Climate change is one of the most significant issues affecting the planet. Many observers argue that while there have been previous international climate agreements, the Paris Agreement of 2015 is the most relevant. This agreement aims to reduce the rise of global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2030 by also reducing carbon emissions and promoting renewable energy. A total of 195 countries signed this agreement, making it a landmark victory for international climate governance.

Observers also believe that while there are much support and celebration for this progress, there is also disagreement with some vital factors. Some think the Paris Agreement is an improvement on past agreements, while others are neutral, and some are critical.

Climate Action

In Madrid from December 2-10, 2019, the COP25 conference on climate change took place. This conference came at a perfect time to facilitate an interview as many experts would be in Madrid. Additionally, it was an opportunity to hear first hand what civil society groups were saying about climate change.

The discrepancy between civil society and academia in regards to the Paris Agreement is relevant because we are already in 2020, the year that the United States will be able to leave the Paris Agreement if President Trump follows through on his promise, which would make the Agreement less effective and revolutionary than it is. When confirmed, one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters will leave a binding international treaty, which will allow the United States to increase greenhouse gas emissions and lower mitigation costs.

Climate change is an international issue as rising seas and climate migration will put tremendous pressure on nations and could lead to security issues due to the rise of climate refugees as well as political and social destabilization. Furthermore, vulnerable people will be primarily affected by factors that some consider that ex-colonizers have played a significant role in creating. As activists and personalities such as Greta Thunberg, Berta Caceres, Murielle Franco, and Leonardo DiCaprio gain more media attention, the international community needs to decide how to respond. Will there be a change in national policy? A stricter climate agreement? Or nothing? Hopefully, the outcome will not be the latter.

Climate Agreements:

Climate agreements try to reduce the process of climate change with the most recent and relevant being the Paris Agreement as we mentioned before. There are three main points of view regarding the Paris agreements. Some think it is an improvement of past agreements, others are neutral, while there are those who are critical. It can be considered an improvement as the Paris agreement contains positive aspects that have built upon past agreements such as the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols, the Rio Agreement, and the Stockholm Agreement.

Some critics claim that the Paris Agreement is a significant improvement over the Kyoto Protocol. While UN members pledged their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, many countries failed to meet the pledge agreement. The Kyoto Protocol has been criticized as ineffective, too flexible, and top-down. The Paris Agreement is for many an improvement as it is bottom-up and less flexible. It supposedly holds states accountable since it has binding and non-binding components.

On the other hand, some experts view the Montreal protocol as successful because UN member states ratified the treaty, and there was a successful cost-benefit analysis. Indeed, support for the Montreal Protocol came from state and non-state actors, an element that is also present in the Paris Agreement, and which can be seen as more successful because it incorporates more international cooperation and coordination, and mixes binding and non-binding aspects. Additionally, the Paris Agreement does an adequate job of addressing the free-rider problem. Finally, it presents a more general, inclusive, and multilateral approach to climate protection.

The Paris Agreement was an improvement on both the Kyoto and Montreal Protocols in that it is a bottom-up design and is a more multilateral approach to climate protection. However, some members of civil society would claim that the top-down structure of Kyoto was more inclusive because it was closer to equity, i.e., putting more pressure on developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the Paris Agreement is closer to equality, in that all nations must submit reduction plans.

The case of the developing countries

The representation of developing countries is another crucial aspect. Scholars who talk about the importance of the “Common But Differentiated Responsibility norm (CBDR)” remain neutral regarding the idea of the Paris Agreement being an improvement of past climate agreements. They believe that it is the primary responsibility of developed countries to combat climate change as they have contributed most to the problems and that the economic situation of developing countries needs to be taken into more significant consideration when forming international agreements. It is crucial that states and people who have generally been underrepresented gain more recognition in international treaties.

Another important aspect is that developing countries are often the ones facing the immediate effects of climate change. As Ciplet says, “while CBDR has been present in past agreements, it is mainly present in the Paris Agreement and scholars remain slightly critical of how the implementation of this idea will work in practice.” There is a fear that developing countries will continue to be marginalized and under-represented by the alleged colonial mindsets of northern heads of states.

Few academic scholars are criticizing the Paris Agreement. There are a few lines that are critical of the fossil fuel industry and powerful states’ adverse reaction to climate change action. There is also mention of the Paris Agreement not being binding enough.

Nevertheless, what is it that explains the lack of criticism of the Paris Agreement coming from academia, especially when compared to the high levels of criticism this deal has received from civil society?

Hypothetically, this could be due to the level of ideological or political closeness between academia and policy-making.

The point of view of observers

Formal interviews were conducted within the green zone of the COP 25 conference in Madrid on December 7, 2019, with three persons: Samid Suliman, a professor at Griffith University who is a postcolonial political thinker, and Jenna Farineau and Matthew Kennedy, climate activists from the NGO Action Aid.

Suliman is pleased to see the task force on displacement is gaining a foothold and being celebrated and believes that it is a useful model for how rules of international mechanisms are expressed. Furthermore, he is hopeful that there can be progress in this small area and that countries and stakeholders can come together to recognize how resources need to do more for the global south. More specifically, Suliman is interested in the representation of people of the Pacific within the current framework and WIM.

But Suliman sees that the Paris Agreement is not a sufficient change, though it is the change we have. He is highly critical of state actors and climate regimes because he believes that for them, finance is more important than people. In this regard, everything must change when it comes to climate governance. States need to be better at protecting issues such as gender rights, human rights, and indigenous rights.

Jenna Farineau and Matthew Kennedy agree with Suliman on most aspects, but they are more interested in equity and the carbon market. Like him, they believe that the Paris agreement maintains the problematic structure and does not allow for equity in terms of representation and responsibilities while also allowing for harmful loopholes that make carbon markets available. They do not believe that the Paris Agreement is sufficient in representing marginalized, vulnerable, or indigenous people. The silencing of Indigenous voices exists due to the threat felt by the dominant ex-colonizers. According to them, a carbon market allows for “rich countries to get away with murder.” Farineau and Kennedy claimed that no agreement would be reached at the COP 25 because rich countries want to maintain carbon markets that allow loopholes for releasing harmful amounts of greenhouse emissions.

Another civil society critic is Kevin Anderson, a professor of energy and Climate Change at the School of Engineering at the University of Manchester. He has been critiquing the Paris Agreement and fighting for more equity since the start of the negotiations. Anderson, a sharp critic of carbon markets, is more specifically interested in the representation and distribution of responsibilities. His views are not cited generally in academia but are prominent among members of civil society.

Civil Society v.s Academia

In conclusion, there is a gap between academia and civil society when it comes to critiquing the Paris Agreement. This gap exists due to the ideological and political closeness of academia and policy-making. Civil society allows for more diversity of opinion and tends to be more grassroots when it comes to advocating for the rights and representation of marginalized and displaced people. Civil society is exposing the lack of accountability and difficulty of negotiations that have come out of the Paris Agreement. Collective action and change in policy are being blocked by the productive liberal northern powers. Ironically, these are the very countries that will be hugely affected by climate migration.

Monica Carroll is a Political Science and International Studies student at Saint Louis University and an assistant to the Observatory on Contemporary Crises.

To quote this article, please use the following reference:

M. Carroll (2020). “Climate change: A critical approach”, Observatory on contemporary crises, February 7, 2020, URL: http://crisesobservatory.es/climate-change-a-critical-approach-m-carroll/