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End of Coal? Tyee's Climate Reporter on Paris Predictions

Geoff Dembicki talks tipping points, clean energy and, yes, if we're screwed.

By David P. Ball 25 Nov 2015 | TheTyee.ca

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

On Friday, long-time Tyee sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki will set out for Paris, where he'll be on the ground covering the United Nations climate change conference.

The 29-year old reporter, who is currently writing his first book Are We Screwed? A Millennial's Guide to Climate Change, will be filing dispatches for The Tyee.

Planned from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, the ambitious gathering of 196 countries has an even more ambitious goal: to forge "a new international agreement on climate change, applicable to all, to keep global warming below 2 C."

Reporter David Ball sat down with Dembicki to talk about what he's watching for in Paris, what's at stake, and if our world is as screwed as some claim. Interview edited for clarity and length.

David P. Ball: You're flying to Paris on Friday. Tell me about your preparations and what you'll be looking for there.

Geoff Dembicki: Over the past couple weeks, I've reached out to various environmentalists, journalists and academics to have as many background conversations as I can just to wrap my mind around this event.

Literally every country in the world is coming to meet in Paris in order to plan the future of the world -- and at the same time, to save the world. What's happening is of an insane magnitude. You have the national interests of over 196 countries, and everyone's jostling for some kind of advantage. And at the same time, they're all trying to work together. It will affect the world for decades and centuries to come.

Is that overly optimistic, or do you think that could actually happen? We've had climate summits before -- what's changed?

I am optimistic for several reasons.

The most obvious difference [since] the last major climate conference in Copenhagen is that the international community is quite interested and hopeful about Canada's new leadership. President Barack Obama has already met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently, and they talked about climate change; Obama said he now considers Canada to be 'extraordinarily helpful' on the climate, which is just such a complete reversal from where we were perceived under Stephen Harper.

Under Harper, Canada was seen as one of the biggest climate laggards along with Australia, Russia, Japan and perhaps Saudi Arabia. But Canada has been known for a long time for its international diplomacy, particularly on environmental issues. I think Trudeau has the potential to restore that.

What are the top three things that could happen out of Paris?

Whatever agreement comes out of Paris, it has the potential to accelerate all of the crazy changes that have been happening in renewable energy over the past few years. At the Copenhagen talks, stuff like solar and wind power was seen as a theoretical possibility; but since that conference, the costs have plummeted and the roll-out of those technologies has happened so fast -- especially in places like China. Wind, solar and other forms of clean energy are no longer considered 'alternative.'

A lot of people I've spoken to in the lead-up to Paris have said a strong agreement could accelerate that [trend] and represent a tipping point, where clean energy and other low-carbon economy sectors just become the new normal.

Another area where we could really see a huge impact from the treaty is the destruction of the coal industry. Goldman Sachs put out a report recently predicting that coal was in a serious state of decline. So this isn't just the activists any more. Serious financial observers are saying coal's days are numbered. A strong agreement out of Paris would likely drive another nail into the coffin of coal.

The other big thing is that, in Copenhagen, you really saw a very big divide between the rich, developed countries and the aspiring, developing countries; that was one of the major obstacles to an agreement there. The U.S. and China were not able to agree on anything the whole time. Now, the U.S. and China have signed a major bilateral climate change agreement. The sense among people who follow these talks is that what was seen as a traditional divide, between north and south, is no longer as simple as that.

Paris has the potential to add to that momentum and create a situation where every country in the world feels like they have a stake in doing something on the climate.

Many of the tensions in past have been around a stalemate between much poorer countries, like India or others in South East Asia and Africa, saying, 'We didn't make this mess and we certainly can't afford to clean it up.' Is the tension over compensation still felt going into Paris?

As long as you have big disparities in wealth between a small group of countries and the rest, that tension will always be at these types of negotiations. I think the arena where those divisions will create a lot of tension is in the negotiations around loss and damage, which basically says developed countries need to pay for damages caused by climate change in the Global South.

But overall I think the feeling is that -- rich or poor, north or south -- countries are more committed now to working together. The low-carbon sector is becoming so lucrative economically, so a country like India sees that instead of going along the traditional development pathway of burning a lot of fossil fuels, it can jump straight to solar, learn the technology, and then not only provide its citizens a source of cleaner, cheaper power, but also be a part of this growing high-tech industry across the globe.

In your upcoming book, you're looking at climate change as a generational crisis, arguing that old-style politicians and economists don't understand the shift that's already happening. What are you going to be looking for in Paris?

You're seeing big generational differences in how younger people, particularly in their 20s and early 30s, are approaching this problem as compared to how perhaps people in older generations see it. The main difference is that in the older view of the world, at least among a lot of the people in power, each country is on its own and all competing in a free-market economy. So any action on behalf of the environment always came at the expense of economic growth.

What you're seeing is a real shift in values which isn't thinking so much in terms of national borders -- but cities working together, youth mobilizing across the planet around platforms like 350.org, and new economies rising up. Instead of progress on the environment coming at the expense of the economy, a lot of younger people are asking, 'Why can't we have an economy that's also good for the planet?'

Tell us a little more about your book, Are We Screwed? A Millennial's Guide to Climate Change.

My book project is really exploring that values shift; it will be coming out in early 2017. I'm explaining climate change through the perspective of eight people in their 20s and early 30s. I'm showing how climate change isn't just this isolated issue, but for people in that age group particularly, it's something that permeates all aspects of their lives. It affects politics, food, technology and business.

If you're invested in doing something better for the planet, you're also invested in really transforming the entire society we live in. That's not a realization only restricted to young people, of course, but a lot of so-called millennials are really on the front lines of that transformation.

Naomi Klein's thesis in This Changes Everything is that legitimate, long-term climate solutions are incompatible with the capitalist economy. What do you think about that?

That's a powerful argument that deserves to be taken seriously, and a lot of people have. I think the climate solutions we need to see, and our ability to limit global warming to the two degrees deemed to be safe by scientists, is not compatible with free market capitalism as it currently exists. Naomi Klein is correct in that regard.

But I think it is compatible with a capitalism that says, 'How can we make money and be good for the planet at the same time?' It's compatible with the business model of a company that's installing solar panels in African villages. That's a pretty fundamental rethink of capitalism, but it's not an end to capitalism. It's [a shift] to harness the ability of capital and markets to actually achieve some social good in the world.

My very last question is pretty simple: Are we actually screwed?

No, I don't think so. (Laughs). Every country in the lead-up to the Paris talks has had to submit a climate plan. Various groups have analyzed those plans, and on the more optimistic side, they've concluded that all the plans would get us to 2.7 degrees warming.

In order to get to a relatively safe level, we need to be at two degrees [warming]. So a lot of people are saying, 'Paris is already a failure.' But other people are saying, 'Wait, if we're discussing two degrees versus 2.7 [degrees], that means we're ruling out a world of four degrees warming -- where we're totally screwed!'

But in a sense, the worst-case scenario has been taken off the table and now we can get a clearer picture of what kinds of changes the next century is going to bring. If the Paris agreement is successful, that 2.7 degrees will just be a starting point and we'll be moving much further beyond that.

I think we're in for a really crazy ride, but I don't think we're screwed.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

FUNDED BY YOU

Did you know: Geoff Dembicki's coverage of the Paris climate talks is 100 per cent funded by Tyee Builders.

This week, The Tyee launched a Builder drive asking readers to chip in as little as $3 per month to support reporters like Geoff in 2016 and beyond.

Go here to learn more.

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