Imagine if the 10 Commandments were written under the same political constraints as the just-completed climate change accord in Paris.
“We cannot do this,” Secretary of State John Kerry would tell Moses as he saw the word “shall” chiseled into the stone tablets. And so Moses would have to go back up the mountain, in the face of what he knew would be the consequences of defying the laws of nature and nature’s God, and chiseled “should” every place the commandments had called for “shall.”
And just as changing “shall” to “should” would change the 10 Commandments to the 10 Suggestions, that word change – insisted on by Kerry in order to conform to the political limits set by a Republican opposition sold out to the fossil-fuel lobby – marks the difference between a binding order that nations act together to slow climate change and promises issued by what climate activist Bill McKibben called “an international circus” in his post-Paris essay.
It’s a bit like hearing an overweight groom say he’s going to drop three suit sizes in time for his wedding in a month, McKibben wrote. Nice promise, just like the promise in the agreement that the world would “hold the rise in the planet’s temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius (from about 1 degree Celsius now). Heck, it promises to aim for 1.5 degrees, which is extraordinary.”
He goes on to write, though, that “once you get past the promises part, the actual plans submitted by various governments commit the world to a temperature rise of 3.5 degrees, which is more or less the same as hell. It’s a broken planet. This is the difference between hoping and doing — a common enough part of the human condition.”
Nonetheless, Joe Romm at Climate Progress lauds what came out of Paris as “a literally world-changing deal that was almost unthinkable just a year ago.” The good news, in his view, is that 186 nations have made pledges to reduce or slow their carbon emissions, and there is a process in the accords that would allow for those pledges to be reviewed and ratcheted up, starting in 2018.
Certainly the Republican political leadership, and the fossil fuel interests that bankroll the party leaders, aren’t treating the climate agreement as a set of empty promises. The ink had barely dried on the accords before The Wall Street Journal published a roundup showing how Republicans “have vowed to unravel” U.S. participation in the agreement. The vows unite so-called “establishment” presidential candidates like Jeb Bush and right-wing populist “outsiders” like Ted Cruz. The article quotes Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as chiding President Obama for taking credit “for an agreement that is subject to being shredded in 13 months.”
So while you may agree with McKibben that this climate agreement – as unprecedented as it is – still pales in face of the peril we face as a consequence of our fossil fuel reliance, it still surpasses the limits of a Republican leadership that won’t accept even a step back from “shall” to “should.” If this were the 10 Commandments, they’d be the people fighting to delete the word “not,” driven to deny any compulsion to take what Romm calls “humanity’s best chance to avoid decades if not centuries of needless suffering for billions of people.”
The important focus now is the one area where Romm’s bright-side analysis of the climate deal and McKibben’s decidedly more dour view converge: the opportunity and the need for each of us as citizens to push nations to keep their pledges to combat climate change – and to call out the Republican politicians who are standing in the way.
“This deal is a vindication for the climate movement’s strategy to mobilize a grassroots effort aimed at keeping carbon in the ground (as with Keystone XL); get institutions and others to disinvest in dirty energy, while shifting capital to clean energy; and push as hard as possible for a warming target below 2° Celsius,” Romm wrote.
“The world’s governments have now announced their intentions,” McKibben wrote. “And so the rest of us can hold them to those promises, or at least try. What, you want to build a pipeline? I thought you were going to go for 1.5 degrees. You want to frack? Are you fracking kidding me?”
Using the promises in the agreement, he said, “We’ll be the nagging parent/teacher/spouse. We’ll assume they really want action. And we’ll demand they provide it. Game on.”