The human mind is not programmed to respond to instinct, urgency and impending intangible or distant threats, least of all in the sphere of human politics. The problem with climate change is that none of us have been troubled enough in recent years by the rise in the concentration of climate-altering atmospheric agents simply because we cannot see it –with the naked eye, at least—and that’s supposed to be enough. Anyway, it’s also happening so far away, you’ll never see it.
Yet, more and more people around the world have become interested in the problem of global warming. Many even suffer from eco-anxiety, especially young people. Interest, anxiety and often practical actions grow out a conviction based on received information. Our way of producing and consuming just about everything is largely based on the use of fossil fuels extracted with deeply invasive and increasingly expensive technologies. Because of this, we’re practically devastating the natural balance of our planet and harming ourselves, other animals and plants, but above all – to put it conservatively – our entire world and geography.
It may not seem like a problem until we read that Siberia may become more and more arable, the Arctic more and more navigable and that excellent wines will come from England. Perhaps in some distant country there will be problems with, for example, disappearing islands or cities with exotic names. This is another problem with our brains. We’re programmed to be Eurocentric. It might seem like a rather big problem, though, if we think in terms of food chain stability, poverty alleviation, forced mobility and the potential for all this taken together to trigger new armed conflicts, which nobody really needs.
By reading and informing oneself, one discovers that a world with an average +2C°temperature increase (if not more) by the end of this century would be intolerable basically for all of us. Perhaps someone is beginning to have their instincts aroused now that at least three times a year we see heartbreaking images on TV and the internet of entire countries brought to their knees by natural disasters of extreme intensity which cause devastation. We see the videos shot in Mozambique and in Pakistan. We think of Italy and we start to put two and two together, the easiest kind of accounting.
In some countries, they’ve been doing the maths for several years and all too well. The UN G77 group is a coordinating body that brings together countries with the common denominator of not being part of the West and not rich. For almost three decades, the G77 has been waging a battle for survival by simply demanding that those who’ve caused the climate problem pay at least some of the consequences. There are those who say that the G77 is always asking for money, but in this case they have good reason to. Let’s call it compensation (a forbidden word), reparations (another forbidden word), contributions on the basis of common but differentiated responsibilities (this is generally the acceptable way to say it).
How to do this? For example, through an increased contribution to international climate policies in general. It’s mainly up to rich countries to put more money into reducing emissions (this has been in the mix since the Kyoto Protocol). It‘s also mainly up to rich countries to put the money they need for adaptation into actions that are most needed (it’s only become normal to say this in recent years). It should be up to rich countries to assuage poor ones living on the brink or who have to go into debt to rebuild after disasters (it may sound absurd, but this has never been clearly stated).
A sort of political miracle happened on the night of 19-20 November 2022 at COP27. It was a cosmic alignment. For once, poor countries managed to coordinate without being distracted by Western promises. Europe – which cares immensely about its image as a climate leader – did an about face when it realised that a ‘no’ vote would not go unnoticed. The United States never really got in the game. When it finally had to play, it found itself alone in an awkward position and with the most charismatic man at the negotiations, Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, forced to stay in his hotel with COVID-19, far from the fray. In short, after sleepless hours an agreement was reached that effectively creates a new component of the Paris Climate Agreement: A fund for Loss and Damage Compensation.
It was signalled by long applause and crowned with a standing ovation in the sleepy dawn at the Sharm el-Sheikh Convention Centre. Journalists frantically sent dispatches off to their agencies knowing they would be lost among those on the World Cup. Let’s not get lost in the events though – that’s why there’s the Italian Climate Network’s COP Bulletins.
What should make us wince, compared to the mediocrity of world affairs and especially political ones, is that what happened in Sharm has a political impact that goes even beyond the years left to you who are reading this. Yes, you. The Paris Climate Agreement is the first international treaty between countries that aims to achieve concrete goals far beyond the lives of all those who signed it. We are talking about the turn of the next century and if you were born on or before 2000, you might start to imagine who to tell this story to for their homework assignments.
On climate, the world seems to come to a stand still. Yet, once a year in a convention centre somewhere, thousands of delegates from countries everywhere meet to decide on the future in a practical way alongside all the detours and unknowns that life will bring. However, no one now questions the ultimate goal and the fact that we really do need to work over a period of 85 years hence from the signing. That in itself sounds incredible – and it is.
To really understand how important the decision on the Sharm el-Sheikh compensation fund is for the fate of the world, one only has to consider that, having been resolved under the Paris Agreement, it shares its timing with it. The world has therefore concurred, without opposition from anyone, that for the next 78 years the rich countries will be called upon – morally and formally – to economically help poorer ones in rebuilding after the disasters that that oil-drenched wealth causes and will increasingly cause. A doubt may arise. In western countries, it’s our innocent grandchildren and great-grandchildren who’ll be paying for their grandparent’s emissions or these new compensations to the South. They’ll need to do this with wages that are continually incommensurate with this just solidarity and recompense. We could ask ourselves what implications this will have in the future in terms of intergenerational equity and the domestic politics of rich countries. There’s enough material to write front pages and best-sellers, but nowadays so little is believed in politics. News like – ‘they’ve really decided to set a bottom line’ – simply sounds unrealistic and is avoided. Also, it’s too intangible a concept.
It is not going to be too intangible for governments, who from January will have to figure out how to start paying for it. Nobody really feels like it, but not doing so would be like refusing to make a toast and drink at a friend’s wedding just because you have a bit of indigestion. It’s too late, the spotlight is on you and the other guests are watching. Maybe you don’t do it right away or drink the whole glass, but you have to do something. So you take a sip, avoiding one that’s too big or has too much ice in it. It’s a pity that in the case of climate-related disaster, the situation is heading for the worst and each new sip could really upset your stomach—or cost you more than the last one did over the course of a long evening.
Today all the newspapers will devote a blurb to the upcoming COPs, starting with COP28 in Dubai, which kicks off in less than a year in the UAE. Then there’ll be a COP in Eastern Europe, no one knows where yet, followed by the COP30 in 2025 that Lula has already proposed to host in the Amazon rainforest no less. Hopefully, this will not amount to building a mega convention centre there where there’s really no need for one. But, we told ourselves that we must look beyond toward the ultimate goal.
In any unpredictable future, if the Paris Agreement is to make it to 2100 alive (I would be 111 years old by then, wouldn’t you?), it will have to be replaced, improved and added to by a new generation of treaties which countries must start working on now. Is a new Agreement to be launched in 2030 at the same time as a new Sustainable Development Agenda? A new agreement in 2050 would build on the achieved climate neutrality of many major countries. It would provide planning for the next 50 years of policies and save what will be left of the planet from becoming a giant storehouse of ancient CO2, absorbed thanks to the new technologies created by millennials and zoomers? Or is there a need for a mid-century COP to write the rules of climate action in space?
If the aim is to keep to the objectives and prepare tasks for those who’ll take over from us, it’s worth starting to prepare the ground without shirking any possibilities. We should use all our imagination here. It could be that some powerful person poor in ideas will accidentally hear ours and steal them.
Random thoughts and not the tale of any negotiation, or maybe so. Edited by Jacopo Bencini.