Paris Agreement

This is part of an ongoing series annotating Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

We will end up in Paris and with the agreement, but I want to take a bit of a leisurely detour.

Let’s start in London in the summer of 1967 at the BBC studios. Reflecting the sense that the world is increasingly interconnected, the BBC has planned the first “worldwide” programming event, a special episode of a series titled Our World. The London studio intends to switch between 14 different nations and broadcast to twenty-four. 1967 is five years after Marshall McLuhan coined the term ‘global village’ and a decade after Sputnik launched the Cold War space race.

The BBC commissioned a song from the Beatles and asked that it be simple and provide a message of hope. The Beatles premiered the song “All You Need is Love” which helped give the name to the Summer of Love.

To conclude the program the camera pulls back, seeming to pull all the way to space, where it shows a claymation image of a rotating earth. No single picture of the entire planet exists.

A few minutes of background on the Beatles “All You Need is Love” performance.

By the time Elvis performs to a global audience in 1973’s “Live From Hawaii,” these sorts of ‘world’ media events are becoming commonplace.

The span between these two global performances sees quite a few charismatic pollution events. For this blog post I’m focusing on US events, but US news is broadcast around the world, and developed countries can see their future in the growing pollution crisis in the states. If it hasn’t arrived already.

  • In October of 1967 an analysis of a dramatic smog event in NYC in 1966 indicated that 168 people likely perished from choking on the city air.
  • In 1967 the first endangered species list is released and the American bald eagle is at the top of the list. This seems somehow a metaphor for industrial hubris.
  • In 1969 California experiences one of the largest oil spills in history off the coast of Santa Barbara.
  • In 1969 the Cuyahoga River catches fire. This isn’t the first time a river had burned, but this one catches the attention of the nation.

Pollution in the developed nations was clearly a problem in the 1960s. Urban areas were poisonous environments, with cars pumping the exhaust of leaded gas into the air, and little regulation to control abundant industrial poisons used in construction. Any nation who aspired to US-level wealth could see that it might also come with health hazards associated with air and water pollution.

Rivers were gross oil slicks. Perhaps your grandparents might have fished in that river, but children of the 1960s were warned that falling into the water meant a trip to the hospital.

This culminated in the first Earth Day celebration in the US on April 22, 1970.

The United Nations, by its nature as a global deliberative body, necessarily moves slow. In 1972 the United Nations held its first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. This was the first world conference addressing the environment. On the agenda as the most pressing global environmental problems: nuclear weapons testing, human population growth, wildlife conservation, and, perhaps stepping slightly outside their portfolio, advocating for the end of apartheid.

“We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the earth: dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings; major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere; destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources; and gross deficiences, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment, particularly in the living and working environment.”

Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment

The Stockholm conference recommended the formation of the United Nations Environment Programme. From then to now the United Nations has been the key space (though not the only one) for negotiating international agreements on global pollution and climate change.

Not long after this first conference scientists started to notice how some types of air pollution damaged the ozone layer.

In 1987 the United Nations passed Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This agreement affected nearly every nation on earth, and was agreed to by 196 nations plus the European Union. This agreement substantially changed industies across the globe, reshaped how materials were packaged and shipped globally, and changed they way we used air conditioning in buildings and cars.

Since the passage of the Montreal Protocol the ozone layer is by some measures improving, and by others leveling off. Most indices agree, at least, that it is not getting substantially worse.

The Montreal Protocol worked, and provided a blueprint for the future. When nations agree to cooperate they can radically reshape global industry for the benefit of the biosphere.

A few years later, in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was launched under the auspices of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The conference was held in 1992 to recognize the 20th anniversary of the first Conference on the Environment in Stockholm.

In 2016, 191 nations, including the United States, agreed to the Paris Agreement, which grew out of the decades of cooperation that grew from the UNFCCC.

It’s easy enough to find the aims of the Paris Agreement, but I wanted to take a deeper dive into why KSR argues in Ministry for the Future that it is such an important agreement.

The Paris Agreement didn’t spring from nowhere. It is rooted in nearly a half century of global cooperation on the environment. There have been many failures along the way. But there have also been substantial successes. Successes that can only come from international cooperation on a large scale.

The Paris Agreement is, as KSR notes, a thin reed on which to hang our hopes, but it is perhaps sturdier than it looks.

In 1972, moved by a grassroots campaign started by Stewart Brand, NASA release the first image of the whole planet.

The Blue Marble by the crew of Apollo 17 (1972)

This post is part of a Ministry for the Future annotation project. Some of the ideas/concepts/terms used by Kim Stanley Robinson in MftF I want to incorporate into the the next edition of the Green New Deal book I published with Hillsborough River Press.

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