The Ballad of the Skeletons: Lining up to Ratify the Paris Climate Agreement

The path of climate change, if the Paris Agreement is adhered to but not strengthened, would seem to lock the planet into a path of rapid and widespread disruption to animal, plant and human environments.

On 3 September 2016, The United States and China ratified the Paris Climate Agreement. During the next four weeks a further 37 countries ratified the agreement. Then, on 2 October and 5 October respectively, the agreement was ratified by India and then the constituent countries of the European Union and Canada. The announcements of 5 October meant that ratification had been confirmed by 55 Parties representing at least 55% of total global emissions, which is the threshold for bringing the Paris Agreement into force.

This outcome is worthy of celebration, inasmuch as it represents a substantive global agreement on what is unarguably the most complex environmental problem for international diplomacy the world has ever had to confront. And yet, any celebratory tone needs tempering by the hollowness of what was actually being ratified. Ratification of the Paris Agreement seems a contemporary analogue of the kind of false sanctimony that beatnik Allen Ginsberg etched so memorably in his 1995 poem ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’.

In 1995, Ginsberg was 70 years old and cranky about the state of American politics. He was sick and tired of the infection of demagoguery and partisanship into the democratic process. ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’ was his protest. Its targets were wide. The poem assailed the vacuity of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No!” anti-drugs message, the endemic homophobia within the culture of US politics, and the pig-headedness of Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’, which seemed to have its main purpose to stymy any reform efforts by President Bill Clinton (“The Presidential skeleton said ‘I won’t sign the bill’/ The Speaker skeleton said ‘Yes, you will”). In explaining why he wrote the poem, Ginsberg said that he felt the shift in US political rhetoric towards soundbites bereft of tangible substance “seemed obnoxious and stupid and kind of sub-contradictory, so I figured I’d write a poem to knock it out of the ring”. In late 1995, the beatnik read the poem to Paul McCartney who suggested a musical adaption. The ensuing product became an unlikely international hit.

At its core, ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’ hisses at the celebration of message over action. It is an exasperated shrug that asks ‘why can’t we do better?’

This metaphor nicely sums up the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. This is an agreement in which countries nominate their own emission-reduction targets and have complete freedoms in choosing the ways they hope to achieve these. In the advent of targets not being reached, wrists get slapped via a reporting mechanism, but no more.

However as even the Secretariat of the Paris Agreement acknowledges, the ambition of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the warming of the world’s average temperature to within 2 degrees Celsius from pre-Industrial levels is contradicted by Indicative Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) that parties registered at the Agreement. The aggregate commitments made by parties are sufficient only to produce a slowdown of emission increases, not a decline. If all parties comply with their INDCs, the probable scenario is an increase in global average temperatures of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels by 2100, which would set the planet on a course of dangerous and unpredictable climate change.

If a 2 degree warming target (or even more preferably, a 1.5 degree target) is to be reached, a rapid decline in global emissions is required. Climate scientist Glen Peters estimates that to reach a 1.5 degree target would require the replacement of all fossil fuel-based energy by renewables within 10 years. Such a scenario is impossible to imagine, especially in the wake of the bizarre anti-renewable politicking that followed the storm-induced power failure in South Australia on 28-29 September 2016.

The disconnect between the Paris Agreement’s aim of keeping within a 2 degree world and the mechanics of national commitments is what my colleague Christopher Wright refers to as the ‘Magical Thinking’ of the Agreement. The most positive spin that can put on this situation is that the Paris Agreement is only a first step, and that a future international conference will enshrine stronger commitments. In other words, live in hope. As Glen Peters says: “It’s a species-level emergency, but almost no-one is acting like it is”.

Which brings us back to Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’. That poem referenced skeletons metaphorically. The path of climate change, if the Paris Agreement is adhered to but not strengthened, would seem to lock the planet into a path of rapid and widespread disruption to animal, plant and human environments. Skeletons literally.