Paris Climate Agreement is a Triumph of Hope over Facts

By Published on December 30, 2015

Illusions are dangerous, particularly in politics. Writing in the 1930s, the liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr observed: “The prestige of the international community is not great enough to achieve a communal spirit sufficiently unified to discipline recalcitrant nations.” And he warned against “a too uncritical glorification of co-operation and mutuality” between powers with opposing national interests. Yet it is the prospect of global co-operation and mutuality that so many politicians and journalists today glorify. On climate change, the argument goes, political convergence is inevitable. Barack Obama, ironically an admirer of Niebuhr, hails this month’s UN accord to cut emissions as a historic breakthrough. Indeed, for many influential writers — Thomas Friedman from The New York Times, for example — the Paris climate agreement is a “big, big deal.” In reality, it represents a triumph of wishes over facts.

True, nations have agreed to volunteer their carbon-cutting promises to the IPCC every five years. But they don’t have to set ambitious goals. Nor are they required to meet their targets, because there is no penalty for non-compliance. No disciplining recalcitrant nations here. Unlike the Kyoto treaty in 1997, Paris is not legally binding. Nations can provide excuses for failure and pledge to do better next time. That’s a victory in so far as the UN process continues, but there is a distinct lack of progress in slashing emissions. No wonder the most prominent climate activists — from Jim Hansen in the US to George Monbiot in Britain — are outraged. Climate enthusiasts say Paris heralds a move to a zero-carbon economy. Somebody forgot to tell Malcolm Turnbull. Within days of Paris, his government announced approval for one of the world’s largest coal mines. Environmentalists should not be shocked. According to the International Energy Agency, south-east Asian coal demand will triple for at least 25 years and Australia will be the world’s largest coal exporter by 2020.

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