Storm Jonas, which has brought a foot of snow to Manhattan today, is making it hard to see much at all out of the window- everything is white. A good time to revisit the work of the Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson, especially (1) his Weather Project, back in 2003 at the Tate Modern; and (2) his recent project, Ice Watch, in Paris during COP21: 80 tons of ice shipped from Greenland to the Place du Panthéon, to make global warming visible in the heart of Europe.
With COP-21 over, what we take away from this deal that defines how "we" relate to "our" planet, how we think about the "stuff" we take from the planet, in a word our collective understanding of the planet and that which is "ex-terranean," perspectives continue to jostle for our attention.
In the Times, the economist Paul Krugman is, somewhat, hopeful: "Did the Paris climate accord save civilization? Maybe. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it’s actually the best climate news we’ve had in a very long time." He is hopeful because of two majors changes: (1) China's role has change--the country is cutting coal consumption; and (2) while the Republican party continues to fall "ever deeper into a black hole of denial and anti-science conspiracy theorizing," we now realize that this might not matter as much, for Obama is taking executive action in certain areas. Krugman's hope derives most of its energy, however, from "new technology [which] has fundamentally changed the rules": "costs of solar and wind power have fallen dramatically, to the point where they are close to competitive with fossil fuels even without special incentives." Krugman's final words are hopeful: "I don’t think it’s naïve to suggest that what came out of Paris gives us real reason to hope in an area where hope has been all too scarce. Maybe we’re not doomed after all."
But can we really be that hopeful? Or at least that tritely hopeful... Camille Seaman's piece sobers us up from too much hope, quickly: "We’ve Already Reached the Tipping Point on Global Warming. I’ve Seen It." Her stunning photos of the snow-less terrains near the North Pole tell us what's already happened: "we" are not separate from "nature." (For more on Seaman, see here)
Democracy Now's reflections on where COP-21 leaves us.
In theory, at least, the fact that an agreement was reached at the COP21 suggests that “we” have now defined a new relationship between “we” humans and the planet, fundamentally by remembering what exactly it means when we extract “stuff” from the earth and burn it. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s film “Home” (2009) already put the emphasis here, by referring to oil as “ces poches d’énergie solaire” (these pockets of solar energy); just as Tim Morton, in the conclusion to one of his books, notes that when we turn the key in the ignition, dinosaur bones starts to run through the pipes. In any case, the COP21 agreement seems to define a wider awareness. But of course, let’s not buy into that too quickly, let’s not believe an awareness is where we thin it is. Perhaps it is, perhaps not. There’s been a lot of reporting about the agreement since it happened.
An article in the Guardian seems to suggest success: “Paris climate deal: nearly 200 nations sign in end of fossil fuel era.” And it is a big thing, for sure: “After 20 years of fraught meetings, including the past two weeks spent in an exhibition hall on the outskirts of Paris, negotiators from nearly 200 countries signed on to a legal agreement on Saturday evening that set ambitious goals to limit temperature rises and to hold governments to account for reaching those targets.”
The photo of François Hollande and others shows applause and thumbs up. And knowing how hard it is to accomplish anything in any meeting, I’m not surprised they look happy. But if we take a few steps back, if we ascend like Menippus in Lucian’s story, then things don’t look so happy, for sure.
Bill McKibben in the Times (December 13), for one, emphasizes just how far the agreement is from what it should be: “the pact reached in Paris feels, in a lot of ways, like an ambitious agreement designed for about 1995.” The pledges made are both voluntary, and modest. The calculations show, quite simply, why the agreement is not enough: “If all parties kept their promises, the planet would warm by an estimated 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, or 3.5 degrees Celsius, above preindustrial levels. And that is way, way too much.” As we’re starting to realize, McKibben reminds us, Exxon Mobil is largely responsible for this state of affairs: back in the 1990s when an agreement like the present one might have made some meaningful difference, Exxon Mobil was busy spreading confusion. As the LA Times, notes: “Exxon [claimed to have] studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action.” McKibben closes his article with these three signs: . . . You can tell he doesn’t want to say the agreement serves no purpose, but the article—and perhaps all of us—clearly need to be overwhelmed by the fact that, all around us, we see more and more signs of impending climatic doom. His conclusion to another article, on Grist.org this time, ends instead with a period: “We’ll be the nagging parent/teacher/spouse. We’ll assume [world leaders] really want action. And we’ll demand they provide it.”
James Hansen, similarly, the former chief NASA climate scientist who did ring the warning bell back in 1988, doesn’t have much good to say about the agreement—if only the politicians had listened to him way back when. Again, the question is mathematical, and simple: “This is really a total fraud. You know, there’s no — we’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy. There are lots of countries that want to lift their people out of poverty. And of course, they should do that. But everybody would be better off if the price of fossil fuels was honest. It should include its cost to society.” He’s (rightly) harsh on Obama: “Well, we have to decide, are these people stupid or are they just uninformed? Are they badly advised? I think that he really believes he’s doing something. You know, he wants to have a legacy, a legacy having done something in the climate problem. But what he is proposing is totally ineffectual.” And Hansen, like McKibben, rightly reminds us that there IS a key agent in all this: “I remember writing letters complaining about the fact that ExxonMobil was funding changes to textbooks in grade school and junior high school to make it sound like we didn’t understand climate change, and we didn’t — there was no evidence that humans were causing climate change.”
Meanwhile, and this was McKibben’s point, the climate news isn’t really “in” or “coming from” Paris, but elsewhere and everywhere. Thus, we might take a look at the Times’ piece on “China’s Coast Cities, Underwater.” Paris happened-but was it an event? It’s like telling smokers who started smoking in the 1940s that now there are labels on the packets-what do they care? The industry already got their lungs.
What of the draft agreement itself? It’s here (in PDF form).
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is a thought archive and workspace of Phillip John Usher (NYU) at the crossroads of early modern humanism and the problems and insights of the Anthropocene. Main Research Page.
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Resilience (A Journal of the Environmental Humanities)
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