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Paris’s Shortcomings: We Need Conservation, Not Conversation

By David de Rothschild, National Geographic Emerging Explorer As the ink dries on the Paris negotiations, and I finally get back home from there, I can’t but help find myself wading through all the news coverage and rather than feeling the same elation and satisfaction that seems to radiate out of every article, photograph, and...

By David de Rothschild, National Geographic Emerging Explorer

As the ink dries on the Paris negotiations, and I finally get back home from there, I can’t but help find myself wading through all the news coverage and rather than feeling the same elation and satisfaction that seems to radiate out of every article, photograph, and news interview, I oddly find myself feeling more alone and more confused than ever before.

It’s official. I am now becoming that person I always said I wouldn’t: the grumpy, ranting pessimist.

What’s going on? Has the whole world become brainwashed by the feel-good global rhetoric flowing out of Paris? Good people that I have respected and learnt from over the years are now sending texts and emails around as if the war is finally over, as if somehow everything we’ve been fighting for all these years has now once and for all been solved. Time to pack up and clear out the desk—we can all go back to our day jobs!

I feel that we are facing a new environmental nightmare, and that in the old nightmare at least there was a marginal honesty to the dishonesty, since we admitted that we weren’t doing enough. So now I unleash my newfound grumpiness and call foul to the Paris Agreement.

Haiti’s brown landscape contrasts sharply with the rich forests of its neighbor. (Photo by James P. Blair/National Geographic Creative)

A Good Start … 

If you (like most people) only read the top line of this agreement then you will think we have suddenly found the rallying call that we’ve all been waiting for to end our 100+ years of fossil fuel addiction. It leads you think we now have a global consensus from governments around the world, and will seamlessly and almost effortlessly transition into a low-carbon economy, with no interruption to “service as usual.”

It feels like telling an addict that if he sticks to a course of methadone at some point he will no longer crave heroin, knowing full well that methadone is more addictive and harder to withdraw from. In other words, it seems Paris is just delaying the inevitable and is acting as nothing more than a distracting soundbite. Yes, the agreement is the first to commit all countries to cut carbon emissions and yes, it has aims to keep us on track to keep our global temperature rise “well below” 2°C (3.6°F) higher than pre-industrial levels (although still higher than the 1.5°C (2.7°F) limit that was pushed desperately by the coalition of at-risk Pacific Island countries) and yes, for the first time developed countries across the world have agreed to help others adapt to rising seas, devastating droughts, food shortages, and the other impacts of global warming.

However maybe there was a reason the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, called on everyone to now “finish the job.” Not only are the commitments low, but they’re not legally binding. The word “binding” is never used. “Voluntary” appears 14 times. The only clauses of the agreement that are “legally binding” are those that refer to process, reporting mechanisms, and supporting the goals of the 31-page treaty, not the results themselves.

Nothing to Bind Them

So why then was there no legally binding, enforceable greenhouse gas reduction target? Look back at what happened at the previous conference in Copenhagen, when that had been the goal. With that failure in mind, the decision was made that this time, rather than risk hitting another dead end so publicly, it would be better to play it safe with a neatly phrased, non-committal system.

Such an idea had been kicking around since the Warsaw COP in 2013: Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Put simply, prior to the talks in Paris, every country was invited to put forward what they plan to do about climate change, and how they plan to cut their emissions post-2020, and this would then form the basis of the negotiations. In other words, the parties could say, “here is our best effort and as long as it’s not enforceable, I don’t mind adding our name to a published outcome.”

There is also the problem that this system makes the dangerous assumption that we actually have figured out a precise link between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the global temperature responses we see! The reality is that if you ask any credible scientist, they will tell you that when it comes to simply understanding—let alone predicting—future temperature thresholds, it’s still pretty much a massive guessing game. Just throw self perpetuating feedback loops like permafrost melt into the mix and you have uncertainty that the best climate models can only estimate.

What We Could Lose While We Wait

For me though, far more worrying than the lack of a legally binding mechanism or the assumptions of the goal setting has to be the fact that currently no one is obliged to do anything of substance until 2020. Knowing that we’re currently on a trajectory that will see us end up somewhere between 4°C and 5°C of warming, can we really afford to wait another five years before we even start to act on the Paris discussions? The answer has to quite emphatically and simply be NO!, which is why I must keep coming back to championing the inclusion of Nature in these conversations. (Learn about giving Nature an official voice at the UN.)

If you are to take just the destruction of the planet’s lungs (our tropical forests) as an example, while it’s hard to pin down the exact numbers, most experts agree that we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rain forest every day. Factor in a statistic that says conservatively we’re loosing anywhere between 135-200 plant, animal, and insect species every day, and you realize that between now and 2020, we stand to lose 1,460,000,000 acres of tropical forest and 273,750 species!

Supporting the Real Heroes

This is why I think we have to be careful not to congratulate people and parties just for conversations and soundbites. We need to give the same amount of support and praise to the real conservationists, the people who right now, this very moment, day in day out, are risking their lives to support each and every one of us. These often unseen people and tribes don’t just view Nature as a statistic but rather as their mentor, their teacher, their partner, their brother, their mother. Nature can no longer be analysed unemotionally by a few. Rather, it must become front-and-center in all of our lives. It is the fabric that runs through each and everyone one of us and without this we can not survive let alone flourish.

So while I won’t deny that what happened during COP 21 represented a major milestone, if I am to tuck my nieces and nephews into bed with a clear conscience then I know deep down I need to do everything I can to bring attention to distinguish between diplomacy and implementation and between implementation and conservation, between throwing out statistics and actually supporting Nature.

While we all might have been easily ushered into thinking that the diplomats have done their job in Paris, this agreement doesn’t ensure implementation, action, or most importantly, a voice for Nature and those who protect it.

This part remains the domain of you and me. It requires all of us to act like there is no tomorrow today. We need to rise up and take back what is each and everyone’s responsibility: To leave Nature in a better place then when it was handed to us.


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