The drama of the Paris climate conference is played out in the media like a Vatican conclave. The people in the square below await the puff of white smoke signaling agreement on a plan to save the earth. Expectations are built up. Absent goodwill on all sides and the Herculean efforts of U.N. negotiators, the process might fail. Deliverance is not assured. Then will come the announcement: We have an agreement. This, though, is to mistake appearances for reality. The nature of any agreement is less important than making sure the process continues to move forward.
Climate negotiators all know that having an ineffective agreement is much better than having no agreement at all. Six years ago at the Copenhagen climate conference, the West overplayed its hand trying to force India and China to sign a treaty that mentioned the eventual prospect of legally binding caps on their greenhouse-gas emissions. Failure in front of the world’s media threatened the process and all the activities that feed off it. In that sense, Copenhagen was a true climate disaster.
And business is clearly on display in the halls of Le Bourget’s exhibition center, where the COP is being held. From stands and pavilions made of eco-friendly chipboard, governments proclaim their climate credentials; renewable-energy companies promote their wares; NGOs agitate for more; bankers, lawyers, and accountants lobby to take their share of the billions of dollars of free-flowing climate finance, in a felicitous and mutually beneficial synthesis of mainstream and countercultures.
The pledge to combat climate change immunizes climate-friendly corporate leaders and billionaires: They can earn a pass from the Left and the likes of Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone who’s anyone in climate is at Le Bourget. There are more than 36,000 registered participants. The 196 countries that are parties to the U.N. climate convention account for 23,000 of that total. President Obama brought a 143-strong delegation; Britain brought more than 90, including the Prince of Wales. Sweden, a climate-change superpower, went one better: Virtually the whole of the Swedish government from King Carl Gustaf down made it to Le Bourget in its 69-strong delegation, which includes five close protection officers of the Swedish Security Services. (Sweden is the only European country to have had a prime minister and a foreign minister assassinated.) Country delegations are matched in size by the largest NGOs. Friends of the Earth is the largest, with 80 attendees. Greenpeace, which forsook the criminal vandalism it perpetrated in Peru last year, has 48.
NGO climate activists march to the same drumbeat as the rent-seekers of the Climate Market & Investment Association, whose delegation is packed with lawyers and accountants. The pledge to combat climate change immunizes climate-friendly corporate leaders and billionaires: They can earn a pass (and avoid being targeted as part of the filthy 1 percent) from the Left and the likes of Occupy Wall Street. Climate change is ethics for the wealthy — for those who make millions from saving the planet, and for the already wealthy who promise to use some of their money to do something about it.
Walmart billionaire Rob Walton declared that climate deniers had been run out of town, but, au contraire, climate skeptics are in Paris, too. The Heartland Institute held a downtown meeting on Monday that was picketed by climate activists, who plastered “Wanted” posters of leading skeptics. That evening, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) premiered its movie Climate Hustle, a brutal and extremely funny takedown of the science behind the conference.
On Tuesday, a select few delegates were reminded, at a meeting held to celebrate the life of Maurice Strong, that the origins of the U.N. climate industry predated the science: Love him or loathe him, Strong, a Canadian who died in China two days before the start of the COP, was the organizational genius and architect of the U.N. environmental process. Canadian member of parliament Elizabeth May told the group that Strong had decided early in life to dedicate himself to the U.N. and to become a wealthy man so he could serve that cause. That’s one way of looking at his corruption. As Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal last year, Strong moved to Beijing after it was discovered he had received a check for close to $1 million from a Korean businessman who was later jailed for bribing U.N. officials.
Strong put together the first U.N. conference on the environment in Stockholm in 1972 and then became the first executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. After a spell running the national oil company PetroCanada, Strong became, at Canada’s suggestion, general secretary of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. “A phony” and “a horse’s rump” was how staff in the George H. W. Bush White House came to see him. Strong knew that developing nations would not find global climate talks palatable unless they were paid to do so. As one of his protégés recalled on Tuesday, for Strong, development came before the environment, necessitating massive aid transfers from North to South. Money makes the world go round, and Strong was also an early proponent of carbon trading. Thus, we should not be surprised that in the draft agreement released in Paris earlier today, the role of carbon pricing is included under the head of “providing finance” rather than “cutting greenhouse emissions.”“The process is the policy,” Strong said at the 1972 Stockholm conference. It is a process in which presidents and prime ministers have walk-on parts. The fact of the negotiations is more important than what is actually negotiated. It is a process that has spawned a huge economic dependency in the form of the multibillion-dollar climate-industrial complex that disburses funds at will. “No one need feel they’ll be unemployed after this,” former Republican climate negotiator Harlan Watson commented as he leafed through the draft negotiating text of the Paris agreement. It would be naïve to judge whatever emerges from the COP against the yardstick of emissions reductions and what fraction of a degree might be shaved off predicted temperature rises. That is not what the climate talks are really about. It is about perpetuating the process and the relentless expansion of the climate-industrial complex. The next plenary of the climate-industrial complex will be in Marrakesh in November 2016. Global temperatures may fluctuate, but the COPs march on.
— Rupert Darwall is the author of The Age of Global Warming: A History.