Home > Building Resilience > La Grande Négociation: while we bargain, our ultimate fate comes down to acceptance

La Grande Négociation: while we bargain, our ultimate fate comes down to acceptance

December 2, 2015

I have to confess a certain reluctance in sharing my views about the Paris climate talks, knowing as I do that it’s all too easy to judge from a distance while so many wonderful, dedicated colleagues are in Paris trying to ensure that some kind of meaningful, tangible progress is achieved at COP21. And, after all, the talks have only just begun.

That said, a few things already seem pretty likely:

  • There will be some kind of agreement reached, if only because negotiators are determined not to repeat the disaster of COP15 in Copenhagen.
  • The agreement will be insufficient to limit warming to at or below 2° Celsius, the goal established six years ago. Left alone, the pledges submitted by countries to date will have us overshoot that mark by nearly 1°C or more. Therefore, the Paris agreement will be spun—in the words of Christiana Figueres (Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change)—as “the start of a long journey.” Even though the UNFCCC journey started fully 21 years ago.
  • To square the gap between what’s pledged and what’s needed, we’ll likely hear increasing talk about “negative emissions” technologies, despite the fact that these technologies remain theoretical, unproven, or questionable at scale. It reminds me a little of that famous “then a miracle occurs” cartoon.
  • A major sticking point to getting all countries to sign onto any agreement is the question of historical responsibility and the concern of poorer nations that climate mitigation not hamper their continued “development.” China’s President, Xi Jinping, said in a speech on the first day of the Paris talks that “addressing climate change should not deny the legitimate needs of developing countries to reduce poverty and improve living standards.”
  • Another key question is whether the Paris agreement will be legally binding. In this, countries’ preferences may come down to their political realities at home. It’s kind of hard for President Obama to commit to a legally binding agreement (which would require ratification) when he’s busy trying to fend off Congressional attempts to undo his Clean Power Plan and block US contributions to the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

So at the end of this historic meeting we may well wind up with a nonbinding agreement that badly overshoots the 2°C target, doesn’t go into effect until 2020, ends ten years later, and counts on unproven technologies and unspecified promises of financial aid to countries most at risk. It’s hard to square that with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s opening admonition: “We cannot afford indecision, half measures or merely gradual approaches. Our goal must be a transformation.”

Despite all this, I happen to agree with those that believe an agreement in Paris is absolutely critical, even if it is woefully, dangerously insufficient – especially if that agreement has transparency provisions and legally-binding periodic reviews, which President Obama champions. It’s much easier to build momentum when you’re already moving forward, however slowly and haltingly.


It’s only day 3 of the meetings, but I’ve already come to one conclusion: As a society, we’re still stuck in the bargaining phase of Kübler-Ross’s Stages of Grief.

Yes, there’s actual bargaining taking place between climate negotiators at COP21. But I’m talking about a larger, more systemic bargaining that’s occurring: Our attempts to respond to the existential threat of climate change while holding desperately to our extractive, growth-and-consumption-based way of life. But as PCI Fellow Bill McKibben likes to say, “Physics and chemistry don’t bargain.”

It’s not only world leaders who are trying to mitigate the climate crisis while maintaining “business as usual.” Too many environmentalists are engaged in their own version of bargaining—placing their faith in the assertion that all our energy needs can be met affordably from wind, solar, and water technologies by 2050. Now, I would agree with this claim if we thought long and hard about what we mean by the word “needs.” But the (sometimes spoken but more often unspoken) expectation is that we won’t “need” to significantly change how we live.

The rationale, of course, is that “our way of life” is currently non-negotiable and so we must operate within the political realities of the day if we’re to have any hope of making some kind of climate progress. And that’s true to a point. In fact, it’s precisely what’s led to the kind of agreement we’re likely to get out of Paris—incremental, insufficient, with lots of prayers and promises that technology will save the day.

Ultimately, we have no choice but to move from the bargaining stage of grief to that of acceptance. The choice we do have is what grief we’ll have to accept – the end of the American-style “way of life” or the end of humanity altogether.

This is where I’m focusing my efforts. It’s also where the U.S. climate movement can step forward yet again because, frankly, there doesn’t seem to be anyone else capable of doing it.

A couple of years ago, Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Network) and I argued in a co-authored white paper that the climate movement should embrace post-growth economics and invest some of their time, energy, and capital to building community resilience. We argued then, and still do, that local efforts to dramatically reduce energy consumption and produce sustainable energy and food are vital strategies to stabilize the climate. Not only do they help individuals and communities mitigate and adapt to climate change, they offer a compelling alternative to the American way of life that is setting us on a crash course with the real limits of nature.

Thankfully, I see five things that the climate movement has in its favor:

  1. Renewable energy costs are down and market penetration is up, while fossil fuel companies—thanks to low prices and increasing marginal costs—are hurting. Alternatives seem possible.
  2. Recognition of the climate threat has gained broad acceptance (the laughable views of recalcitrant deniers notwithstanding) and is finally reaching the point of international policy, however insufficient.
  3. Since Copenhagen six years ago, the climate movement has actually become that in more than name—an international movement that’s fairly well organized, is embracing direct action, and can be quickly mobilized.
  4. There is a growing awareness of links between the fossil fuel system/climate change and social justice, humanitarian crises, human health, and other planetary boundary issues. The climate crisis is a systems crisis.
  5. We have entered an era of new economic, energy, and climate “normals.” The benefits of economic growth and consumerism are being felt by fewer and fewer Americans. People are increasingly looking for an alternative.

In the six years between the failure at Copenhagen and the likely marginal victory at Paris, the climate movement has made great progress. But as we literally and figuratively leave Paris and return home, the hard but important and rewarding work really begins.

Read in French.

10 Comments, RSS

  • Useful to measure the progress against Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. We benefit from doing “grief work” as well as study, inner work as well as outer.

  • Good post. Whatever the agreement or lack of agreement in Paris,
    we need profound systemic transformation at every level from households to
    economics and trade agreements if we are to solve global warming.

    The transition to a life-sustaining society, as LivingField
    notes, involves inner psychological work, non-punitive childrearing, supportive
    relationships within businesses, and the like, along with renewable energy and
    other technological innovations…a whole system change.

    Transition Towns folks and the climate movement are not the
    only players. There are millions of groups working on aspects of constructive
    change. This is good news. We can make common cause in aspiring to catalyse a transition to a life-sustaining society

    For us to succeed, in addition to on the ground work we need
    to catalyse massive public will for transformation. The millions of groups can
    play a role by communicating with their networks about systemic change.

    Inspiring Transition is a platform for supporting a non-hierarchical
    open source community of practice acting as citizen educators. It has
    innovative communication tools and imaginative tactics including structured
    personal conversations, guerrilla marketing and social media. http://www.inspiringtransition.net tells more.

  • If billions of people are going to be brought out of poverty, we will need to dramatically raise energy per capita. If our economy is going to be resilient against threats like ocean acidification and the drying out of arid regions, we will need a new form of low cost desalination. Essentially, we need major breakthroughs in energy.

    What if we could cheaply decarbonize natural gas? With recent developments this possibility is looking a lot more likely (see methane cracking). What if nuclear had the potential of being deployed at the rate of over a hundred gigawatts per year? Again, there have been some proposals that look capable of doing this (see ThorCon).

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/11/151119103553.htm (methane cracking)

    http://www.c4tx.org/thorcon/pub/exec_summary.pdf (ThorCon MSR system)

  • Christiane Kliemann

    I absolutely agree. Here is what I wrote along the same lines quite a time ago: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-06-10/are-we-prepared-to-change-to-prevent-climate-change

  • I would contend that we are collectively — even if we just consider the well-informed — not even at the bargaining stage. Those individuals that I know continue to live their big footprint lifestyles without a shimmer of guilt. Even those who are aware of overshoot are not willing to consider alternative ways of living.

  • It is really good to hear some optimism from you, but, you mention the need for legally binding reviews. This week I read these two (from George Monbiot & Make Wealth History), so, I wonder how you think they would be effective?
    The UK is now the only G7 nation substantially to increase its subsidies for fossil fuels: this year, George Osborne granted a further £1.7 billion of tax breaks for extracting oil and gas from the North Sea. Cameron has imposed, through the Infrastructure Act 2015, a legal obligation on the government to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas. As it also has a legal obligation (through the Climate Change Act 2008) to minimise the burning of oil and gas, this creates something of a quandary. But no one in the government appears to care. http://www.monbiot.com/2015/12/02/churchill-syndrome/

    Between 2012 and 2014 Britain disbursed £1.7 billion in loans to fossil fuel projects of one kind or another, including coal. http://makewealthhistory.org/2015/12/02/time-to-stop-funding-coal/

  • Very strange that none of you are mentioning the most effective way to at least partly solve the problem: Reducing our numbers does not need any technological breakthroughs, about half a dozen already existing technologies can be used, and they cost almost nothing (condomemes, small pills, IUCD etc.)
    Also very strange that none of you people are mentioning the C word. Capitalism is the main obstacle to ending the American way of life.
    Why are you not mentioning these two things? I know why. As Long as you are wedded to Christian religions you cannot mention population control. And if you criticise capitalism you are communists. Both are sins for you Americans.
    At least show some courage. Nobody will be sentenced to death for mentioning these two factors.
    Saral Sarkar (www.eco-socialist.blogspot.com)
    Cologne (Germany), 4.11.2015

  • Matt, you make a good point. You are right, of course, that most Americans haven’t even come close to the point of bargaining, because there’s really nothing they’ve been asked yet to change. I was thinking more specifically of the early adopters (~12.5% of the population) who are engaged. If the theory of the Diffusion of Innovations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_innovations) is valid, then this is the key sector of the population that needs to be moved first. And they, in my view, are mostly still bargaining.

  • Saral, addressing population is absolutely critical and is something that we at PCI do speak out about. See the work of PCI Fellow Bill Ryerson: http://www.postcarbon.org/our-people/bill-ryerson/.

    As is evident in both the post and the paper cited above, we name the fixation on economic growth as a primary barrier. Some — like Naomi Klein — emphasize capitalism, instead. Bottom line, the current economic system is patently unsustainable and at odds with stabilizing the climate.

  • Over the longer term, better family planning will be important, but particularly more important in developing countries. This factor can be more easily influenced by raising energy per capita (more: shelter, potable water, food, lighting/heating/cooling, medical care, education, etc.).

    If industrial carbon emissions are to be eliminated on a timescale that is going to help us mitigate risks like ocean acidification and warming (think mass extinction risk, similar to The Great Dying of 250 million years ago), then we need to consider technologies that can rapidly grow the carbon-free economy at a rate of hundreds of gigawatts per year. At $1/watt, the global energy system would require over $10 trillion to replace (global heat equivalent energy is about 16 TW). Global consumption of energy is expected to rise by 2-3 times over the rest of this century as developing nations try to climb out of poverty. Tens of $trillions is the assessment of the value of remaining fossil reserves. Current renewable deployment heavily depends upon these fossil reserves! That is why many scientists and engineers looking at this problem are focusing upon near term advanced nuclear and fossil decarbonization technologies.

    So, I would say that this fixation upon destroying the economy is the surest way to condemn civilization to destruction while making sure that efforts to mitigate climate and its effects become impossible. We need a lot more energy, not less!

    In short, Naomi Klein does not really understand the problem, and so her remedies are incredibly wide of the mark. We are in the middle of a mass extinction event, and if this technology problem is not resolved relatively soon, we can look forward to becoming part of it.

    Ocean acidification and The Great Dying:


    If things get too warm, a large part of the Earth’s oxygen production could be turned off:


    Dr. Kerry Emanuel’s talk @ PARC, “What we know about climate change”:


    Inconvenient truths for the environmental movement: