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Flame In Darkness: The Paris Accord

Updated on December 12, 2015
Homo sapiens:  The museum view.  Image by Veronique Pagnier, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Homo sapiens: The museum view. Image by Veronique Pagnier, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Is this the day we reclaim that little word 'sapiens?' It means 'wise' or 'knowing', and it is, famously, the specific modifier in the official taxonomic term for us: homo sapiens.

It's long been been viewed with a cynical eye. How could a group so prone to fads, superstitions, pointless casual cruelties, Ponzi schemes, thoughtless ignorance, and conflicts ranging from petty snits to and full-on tantrums to racism, classism, feuds and wars, possibly merit the term 'wise?'

Yet as I sit typing these words, delegates in Paris are filing in to await the revelation of the draft of a new climate treaty. It is meant to replace the more-or-less unsatisfactory Kyoto Accord, and it has been elusive. It was to come in 2009 in Copenhagen, but only a watered-down interim text was agreed, when a few objector nations blocked an agreement acceptible to most of the world. The debacle followed the release of a set of emails stolen from a British university server, spun to suggest that climate scientists were engaging in a massive 'scam'.

The outcome left diplomats, climate activists and citizens dispirited. It ensured that for several years there would be no coordinated international response to the climate crisis. And public discourse on the topic became poisoned, with a determined coterie continuing to insist loudly upon the 'scam' narrative, despite the fact that full reading of the emails showed otherwise: "Climategate" was simply a modern instance of the maxim, attributed to the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, that:

If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.

Archbishop Richelieu, by Paul Delaroche, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Archbishop Richelieu, by Paul Delaroche, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Yet six years later, in a Paris wounded by terror, the world has apparently reached an accord. There, it is now noon--here, six AM. I sit at my computer, watching scraps of news dribble in on BBC's live coverage page. The dog and cat have been fed, and, disinterested in this early morning anomaly, have gone back to sleep. The Christmas candles shine from our kitchen windows out into the predawn darkness.

For we have an agreement. Just as I typed those words, the BBC updated:

Draft agreement is legally binding, says conference president

Posted at


This text contains the principal elements that we did feel before would be impossible to achieve. It is differentiated, fair, durable, dynamic, balanced and legally binding. It is faithful to the Durban mandate.

Laurent Fabius

French Foreign Minister and President of COP21

It's UN-speak at its finest! But I can make some guesses:

  • "Differentiated"--accomodating developing nations, who need to rise from poverty
  • "fair"--acceptible to developed nations
  • "durable"--nobody is too drastically upset with the text
  • "dynamic"--it has a five-year update cycle to respond to evolving needs and opportunities
  • "balanced"--well, just how I don't know, quite frankly, but no doubt there will be reams of clarification
  • "legally binding"--not just voluntary guidelines, like the fictional "Pirate's Code." That's a whole can of worms; the US needs a text that can be acted upon by the Executive Branch, and not by a hostile legislature, yet many nations insist that the agreement must carry some sort of legal commitment.

Now Fabius has actually used the 'h-word', calling the draft an "historic turning point." He has urged delegates to accept the text, calling it a last chance:

Today if we fail, how could we rebuild this hope?

He is right. After so much delay, so much wasted time, with atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm and the second of two consecutive record-warm years about to enter the record book; with millions of refugees seeking asylum from drought-driven conflict; and above all, with just a few years remaining to rein in our emissions, we don't want just a "Copenhagen with more police."

Protest during Cophenhagen COP.  Image by 'EPO', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Protest during Cophenhagen COP. Image by 'EPO', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Now Fabius, amid a standing ovation, has turned the floor over to Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the UN, who also calls the document 'historic', describing this as a 'defining moment.' But what will the 'definition' say?

For my worst fear has not come to pass: we do have an agreement. (I seem to need to say this over and over.) The plenary session, surely, cannot fail to adopt the text negotiated with such intensity over three nearly sleepless days. "Let us finish the job; the whole world is watching," says Ban:

We must not let the quest for perfection be the enemy of the common good.

But how wide will be the 'ambition gap'--the difference between what we really need to do, and what we can politically afford to agree to do? And will the provisions of the text survive in practice around the world--most particularly in the Congress of the United States, where legislative majorities in both chambers are in the hands of anti-science ideologues who deny that there is even a problem?

But that's a problem for tomorrow. Now French President Hollande is urging the delegates to accept an "ambitious but realistic" text. There is only one question:

Do we want an agreement?

Laurent Fabius, 2007.  Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Laurent Fabius, 2007. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oh, yes. Here, on the 'red clay hills of Georgia,' some of us want an agreement very, very badly indeed. Here, as around the world, we watch, dreaming that the future will be one in which our children and grandchildren will be able to live lives not constrained by want, instability, disorder, privation and disaster; that our world will not be impoverished beyond recognition by the loss of innumerable species, gone forever under an onslaught of change too rapid for them; and that just perhaps, this 'defining moment'--in which we come together, 196 nations strong, to accept an imperfect but hopeful compromise--reclaims for us as a species a modicum of wisdom.

President Hollande says:

The agreement will not be perfect for everyone, if everyone reads it with only their own interests in mind. We will not be judged on a clause in a sentence, but on the text as a whole. We will not be judged on a word, but on an act.

May it be so.

Photo by author.
Photo by author.


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    • profile image

      Ivan Hernandez 

      3 years ago

      Did you hear the news? Donald Trump decided to opt out of the Paris Accord. How does this make you feel?

    • profile image

      P. Orin Zack 

      5 years ago

      So, how do we go about changing the linguistic ways these issues are framed.

      One example that has bothered me is the concept of something being designed to handle a 'XX-year event' such as a big flood. The framing assumes some static baseline with a bell-shaped distribution of events of various sizes. An event of a size that had occurred on average once in a hundred years will always occur on average once in a hundred years, so you can plan for it. But if the baseline is shifting, what was once considered a 100-year event might now be expected to happen once in 50 years if today's baseline were to remain unchanged. But if that baseline is in motion, which is what we're faced with, the best you can do is to emulate a financial trick and assume a moving average that for the moment projects a 50-year average recurrence. And all you end up with is a more technical way of being in denial.

      We can also use maps differently.

      Since we can already see the shape of the change curve, we can draw maps showing what the likely results are in the way that a range of possible hurricane paths are charted, so warnings can be issued. In twenty years, for instance, the coastline could be from this edge at best case, to that edge at worst case, and it won't reverse, so how do we respond?

      Similarly, we can draw maps showing where growing areas for various crops might be moving to at best and worst case. The further out you go, the sketchier the projection, but doing so would still make it clear that the prime wheat belt is moving from where all of the agricultural real estate had been, towards areas that has been developed for industry, and is therefore not going to be available to grow that wheat.

      That sort of thing could get through to people what the far-ranging effects of the climate changes are. Where do the products you rely on made now? What happens when in a short time, that is no longer feasible?

    • Doc Snow profile imageAUTHOR

      Doc Snow 

      5 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      That's a very good point--and a writerly one, too. I suppose that's one of the Lilliputian 'gossamer threads' restraining the Gulliver of a coherent, rational, social response. But you've given me something to consider as I go about framing my discourse!

    • profile image

      P. Orin Zack 

      5 years ago

      It's easy to deny that our planet's climate is no longer maintaining stasis when the effects don't seem to affect you personally. (So, someone you don't know is in dire straits because of it, why worry?) Denial becomes more of a party game when the change affects you directly -- look for excuses and special circumstances that make it seem a low-probability but wholly expected incident, but hardly reason for concern. After all, this 4-year drought is an aberration from normal, and things with be better before long. The problem there is continuing to use words that imply we're experiencing something abnormal. Drought implies that the lack of rain isn't the normal way of things, and prevents you from thinking in terms of it being the new normal. The words we use quietly frame the narrative. If you say that it's yet another violent hurricane season, you're framing the narrative to say that a normal season is not violent. But if our changed climate has altered the conditions under which hurricanes form and travel, then the violence might now be the expected result, and a gentle hurricane season is something to make note of. Words are powerful, and that power is seldom noticed.

    • Doc Snow profile imageAUTHOR

      Doc Snow 

      5 years ago from Camden, South Carolina


      No, not anything really substantive. There's been a certain amount of chat about the lack of an enforcement mechanism. Denialati see that as further proof that it's yet more 'scam'. Personally, I have difficulty imagining any such mechanism containing consequences remotely as aversive as the consequences of failure.

    • profile image

      P. Orin Zack 

      5 years ago

      It's been awfully quiet here. Have you seen anything about what will come of the agreements?

    • Doc Snow profile imageAUTHOR

      Doc Snow 

      5 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      An interesting and important question. I think that government holds the whip hand over much of the world--but business has considerable influence or control over events, particularly where core governmental interests are not in play.

      Then, too, if John Kerry is right about the global 'energy transformation' being a huge economic opportunity, business interests will be increasingly active in promoting rather than opposing change. (I'm certainly eager to see what the market does with my little bitty potfolio of solar energy stocks Monday.)

    • profile image

      P. Orin Zack 

      5 years ago

      I also wonder which agreement will take precedence here in the US, the Paris climate accord or the Trans Pacific Partnership? The latter gives transnational corporations the ability to force national governments to vacate laws and rules that they assert would cause them to lose potential profit. That's been spoken about in terms of consumer and environmental protection, and it has already begun. If the changes required to abide by the agreement cut into the profits of those corporations, we'd have a conflict between governments and corporations.

      There's considerable history about the power relationship between these two types of actor, and national governments have in the past been the tools of business interests. That's not the way the narrative is presented to most people, but it was nonetheless the case.

      In the short story series I wrote recently, I posited that even those corporate interests were the pawns in a larger game of money and power, but it doesn't matter who the top predator really is. As long as national governments are only one faction, agreements among them can have only limited effects.

    • Doc Snow profile imageAUTHOR

      Doc Snow 

      5 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      Hey, Orin, thanks for chiming in!

      Yes, I remember that piece. Twain at his most sardonic was probably only second to Ambroise Bierce, who I think was the 'ne plus ultra' of that quality.

      Though you are unquestionably reasonable in your caution--the highway to hell being paved with old AC/DC records and something else I'm not recalling just now, after all--I don't feel sardonic. I just feel happy.

      Yes, there are and will be questions galore--for one, will it be ratified by enough Parties to come into force? By the text, that requires a minimum of parties *whose emissions account for at least 55% of the global total*--and we have known all along that the US will not be among that number. Since the US accounts for about 18% of global emissions, that means we essentially need countries accounting for 2/3s of emissions to sign on.

      But there's also:

      How well will nations comply? How adequate are the provisions? How achievable are the treaty's aims at this time, regardless of what the treaty says?

      Don't know, and won't worry too much about it today. I'm in the land of Scarlett O'Hara, where, famously, 'tomorrow is another day.'

    • profile image

      P. Orin Zack 

      5 years ago

      Hi Doc. In a way, the moment feels like Twain's most subversive piece, The War Prayer. After the messenger from on high illuminated the gathered about the unspoken part of their plea to the almighty, it was decided there was no sense in what he had said, and they all went back to business --- war --- as usual.

      So let's keep our fingers crossed that the agreement doesn't get buried under an avalanche of spin intended to prevent any useful outcome.


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