been mapping out a more realistic response.

For much of the past year, the main discussion among activists in Europe has not been about whether or not the Paris negotiations will succeed. Instead, the debate has largely focused on whether to give the negotiations any credence at all, or whether it’s time to view the entire UNFCCC process as thoroughly corrupted and hopelessly beholden to fossil fuel corporations and the interests of global capital. Climate justice activists have raised analogies to the notorious World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999 where blockades by thousands of people on the outside helped spur African delegates to hold their ground and prevent a harmful new trade agreement from being advanced on the inside. In this view, the best hopes for Paris lie with those seeking to build upon the massive demonstrations in Copenhagen, the Occupy-style disruption of the Durban COP in 2011, and the walk-out by global South delegates from the Warsaw meeting in 2013.

A widely quoted paper by Maxime Combes from the global justice network ATTAC-France proposed a middle ground, whereby activists would allow those on the inside to wage the necessary “defensive battles” needed to prevent a terrible deal, and focus more confrontational actions toward the closing days of the conference, when it will likely become clear that the meeting is heading nowhere. Combes added that “situating the massive mobilizations during the final days leaves the possibility open for derailing the negotiations if it is deemed relevant to do so.” Actions being planned for Paris embrace the spirit of Blockadia – the worldwide opposition to new fossil fuel infrastructure – as well as Alternatiba, a French Basque term for the flowering of grassroots alternatives centered in local communities worldwide. A campaign to highlight community-centered alternatives to the fossil fuel economy has been underway in France for much of this year, including a bicycle tour that circled the country last summer to visit several of the most visionary local projects (the English language website is

The international network has called for actions around the world both at the beginning and the end of the Paris COP, November 28-29th and December 12th, and sensibly urges activists to focus on a “road through Paris,” culminating in actions aimed to directly challenge the continued extraction of fossil fuels during the spring of 2016. The global 350 network has become far more responsive to local activists around the world in recent years, emphasizing decentralized organizing and helping support a variety of direct actions, including a dramatic march of over 1000 people onto the site of Germany’s most polluting coal mine just last summer.

Here in the US, many groups are holding local events in late November, around the Thanksgiving holiday, and 350 affiliates in New England and North Country New York will unite for a major regional mobilization with a “Jobs, Justice and Climate” theme on Saturday, December 12th in Boston (see, with more details available soon at The intersectional alliance-building effort that is at the heart of these events will help shape campaigns to further challenge fossil fuel interests and highlight alternatives throughout the coming year. With the defeat of the notorious Keystone XL pipeline, the industry’s biggest fear is what some have termed the “Keystonization” of all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Local struggles around various pipelines and fracking sites may be relatively small puzzle pieces compared to the mounting destabilization of the earth’s climate system, but that’s not how the industry sees it. For example, a recent report commissioned by PNC Bank found that leading financial institutions view public opposition and regulatory uncertainty (itself often shaped by public opposition) to be the most significant barriers to the continued expansion of oil and gas. The global coal industry is in rapid decline, and wind and solar are now the fastest growing energy sources. We have a long way to go, and not much time, but if anything can help raise our hopes that it’s not too late, it is the power of social movements to intervene to change the story. This is especially true of those movements that embrace the transformative vision of climate justice and successfully unite the grassroots forces inspired by images of Blockadia and Alternatiba.


Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology (, a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont, and a board member of 350Vermont, an autonomous statewide organization. His most recent book is Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (Revised edition 2014, New Compass Press), portions of which were adapted for this article.