Intolerance in Paris: an opinion by Sunita Narain

As I write this, it is two days to the endgame at the Paris climate conference. Despite problems, everybody is clear that there will be an agreement. Let me explain why 

As I write this, it is two days to the endgame at the Paris climate conference. There has been little breakthrough on the contentious issues that elude an agreement, but still everybody is clear that there will be an agreement.

I am beginning to understand why they are so confident. Let me explain.

For the first time since the beginning of climate negotiations, the erstwhile climate renegades are in in control of the dialogue, narrative and the audience.  The Umbrella Group is a grouping led by the US and includes the biggest rich polluters,such as Australia and Japan, who have always been in the dock for not taking action to combat climate change. In Paris, these countries have done an image change.

They are now the good guys. They want the world to be ambitious in meeting not just the 2°C temperature threshold, they are pushing for even staying below 1.5°C. They say they are pushing because they care for the small island nations, which will suffer horrendous consequences with rising temperatures. They also want an effective arrangement to monitor progress and to ramp up actions to meet these targets.

How can this be wrong, responds a spellbound audience.

This makeover is not overnight, or sudden. These countries have also done their homework, so that the script is crafted skilfully and the propaganda is spread. Audaciously.

Their civil society has been cajoled that this is their time – the US NGOs’ allegiance is absolute because they (genuinely and naively) believe their government is doing all it can in spite of Republican Party opposition. Their media is in full attention – the likes of The New York Times and BBC have been seconded to scold and reprimand developing countries governments like India for misbehaviour. So, what the US government officials cannot say, their media spells it out. It is fine tactics and grand theatrics. And nobody speaks without a cue.

If you are not one of them, then the script is also pre-rehearsed for you. The promptness of the response – The New York Times published an article chastising the Indian prime minister for daring to speak about fair share of the carbon budget within hours of his speech in Paris – should tell you this.

The screenplay goes like this. If anyone raises an issue, it is first dismissed as being obstructionist. Then, it is said, these issue-raisers are anti-American or—even more reductively—anti-something. Then, if you persist, you are told you are merely an unwanted pest. You are basically told that you should get lost, because the party is over. Climate change is real and now all the emissions that could be burnt have been burnt and nothing remains.  

But you don’t give up. If you still persist and demand that the deal should be equitable – that their lack of ambition is what has put the world at risk today and that they must vacate space – their response is the ultimate shut-up.

They simply say: catastrophes are at our doorstep and you are asking for bread? How immoral and insensitive can you be? Shame on you! 

These countries forget that it is the very countries that ask for leftover crumbs that are the victims experiencing worst weather-related calamities. They have not contributed to the emissions that are causing the increase in temperature. But they are certainly worst impacted today. The stock of gases already in the atmosphere comes from the same countries that are on the high pedestal today.

The fact is the Umbrella Group has spurned all efforts to control their own runaway emissions.They have not contributed money. They have not contributed technology. They have not done anything to pay for a transition to clean energy in the developing world. Ironically, they want the transition to happen only in the developing world.

But it is also a hard fact, not an irony, that once the carbon budget is consumed – as they have done – there is little anybody can do about it other than cry injustice. It is also a fact that these countries continue to have unambitious plans to curtail their emissions. But since their takeover of the climate talks is complete, there is nobody to ask these inconvenient questions.

There is no other way to explain theabsolute lack of dialogue that exists now. In Paris, in this COP21, there seems nobody else is in attendance. There is only one narrative and no conversation. The Europeans who are hosting the conference are lost.The French, always adroit in managing conflicts, seem vacuous and irrelevant.

But it is clear that if we want live in an interdependent world, voices of dissent cannot become illegitimate or be put on mute. This is climate change intolerance. And like all intolerance, this must be resisted and won over.