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Sunday, 13 December 2015

Paris: 'Twixt Cup and Lip

My father was fond of proverbs, pieces of folk wisdom that served as substitutes for a more sustained conversation. ‘A stitch in time saves nine’. ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. ‘A bad workman blames his tools’. And – the one that I woke up thinking about today - ‘There’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip’. For me as a child, these sayings took on an authority indistinguishable from his own. Yet looking back on them now, what strikes me is how they all, in varying degrees, encoded an attitude of caution in the face of the world. I never heard him say, for example, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ – which might have given permission for a more adventurous stance on life.

The climate change agreement signed in Paris is being hailed - by the politicians involved, and some environmental advocacy groups – as a ‘historic’ turning point in humanity’s use and abuse of fossil fuels. The intention of the agreement is clear: the commitment of all major nations – including for the first time China and India - to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions between now and 2030. But how will that translate into action? While every country is required to put forward a plan to cut emissions, there is no legal requirement as to how, or how much, each country must cut. What’s legally binding is that each nation enact legislation in relation to a low-carbon future, but what is voluntary seems to be the content of that legislation. ’Twixt cup and lip there’s an ocean of room for countries to slip away from the high ideals that have gained assent over these last few weeks.  
The agreement seems to be designed to shame countries into action through peer pressure: countries have to legally monitor, verify and report on what they are doing, reconvening every five years to publicly report on progress towards lowering emissions. One can only hope that that this agreement – ‘Climate Change Agreement In Our Time’ – is not looked back on in decades to come, as temperatures continue to rise, albeit marginally slower, as the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain’s infamous ‘Peace in Our Time’ agreement with Hitler in 1938.
As the festival of Hanukkah comes to an end, and one by one the last of the candles flickers and dies, the fable of the Temple oil sufficient for one day that miraculously lasted for eight days comes to mind. Jews have often used this legend as a symbol of the triumph of Jewish continuity in the face of forces that have sought to extinguish it. But maybe a more apposite reading of the story for our time would be to recognise that what would be truly miraculous – and worthy of celebration – would be if the nations of the world could find a way of consuming less and making what we have go further. But this would be a model – self-sacrifice in the service of a common good - that would overturn capitalism as it's always been practiced.
As long as the nations that are celebrating in Paris today are wedded to consumerism and growth – and as long as electricity, gas and oil companies have such a dominant place in the world’s stock markets – it is going to be very much business as usual. The Paris agreement is a triumph of presentation over reality. There is no pleasure in saying that, and it is probably better to have reached this agreement than to have repeated the failures in Copenhagen in 2009. But it is a consoling fable for our times, and in the depths of winter we cling to such fables, light in our darkness.
Our planet is still vulnerable and dependent – like the infant in the Christmas story which also speaks a universal truth at this season. Over these next decades we are going to find ourselves  ’twixt cup and lip – between the good intentions of Paris and the complex actions that are still needed, and which will have to be maintained over decades when the impact of already-existing higher temperatures will be leading to greater and greater devastation. This will require faith of a very high order. Until less becomes the new more, I am letting caution be my guide.