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Fragile earth will not be saved by Sunday


In Paris this week the curse 'May you live in interesting times' pervaded. Living in interesting times demands deep sobriety as to the conditions under which we live and negotiate. The single treaty being negotiated at COP21 is symbolically heavy with expectations that it's our only salvation from climate devastation.

Paris 2015I left Geneva for Paris where the biggest gathering of nations attempt (yet again) to address the single greatest challenge to life on earth by reviewing the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Concurrently in Geneva, secret talks are being conducted around the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Potential clauses of TiSA will penalise nation states for subsidising renewable energies. This closed door process threatens to undermine any progress made within public international law on technology transfers, climate finance and the capacity of states to reduce their emissions: issues at the heart of the UNFCCC.

This powerful law, constructed in legal shadowlands as a protective mechanism for corporations, indicates that COP21 exists within complex legal and power arrangements not yet reconciled.

Like public international treaties, free trade agreements are consensual, but carry onerous fiscal penalties with more force and enforceability than any public international treaty. Unresolved differences between these layers of law weaken nation state sovereignty, environmental protection and the UNFCCC itself. As well, the constant use of the words 'a legally binding treaty' in relation to the UNFCCC is misleading. Kyoto was also legally binding and many countries ignored it without any sanctions.

Meanwhile in Geneva the potentially powerful force of fiscal law negotiates a contradictory future. In the face of such realities, futility comes too easily. The UNFCCC is soft, fragile law.

In Paris, pockets of silence ask for sobriety. While it's easy to believe that normal life goes on, the state of emergency pervades the city. Idealism and resistance is cleaned off the streets by hard law. Climate activists are under house arrest for the duration of COP21. Gatherings and protests are intimate and don't access the greater public domain as expected. Shoes that represented absent protesters in the Place de Republique were immediately removed by police.

Last weekend the National Front was ahead in regional elections, signifying the rise of politics of fear and nationalism. Standing before the Bataclan, there's an overwhelming reverence for unanswerable questions that persist since the tragic shootings last month.

Meanwhile COP 21 occurs in a multi-layered security bubble outside the city where sobriety also pervades. The carnival is over. Everything feels precarious.

Located in Paris in the aftermath of the attacks, COP21 spookily mirrors how climate change politics occurs within complex, diffuse and pre-existing power structures that determine its effectiveness. This document can't stand alone. Social and environmental wars merge with increasing intensity: from Syria to the Arctic, from Indonesia to Paris. Climate change complexity matches the complexity of terrorism.

As recent analysis points out landscapes environmentally under stress create conditions of civil conflict and incubate terrorism. Causal chains of social conflict are as complicated as carbon movements that result in environmental distress.

It's Panglossian to rely upon a single, unenforceable treaty to contain and protect the international community from the effects of climate change. The use of the state of emergency is not a shield available to small island states under threat from carbon violence. Fragile earth spins without security.

Inside the Le Bourget site, the first week threatened to mimic the frustrations of Copenhagen 2009. Since Saturday progress has been made. Reduced from 300 pages in 2009 to under 50 pages, now the meat of the agreement is thrashed out. The preamble proclaims grand intentions, but enactment requires significant alteration of economies and international relations.

Carbon diplomacy isn't simple. Equity issues of differentiation, historical responsibility, climate finance, technology transfers and indigenous rights remain sticking points. Reading the draft text, it feels like this document attempts to right all the wrongs of the world since colonisation and industrialisation. How to embrace the vulnerability of such ambitions?

Any emerging treaty from COP21 will exist within a matrix of forces that are not, and cannot be, addressed within its text. While not dismissing its potential validity, it's important for NGOs, nation states and populations to resist naïve faith that this text, these words, save the world from climate crisis. There's much work to do: this might be the beginning and not the euphoric end of a long journey.

Two New Zealanders have delightfully recorded COP21 negotiations for the public. Their document reveals the humanity, difficulty and passion of all involved. Within technical discussions are comments about exhaustion, humour about delays, and the odd reference to Mahatma Gandhi. 

Reading their transcript reminds of the fragility, frustration and shared experience of being human in the face of intense realities. At one point the French Chair admits, 'Yes I am stressed. I am also anxious,' then says in relation to the draft text 'that people are human not machines and mistakes have been made but these will be cleaned up'.

The complexity of the negotiations, and doubts of subsequent enforcement, cannot be underestimated. Mistakes will be made. In light of global politics and questionable force of international treaty law, fragility is a sober and honest condition of our world. We're condemned to live in interesting times. We will not be saved by Sunday. Et alors ...

Bronwyn LayDr Bronwyn Lay worked as a lawyer in Melbourne before moving to France where she now works as an legal consultant for international NGOs. She is also the creative director of the Dirt Foundation and her book Juris Materiarum: Empires of Earth, Soil, and Dirt will be released in early 2016. 


Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, Paris, COP21, climate change



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Existing comments

It makes sense if only --------Concurrently in Geneva, secret talks are being conducted around the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Potential clauses of TiSA will penalise nation states for subsidising renewable energies? Why is this meeting not in the news just as much as the one in Paris? Is there any hope in the face of such machinations?

Paul Van Ruth II | 10 December 2015  

Who are conducting these secret talks? Or is that secret too? " Potential clauses of TiSA will penalise nation states for subsidising renewable energies." In what sense are 'these clauses' potential? Have they been moved for discussion? If so, Is it known by whom? And has discussion taken place?

Robert Liddy | 10 December 2015  

TiSA?! First I heard of it. "penalise for subsidising renewables.." It should be in the "news". Another sibling of TPP and that seed making company that sues farmers who dont use their brand? And "climate activists in home detention" for the duration of climate change conference! Even their empty shoes removed by police! Indeed, how can one have any hope or faith in the face of these machinations? This is a serious question. Not rhetorical. It sounds as if They/ our (in)experts & those in charge are trying to provoke violent responses to justify bringing out the tanks, wiping out all pests and getting back to bizniss and no more time wasted on this climate change nonsense. We must stop giving Them/ ie: our elected unrepresentatives, the benefit of the doubt.

Jillian | 10 December 2015  

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