It is as yet too soon to know how this story will be told a century or more from now.
One version is that by then, owing to the clathrate gun, the Atlantic Current, or some other nasty self-reinforcing feedback, Earth resembles Tatooine, the desert homeworld of Anakin Skywalker, his son Luke, and the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. The planet is oppressed by harsh deserts and only a small portion remains that can sustain life, and that is shrinking. In this scenario, the story of COP21 in Paris is meaningless. We were genetically not predisposed to do what we had to do to survive, methane concentrations will eventually eliminate mammalian life, and so there is not much of a future ahead for us.
A somewhat different story might be that although the changes wrought by sudden onset climate change have been drastic, erasing most coastal cities and taking us past 2 degrees, they have not stopped human ability to ingeniously adapt by moving underground, planting drought hardy forests to cleanse the atmosphere, and abandoning inhospitable regions. Population is inching down, partly by the severity of the weather but increasingly by a popular will to live more in balance with what nature can provide. In this scenario, what happened in Paris was clearly inadequate and tone deaf, and most people will sneer or spit when it is mentioned.
A third possibility is that life is actually a bit better in 2115 than now. Sure, there are still lots of hazards to be wary of, like superstorms and extended droughts, or that nasty Fukushima disaster no-one has yet figured out what to do with, but 2015 was when the world decided to use the last few drops of fossil sunlight to make an aggressive switch to solar energy and permaculture, and now ubiquitous windmills made of bamboo composites and low-tech solar thermal devices perform enough useful work for everyone that leisure time can be devoted to philosophy, reading and writing books, making music and art, and social networking.
This world of the future also has common threads with Tatooine, in that something like a race of Jawas — actually, tribes of gleaners and scavengers — travel about in pedal-powered sandcrawlers collecting scrap metal and plastic bits from worthless consumer junk from failed industrial projects. In this world, the events in Paris a hundred years earlier are looked upon as a sort of turning point, when the arc of human history swung away from self-destruction and relearned to garden.
Then of course we have the heavy metal sci-fi version subscribed to by Bill Gates, Elon Musk and most of the political leaders in Paris today, which involves shiny nuclear plants, test-tube food, towering megacities filled with well-fed workers that live to be 200, and colonies on Mars. Grow grow grow! This scenario is, of course, fiction unless someone suddenly discovers an energy source comparable to fossil fuels, which seems implausible because no-one has, but that's a fortunate break for the many species not already driven to extinction by human ecosystem expansion.
So, dwelling on that third story, the green energy one, sitting around the fire in 2115, what do we think? We imagine the obvious question a child might ask is why ever did they wait so long? We could have done this long before and there would still be polar bears and whales and we would not have these unpredictable monsoons and droughts. Were they that oblivious, the child asks, or was it willful? We would have to say it was a little of both.
In countries like the US and Australia, where corporate control of media and Fundamentalist legislation of school curricula dictates what people know about most things, the climate threat was ridiculed and silenced. Even in Paris nearly every speech by a USAnian began by apologizing for being scientific and not as ignorant as the average US citizen, Republican or otherwise, just as nearly every speech by a European somewhere made reference to the tidal wave of refugees. Climate was always filtered through political rose-colored glasses, no matter where you were. Because of that, people seldom saw the world the same, or got anything close to an accurate view of what was really happening. The colored glasses made you oblivious, but you always had a choice about whether to take the glasses off.
They only had to turn off their televisions and walk outdoors, we might tell the child. "What's a television?" she might reply.
The truth is, those few who correctly diagnosed the situation early were labeled Cassandras, anarchists and flakes. You would not find much mention of them in popular news media, except for the occasional derisive reference. In 2115, those people are heroes.
Most of yesterday the arguments continued around LeBourget on the points of contention we have been describing all week. The document scheduled for 3 pm release was delayed to 7 and then 9. When it was finally issued there was a two hour period permitted for review. Each country was rationed 3 badges, no more, for the final "Indabas" (Zulu for agreement circles) begun at 11:30 and going much of the night. Each topic of contention was given its own space and a skilled facilitator. This morning we are awaiting the "final" text that the Indabas have agreed to and the coordinators have synthesized.
From the near-final text last night it seems agreed that 1.5 degrees is in the treaty, not as a mandate but as a defense line, as the Structured Expert Dialog had urged. It first appears in the Preamble, which says, "consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce risks and impacts of climate change…."
It next appears in Article II, the voluntary pledge protocols, where the document notes with concern that existing pledges will not deliver 2° and that "much greater emission reduction efforts … will be required in the period after 2025 and 2030 in order to hold the temperature rise to below 2°C or 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels[.]" Article II concludes with a call for the IPCC to provide a technical paper by 2018 on the likely impacts of exceeding 1.5 and the required emissions pathways to hold the line there.
Loss and damage provisions are back in, mandating a review in 2016 to develop "modalities and procedures for the mechanism's operation and support." Adaptation is back in, but largely locally driven, with financial support from the Green Climate Fund. Finance is made contingent upon "enhanced results-based payments for verifiable achieved emission reductions and removals related to existing approaches..." which is to say nobody gets a free lunch.
Needless to say, nowhere in the four corners of the document is reference made to agriculture (although food security is raised as a concern for adaptation purposes), biochar, holistic management, soil fertility, mob grazing, or planting new forests for carbon sequestration. There is no mention of ecovillages, transition towns or permaculture, although the section on adaption does make mention of empowering community based solutions, driven by transparent, egalitarian processes, and that is laudable.
What is missing from last night's draft, in our view, was strong, coercive language. A striking example is in removing fossil subsidies, where countries are urged "to reduce international support for high-emission investments." Why not just require that? Words like "takes note," "requests," "invites," and "urges," need to be replaced with words like "shall," "must," and "are required."
A good example is a particularly strong paragraph 111, where the body
Decides that the committee [facilitating implementation and compliance] … shall consist of [X] members with recognized competence in relevant scientific, technical, socio-economic or legal fields , to be elected by the Conference of the Parties … on the basis of equitable geographical representation, with [X] members each from the five regional groups of the United Nations and one member each from the small island developing States and the least developed countries, while taking into account the goal of gender balance"
That committee is a key part of the agreement, because they will be influential in what happens next. In the legally binding treaty part, Article II.2 says,
"The committee shall be expert-based and facilitative in nature and function in a manner that is transparent, non-adversarial, and non-punitive."
There are no sanctions, no fines, no punishments, and no leverage that can be applied to enforce the treaty. There is not even something like the ING decision to not do business with anyone relying more than 50% on coal. No boycotts, trade sanctions, tariffs, fees. The treaty is based entirely on trust and voluntary compliance.
What the treaty does fairly well is set ambitious but not impossible goals and suggest ways to achieve them. You can quibble about whether the ambition is strong enough, but this is a big first step, and more steps will follow. The first "global stocktake" is set for 2018, with subsequent reviews and revisions every 5 years.
Anyone wishing to review the 27-page draft from Thursday night, knowing that by now it has been revised, can find it here: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/da02.pdf.
We will soon find out what the outcome of all the overnight indabas was and how much has changed.
Last night, we were passing an outdoor café and were hailed by our friend Daniel who wanted to know what our take on the talks was. "Are we f**ked?" he asked.
"Not yet," we replied and although we meant that we still have another day or two of negotiations ahead, in a larger sense here we are, sitting in an outdoor café, enjoying peak civilization as though nothing has happened. And yet, in a larger sense the world has changed completely, and yes, we really are f**ked, although there may never have been much we, who were born this late in the game, could have done.
For the grandchild, there is even less she can do; just hope and wait. The hope is that it is not already too late and that the puny start we are making is at least leading us in the right direction. And that was better, to quote Keats, "than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea and comfortable advice."