International climate agreements: useful or useless?

Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has put the status of the international processes on climate change in doubt. In this discussion Green Agenda editor Simon Copland and researcher Felicity Gray debate whether Trump’s withdrawal should mean the end of the international climate process.

Simon Copland: the UNFCC process has been an ineffective waste

I want to be very clear that in large part I do not agree with the reasoning behind Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement. It seems clear that Trump’s decision was based on a climate scepticism, which has been pushed heavily by the Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, and his top advisor, Steve Bannon. This scepticism is obviously a position I do not hold. Secondly, and more importantly, Trump’s ‘America First’ rhetoric represents a form of crude nationalism, which has overemphasised the potential encroachment on national sovereignty that comes from these agreements.   

Image: Mark Dixon (Flickr)

However, given that Trump has now made his decision to abandon the Paris Agreement, I think this should open space for a rethinking of the international climate process, expressed through the annual Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, shaped by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

I made this argument for two core reasons.

First is that these processes have been an abject failure. The landmark Paris Agreement for example, called by many a turning point for our climate, is nothing more than an extraordinarily weak agreement, which sets ambition that is nowhere near strong enough for what our planet requires. The agreement has no enforcement mechanisms, nor any accountability for countries who break the rule. As renowned climate science James Hansen for example said “It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises.” This is not just a problem with Paris, but is a symptom that is endemic to an international process which appeals to the lowest common denominator — i.e. one that has to make extreme concessions to ensure countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and even Australia, take part.

The landmark Paris Agreement for example, called by many a turning point for our climate, is nothing more than an extraordinarily weak agreement, which sets ambition that is nowhere near strong enough for what our planet requires

Yet, if this deal did have enforcement mechanisms, I think it would be even more problematic. Over the last decades we’ve seen an anti-democratic retreat from global Governments into technocratic policy formation organisations — i.e. the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and even the EU. Coinciding with an increasing tendency toward anti-political sentiment, these organisations have taken decision making away from the general population in an attempt to ‘de-politicise’ essential functions of Government. These moves are not only highly undemocratic, but work to actively limit the capacity for discussion and debate on important social and political issues.

While I think when applied to Paris this criticism is potentially overblown (because the agreement is so weak), when looking at the discourse around the need for ‘legally enforceable international climate agreements’ I think it is an issue of real concern. To change everything requires real democratic involvement, something which international agreements do not supply. Instead they not only suck away the attention of National Governments (who spend more time negotiating deals than working to reduce emissions), but also sop up the energy of grassroots organisations, in a way that is neither empowering, nor democratic. At a time when we need all hands on deck, the international process once again gives power to the few at the one, a few that time and time again have proven themselves completely untrustworthy on this issue.

Felicity Gray: despite challenges, globalism is still important

It’s true. The Paris Agreement, and the process by which it was negotiated, is far from perfect. Simon is correct to highlight that it leaves much to be desired, particularly in terms of enforcement and participation. But that doesn’t mean that, with Trump’s recent exit, we should abandon global cooperation to tackle climate change. In fact, such a step would be a disaster for the planet.

Few international agreements – on climate, or otherwise – are perfect. However, these agreements reflect the realities of the system in which we operate, and in which dangerous global warming is occurring: a system where national governments are the key decision makers at a global level. It’s not clear to me that there is a viable alternative that does not reflect this fact.

Naturally, as Simon points out, for these national governments, with their competing priorities, capacities, and varying interest in tackling climate change, action is not always as strong as what is desirable because any global agreement must accommodate the lowest common denominator. But even saddled with the fossil fuel-exporting baggage of countries like Australia and the Gulf states, the Paris agreement and the global climate architecture that it sits within provide crucial political momentum. Targets may be non-binding, but the real power of these agreements is often found outside the black letter of the law. We know that non-binding ‘soft law’ prompts state action because of increased levels of political scrutiny and transparency. Importantly, the Paris Agreement sets out involuntary transparency and review mechanisms to track country progress.

the real power of these agreements is often found outside the black letter of the law

Further, contrary to Simon’s suggestion that these international commitments limit grassroots action; they  confer legitimacy for action at grassroots, local and subnational level. For example, the commitment to 1.5℃ affirmed in the Paris Agreement has become a benchmark for organisations, communities, local and state level action. Even with Trump’s inelegant exit, in the last week American cities, states and companies have formed the United States Climate Alliance, pushing to meet the Paris targets – both in spite of Trump’s exit but because of global climate cooperation. Grassroots climate organisations and activists regularly employ the language and commitments of these agreements to hold power to account.

As such, a global perspective doesn’t preclude or divert local or subnational action as Simon suggests – which is good, because we can’t make the necessary transformations alone. We need action at all levels if we are to limit warming to 1.5℃. Critical is the way these levels of action interact: we could mobilise and create the best system of community owned solar in the world, but if our government refuses to stop exporting coal, or other governments refuse to stop purchasing it, all that incredible community solar can’t arrest global warming. The positive impacts of local action are multiplied by the global architecture, not diminished — and in fact, can be rendered completely ineffectual without it.

Furthermore, it’s not clear that more democratic involvement, presumably at the national level, avoids the problem or would produce a better outcome. The reality is that today’s vested interests usually trump (!!) those of future citizens or of the planet itself — as ever, it’s about mobilising at all levels to apply pressure where it can be most effective. 

And that’s why, now more than ever, these global agreements are vital. Without the international climate process, Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement would have been just another of Trump’s many daily reckless acts. With it, it is a clearly signposted rejection of a process that cannot be ignored. His exit demands a response from the rest of the global participants — to join with him, or to double down on the commitments that were made together.

Simon Copland: there are more democratic ways to achieve action

I agree with you Felicity on some points, particularly your statement that “Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement would have been just another of Trump’s many daily reckless acts”. In fact I would go one step further and argue that Trump’s exit was the best outcome we could have asked for. First, this is because we’re seeing a bit of a backlash against Trump’s move, with some world leaders deciding to go even further on their promise, just in spite of the man. More importantly I think Trump’s exit has the potential to lift the smokescreen on the feeble nature of the UNFCCC process. In exiting the agreement Trump has emphasised just how weak and useless it is, ideally creating space for a real community movement that exists outside that process.

Despite this however this sort of ideal response is not really occurring. While some countries are talking about more aggressive action, many more are framing their ‘strong response’ to Trump simply by restating their support for Paris. In this way Paris is giving leaders political cover – making it possible, for example, for the ALP and Liberal Parties to talk big on climate change, while at the same time pushing ahead with the world’s biggest coal mine. As the most high-level climate negotiations, and a negotiation that requires the lowest common denominator in order for everyone to be involved, the UNFCCC process allows this to happen. It is a process literally designed to talk big while acting small, letting us all thing we’re doing something huge when we’re really not.

To finish off however I want to explain more on what I mean by the anti-democratic nature of these agreements. You said Felicity that “it’s not clear that more democratic involvement, presumably at the national level, avoids the problem or would produce a better outcome.” It is here where I disagree.

For decades now the climate movement have separated the power of individuals in this process from that of ‘experts’. We tell individuals they can help by changing their lightbulbs, while leaving the real policy to ‘experts’ and political leaders. It is here how we ended up with Emissions Trading being seen as the be-all-and-end-all solution of climate change; a technocratic, neoliberal, solution that no one actually understands. No wonder it has been so easy to mobilise people against them.

For decades now the climate movement have separated the power of individuals in this process from that of ‘experts’

I argue that the UNFCCC process has been part of this technocratic, democratic removal. It is undemocratic in two key ways. First these processes actively removes the ‘general population’ from any involvement in decision making, instead placing it solely in the hands of politicians, business leaders, and to a lesser extent the NGOs. At a deeper level, as the highest level of climate negotiating, the process sucks the energy of NGOs and social movements, pulling them away from other potential action. This would be fine if it facilitated real involvement, but instead this process ends up being one where limited numbers of NGO participants have a limited say inside the meeting halls, while the rest of us are stuck outside, making vague demands for action, and waiting, with hope, that some magical deal will appear.


I think there are much better alternatives to this approach, and ones that are showing real signs of success. Recognising the failures of these processes, many climate organisations have given up on them to an extent, instead focusing energy on action on the streets. Through campaigns such as the Keystone Pipeline in the US, or Stop Adani in Australia, the climate movement has managed to identity and target a clear enemy – the fossil fuel industry. These movements have built real democratic energy, and have allowed the climate movement to build solidarity with a range of different actors. This momentum over the last five years or so has been stronger than we’ve ever seen, with the coal industry in particular suddenly petering on the edge.

This success is not due to international climate agreements. In fact these agreements have held this process back, sucking out energy and providing political and business cover for those who don’t want to take action. That is why we must abandon them for a more democratic approach. 

Felicity Gray: it’s not a matter of either/or

In many ways, Simon has correctly diagnosed some problems with international climate negotiations – particularly in relation to Copenhagen, which did “suck the energy of NGOs and social movements, pulling them away from other potential action”. The movement came away with a “Copenhagen hangover” of “disappointment, suspicion and scepticism” that took a long time from which to recover.

This recovery process yielded a range of important lessons learned – particularly that international processes and policy frames cannot be the sole focus of the movement if we are to tackle dangerous global warming. Instead of solely focusing on negotiation and politics of the agreement in the lead up to Paris, the movement diversified, making connections with a range of different actors and sparking important direct action initiatives like Stop Adani and mobilisation against the Keystone Pipeline. As Simon notes, these campaigns have re-energised the movement and brought real power to bear on fossil fuel interests.

My problem with Simon’s argument is that it creates a false binary: either international processes or “action on the streets”, but not both. On the contrary, the key lesson from Copenhagen was not to put all of the campaign eggs in the same basket. That’s a core reason why we’ve seen growing momentum over the past five years – an understanding that to win this thing we cannot be singularly focused on one form of action, speaking only to one particular constituency, or aiming for one particular outcome. I’m not arguing that we cease mass mobilisation campaigns like Stop Adani – on the contrary, these actions should be supported and celebrated as vital components of achieving a fossil fuel-free future. Similarly, I’m not arguing that sole focus should be on international climate agreements (though, unlike Simon, I believe they are a necessary ingredient to success). It’s mobilising at all levels – including globally – that is going to produce the necessary outcomes.

the key lesson from Copenhagen was not to put all of the campaign eggs in the same basket.

Climate rally in Melbourne, 2009.

It’s also important to note that success is not only drawn from the climate movement and activists. Certainly, this is a critical driver of change – but it is disingenuous to suggest that the successes we’re seeing can be traced to these movements alone. The hard work of scientists and their successes in developing renewable energy technology over many decades has been key to disrupting global reliance on fossil fuels. The climate movement interconnects with this work in many ways, but without cheap alternatives to coal and gas, it would be much more difficult for climate activist groups to pack a punch with their campaigns.

Finally, I believe it is important that we reflect carefully on what walking away from international climate agreements would mean in practice for those already feeling the front line impacts of global warming. Though, as both Simon and I have noted, the Paris Agreement was flawed, it did produce outcomes for those already experiencing the impacts of global warming through the Green Climate Fund. When Trump walked away from the Paris Agreement, he also walked away from the many communities already having their homes swept away by rising sea levels, or food security disrupted by drastically altered monsoon weather. While I understand a political opportunity arises from Trump’s exit, this is balanced against the losses experienced by those communities reliant on agreement associated funding.

Advocating for the abandonment of international climate agreements risks accelerating frontline suffering even further.

Yes, international climate agreements can be technocratic and anti-democratic. There are a myriad of ways in which both their processes and outcomes could be improved. But to advocate for their abandonment is flagrantly reckless. A desertion at this time would erode momentum for action on global warming, undermine the core platform for intergovernmental action, and damage our capacity to assist those already dealing with impacts of climate change first hand.