Green Or Gone

Why The Paris Climate Conference Promises A Lot Of Hot Air

Though 146 countries have pledged to fight global warming ahead of the UN's COP21 conference, market realities and other forces means such commitments are unlikely to materialize.

Beijing, air pollution, fog, evening
Beijing, air pollution, fog, evening
Stéphane Foucart


PARIS â€" The 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference, known more commonly as COP 21, is fast approaching, and we can already evaluate which countries are ready to help fight global warming. By early October, 146 countries representing 87% of global emissions had already announced their planned contributions.

According to Climate Action Tracker, which measures the payoff of these commitments, the world is on track towards a probable warming of 2.7 °C compared to pre-industrial times, even with the reduced emissions pledges. It's a lot more than the 2 °C limit the international community has set, but many observers believe it nonetheless represents undeniable progress.

But bear in mind that, so far, these commitments are mere words. And there are a few reasons to suspect that the promises made at the conference in Paris (from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11) will never be fulfilled.

Let's first consider the figures. To have a reasonable chance to stay under the 2 °C limit, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that we still can emit the equivalent of 850 billion tons of carbon dioxide, about 20 years' worth of emissions, according to 2014 levels. A "reasonable chance" is a 66% probability, so for an even better chance of keeping warming under 2 °C, we must bring emissions in under that level.

Based on current trends, it would only take us some 20 years to reach the 2 °C limit. And if the contributions announced by the international community are indeed implemented, they’d only buy us a few years. It goes to show what sort of efforts need to be made in Paris to change the course of things in a meaningful way.

But political leaders don't seem terribly informed about how their commitments will affect their economies. And that's another reason to be weary of whatever promises will be made in Paris. Our leaders seem to ignore everything about the physical mechanisms at play here, the most simple of which is that when we burn oil, coal or gas, it produces CO2 that will remain in the atmosphere for 100 years.

Double speak

Recent months have demonstrated that it's possible to proclaim publicly a commitment to reverse global warming while at the same time supporting the construction of a new airport (French Prime Minister Manuel Valls) or authorizing the hunt for oil in the Arctic (U.S. President Barack Obama).

Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland

European leaders are all about big words while pressures from gas and oil lobbies in Brussels are successfully denting support for renewable energies, according to an investigative piece published by The Guardian in early September.

The third reason to be doubtful about these promises is a corollary to the previous two. Given that the required effort is considerable and that political leaders don't seem to have grasped how critical the issue is, investors also doubt that the necessary measures will be taken.

To understand this, we need to keep in mind the fact that the known reserves of fossil fuels represent 2,800 billion tons of CO2, according to the think tank Carbon Tracker. This is a whole lot more than the 850 billion tons that we can emit in the next 20 years without going over the 2 °C limit. And the value that markets put on fossil fuel giants relies at least partly on their assets â€" that is, on what they'll be able to extract and sell.

In other words, if we were to take seriously the political willingness on display about remaining below the 2 °C limit, then it's inevitable that a large portion of fossil fuels currently known to exist will never be extracted. But if they do remain in the ground, unextracted, this means that all those assets and a great part of the market capitalization of fossil fuel giants will disappear at the same time, representing tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

And as everybody knows, this market crash hasn't happened. Of course, some oil stocks have lost value, but that's more likely due to low oil prices than the prospect of being forced to abandon fossil fuels.

The value we place on things is mostly dependent on collective beliefs, and these are embodied in how markets behave. Despite civil society's campaign for "disinvestment" and its relative success, we remain collectively positive that everything that can be extracted from the ground and burned will be extracted and burned. If that should be the case, we can only hope that carbon capture and storage techniques are fiendishly efficient.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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