Posted by: Matthew Hoffmann | July 31, 2015

Paris 2015 and the Necessity, but Tyranny of Big, Defining Moments in the Response to Climate Change

With apologies to REM, it’s the end of the world as we know it … again. The world will gather in Paris at the end of 2015 for the latest round of climate negotiations and the latest “last chance to save the world.” Robert Redford, Prince Charles, the Guardian newspaper, Jeffrey Sachs to name but a few are all proclaiming the Paris climate negotiations to be some version of humanity’s last, best chance to put in place an effective response to climate change that will avert what many see as coming climate catastrophe. I say “again” because these kind of statements are eerily familiar for those that paid attention to the run up to the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. Nicholas Stern, Gordon Brown, and diverse activists trumpeted similar warnings then.

The point of raising the déjà vu feeling around descriptions of Paris is expressly NOT to critique those trying to raise the sense of urgency around the Paris negotiations. The people who claimed that 2009 was the last chance to avoid climate catastrophe could very well be right—given what climate scientists are learning about how much warming we’re already locked-in to and the difficulties we’ve seen with bending the emissions curve in a serious way. We need significant and increasing urgency around Paris 2015 and everyone should push for an aggressive agreement. Instead I point out the Groundhog Day-like repetition to call attention to the necessity, but tyranny of the “Big, Defining Moment”.

The allure of the Big, Defining Moment and the strategy that goes into periodically making the annual climate negotiations Big, Defining Moments is clear. The world has operated for the last 25 or so year on the assumption (perhaps faulty as lots of academic research shows) that solving climate change must start with a grand international bargain. Paris is the next chance to cement a bargain and hence the strategy of upping the ante on the urgency in the lead up to the negotiations. The heightened anxiety in the discourse is, at least in part, about building momentum to the Big, Defining Moment. It is probably working. We are seeing significant momentum building—from the Pope’s encyclical, to celebrity involvement, to announcements from the US and China about progress that’s already being made. This is the necessity of the Big, Defining Moment—a means to clarify the minds of the politicians and diplomats that are shaping what will become the Paris agreement as well as the minds of the public. Responding to climate change requires an enormous amount of effort. Serious political will and public pressure are necessary to fuel this effort. Big, Defining Moments are a great means to generate both…in the short term.

The tyranny of the Big, Defining Moment comes later, either when the Moment fails to deliver (as happened when Hopenhagen became Brokenhagen in 2009) or when we realize how much real work and potential for failure comes after the Moment (as the aftermath of Kyoto, a successful Moment at the time of its signing, taught us). The tyranny of the Big, Defining Moment is that the build up around it can make us forget that it is a means, not an end. These moments are only useful or important if they help catalyze and further the long-term transformation that a real response to climate change entails.

Responding to climate change is a long game with a series of focusing events along the way. We have to hope and struggle to ensure that Moments like Paris 2015 move the process of transformation forward. But we also must resist the temptation to make them more than they are. Moments must not be mistaken for solutions to climate change when they succeed and they must not be mistaken for the dashing of our last hope when they fail to live up to expectations. Decarbonization is a series of pathways and transformations that we need to invent over a long period. This mindset does not relieve the pressure to act—we need to be actively inventing and transforming and getting going quickly. We need a series of wins and Big, Defining Moments that generate both momentum in the lead up to them and results that can be built upon by nation-states, sub-national governments, cities, NGOs, and corporations. Interim moments help construct the pathways to decarbonization. But we must take care to understand the relationship between the short game of Big, Defining Moments and the long game of decarbonization. We have to ensure that our creation of Big, Defining Moments is done in the service of furthering the multiple kinds of transformation that will be ongoing after everyone goes home from Paris.

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