‘Success is just progress’: Naomi Klein’s cautious optimism for COP21

Naomi Klein is cautiously optimistic about the promises being made at the climate summit underway in Paris, including the promises from new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

She has seen people blinded by the glow of an ambitious, new world leader before.

READ MORE: Trudeau’s Liberals to be eyed closely following climate change promises

“My hope is that Canadians will learn from the dangers of that honeymoon period. When [Barack] Obama came to Copenhagen in 2009, he was still in that honeymoon period.
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“Everyone was like: give him a chance, he’s just been elected, let’s see what happens. And what happened was very little,” the renowned Canadian author said in an interview with Global News in Paris.

People were so glad to see the U.S. “back at the table” at the climate summit, following eight years under the Republican leadership of George W. Bush, and that’s something that has happened again with Trudeau after nearly a decade of Stephen Harper as prime minister.

Trudeau, in his speech in Paris Monday, said: “Canada is back.”

WATCH: Justin Trudeau tells world leaders at Paris climate change conference: Canada is back

But, Klein said you have to actually bring something back to the table.

“Look, there are fantastic speeches and there’s a lot of leaders here saying all the right things,” Klein said. “But there’s certainly a gap between the lofty speeches and what governments are bringing to the table.”

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The emission reduction targets world leaders are promising to hit don’t add up to the commitments made six years ago, at the climate summit in Copenhagen, to prevent global temperatures from rising by 2 C by the end of this century.

Even then, that commitment wasn’t enough for some.

She recalled dissent from low-lying Pacific Island nations, who said they need that target to be 1.5 C in order for their countries to survive in the face of rising sea levels, and African leaders, who called the 2 C warming target a “death sentence.”

Now, the leaders aren’t even going to meet that, Klein explains.

“Here they are in Paris, six years later, with targets that lead us to 3 degrees warming and they’re telling us that they can’t be legally binding.”

She said this sets the world back further from where it was when 83 signatories — including Canada —committed to the legally binding Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

READ MORE: From Kyoto to Paris: How the world’s climate has changed in 18 years

But this summit is an opportunity for governments to send a message to the fossil fuel sector that the industry “is going to be wound down” in the coming decades and that “their business model has to change radically.”

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Having a legally-binding agreement is the way to do that, Klein said.

“When governments make pledges and also say at the same time they’re not legally binding, that sends a signal that maybe you don’t have to take that as seriously,” she told Global News Europe Bureau Chief Jeff Semple.

WATCH: Eric Sorensen has a reality check on the impact of promises made a climate summits

Although she was critical of how much hasn’t changed since Obama’s first appearance at a climate summit, in Copenhagen, she credited him for his work with China — with which the U.S. president reached a historic agreement last year to cut the two countries’ carbon emissions.

The two countries combined account for 45 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, BBC reported.

“Now it seems to be all about scapegoating India,” Klein pointed out.

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“One of the big shifts that we’re seeing is it used to be… that it was all about the country that had burned [the] most carbon historically having to be the ones to take action and I think there was legitimate concern about very fast-growing economies, like China and India, that were burning a huge amount of coal.”

READ MORE: Countries hit hardest by global warming press Western leaders for help

China and India, she said, have the ability to shift their development models, compared to poorer countries. But, the Chinese and Indian governments haven’t just been under international pressure to curb emission, they’ve faced the same demands from their citizens.

That’s why Klein was concerned protesters were prevented from taking to the streets of Paris during this year’s summit.

It was a little more than two weeks before the start of the summit that a series of coordinated terror attacks in the city claimed the lives of 130 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the assaults. France has been under a nationwide state of emergency since then and the government public demonstrations. Thousands of people defied the ban, joining hundreds of thousands of others who took part in protests in 175 countries around the world.

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“It’s the role of civil society and people who don’t have those billions of dollars to sponsor this summit… to be the reality check,” Klein said. “I can understand why politicians would be pleased that they don’t have to have that accountability in the streets, but that’s why I think it was really important that people went into the streets anyway.”

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Klein is happy with some of the changes she has seen on the environmental front; Obama’s decision to turn down the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Shell withdrawing from Arctic drilling operations and Alberta’s NDP government opening up to diversifying its economy are all examples she cited.

But, she said those changes wouldn’t have happened without pressure from social movements.

She hopes Canadians apply that same pressure on Trudeau to stick to change.

“My biggest fear is having failure defined as success and sending the message to people that the job is done,” she said. “Success is just progress.”

With files from Jeff Semple and Nicole Mortillaro