Monday, 30 November 2009

Copehagen and three key hurdles to effective action on climate change

Ten days after the Climate Research Unit (CRU) email "scandal" broke, delegations are heading to Copenhagen for the international climate summit. Those attending hope to establish a new global treaty on climate change. In particular, Barack Obama's aim of "sizable reductions in US carbon emissions," by "cutting its domestic emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020," has given commentators cause for optimism. However, some perspective is required.

Far from being a make-or-break event that will seal the future of the planet, the Copenhagen summit is a microcosm of the wider climate debate. In it, we are able to see the key barriers to any form of effective action on this issue.

The first is the growing influence of climate change scepticism over popular discourse. Right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail have been at the forefront of this trend, but a wave of conservative bloggers are hot on their heels. In Telegraph Blogs, James Delingpole suggests that "if you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW" as "the conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth ... has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed." (See here for Carbon Fixated's hilarious Delingpole parody.) The Pedant-General at Devil's Kitchen suggests that the world of the "left-leaning liberal arts graduate[s]" of the environmental lobby "is being swept from underneath them and they are being shown—in ways that they do not really and have never had to understand—that the guys they thought were the goodies are in fact "at it" and that those they have spent a decade disparaging as deniers were in fact spot on." Mr Pink Eyes at America's Watchtower warns that although "Climategate has exposed the great global warming hoax," the media "are in bed with the Obama administration and his cap and trade agenda" and will "gloss over this story," meaning that "we must not let this story die."

Such leap-of-faith conclusions, akin to the "god of the gaps" of creationism, are unfounded. Nate Silver, at FiveThirtyEight, explains why the "Irrefutable proof of the Anthropogenic Global Warming Super-Duper Major-Mega International Socialist Conspiracy" is no such thing. Focusing specifically on the "hide the decline" email, he points out that "actually, what you have is a scientist, Dr. Jones, talking candidly about sexing up a graph to make his conclusions more persuasive."

The fact remains that "this is not a good thing to do -- I'd go so far as to call it unethical -- and Jones deserves some of the loss of face that he will suffer." However, to put things into perspective, it is worth noting that "unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that happens all the time in both academia and the private sector." I've already noted my own view that, for the sake of honesty and clarity, this needs to be investigated and people held account for any misdeeds. "But," in the words of Silver, "let's be clear: Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself."

Leaping "from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming" is facile and extremely dishonest on the part of those who should know better. Unfortunately, this is the conclusion that is permeating public consciousness.

The second barrier is the prevalence of liberal and reformist ideas amongst the green left. Rightly, groups such as the Camp for Climate Action and Workers' Climate Action have pointed out that "without the collective action of organised labour, we will be unlikely to make the changes to our economy we need, before it is too late." However, as a recent Shift magazine editorial noted, it is a less radical attitude that often prevails;
Let’s get this straight. There is nothing wrong per se with fighting for state concessions. The fact that an autonomously-controlled no-go area for police was maintained was essentially a concession to the camp’s ability to mobilise public anti-police sentiment. But the arguments brought forward by the pro-state campers were cynical at best: there is no comparison to be made between the demand for a minimum wage, for example, and the hope for higher taxes (on us, not the rich), population surveillance and control, or carbon permits. The former is a result of workers’ struggles for better living conditions and is not contradictory to an eventual fundamental break with state control. The latter is essentially the self-flagellating demand to punish and manage the behaviour of the majority for the crisis that is capitalism.
A radical movement recognises that "all calls on the state to lighten the load on the environment, will inevitably find the burden falling onto the human." So do the ordinary people living under our state-capitalist system.  They are right to rail against an environmentalism that is simply about "finding new ways to tax us," as the only beneficiaries will be the governments whose revenues are increased.

As the state of the environment, and the risk of climate change, remains a pressing issue, a change of direction is vital. We need to demonstrate to the wider public that there is an alternative to saving the world through taxes, and to outlandish conspiracy theories.

The third barrier to effective action on the climate is Copenhagen itself.  Or rather, the fact that all the world's hopes for a solution to climate change rest upon it. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon believes that the summit can "achieve a firm foundation for a legally binding climate treaty as early as possible in 2010." "An agreement is within reach," but the fact remains that it is likely to be one that will achieve little. According to consulting firm Cambridge Energy Research Associates, "a number of factors point to difficulties in achieving a breakthrough on short-term emissions targets at Copenhagen," particularly in the wake of "the current economic crisis." The Times of India reports further;
Leave aside a binding agreement on climate change, the 190-country Copenhagen conference on December 7 is unlikely to throw up even a political statement of high-sounding sentiments on the need to save the planet -- a statement, which countries were hoping, would give the direction for hammering out an agreement next year.

The setback came in the just-concluded two-day ministerial meeting at Copenhagen on November 16-17, where persistent schisms on even most basic things such as a political statement of agreement deepened as some industrialized countries -- led by Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands -- demanded that the political statement be the sole basis for reaching a "single legal instrument".

This meant that the Kyoto Protocol, already on the backburner, would be jettisoned altogether -- a position that's not acceptable to most developing countries. The Kyoto Protocol, which wants emissions to be brought down by 5.2% below the 1990 levels by 2012 (an impossibility now), also set down the moral principle that the biggest emitters should undertake the biggest cuts.

Not surprisingly, the biggest emitters -- the rich countries, including the US and the EU -- are opposed to the Kyoto Protocol. In this ministerial meeting, Japan and others demanded that the political statement make clear that all countries, including developing countries like India, must undertake commitments to reduce greenhouse gas levels under this proposed new instrument.
With the hopes for even a "statement for high-sounding sentiments" as low as they are, the chance of the radical changes necessary being agreed are null. To anti-capitalist climate activists, this will come as little shock. However, it is likely that such an outcome will dismay the "left-leaning liberal arts graduate" school of environmentalists, who will thus focus their hopes and energies on the next summit. And the one after that, and the one after that, etc ad nauseum. As Nick Reeves, executive director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), points out, "when it comes to global action on climate change, we've been here before."

The systems of state and capital are geared to operate in their own short-term interests. As such, demanding that they make more than piecemeal gestures on the environment is a wasted venture. Instead, we need to be using events such as the Copenhagen summit as an opportunity to highlight the issue and demonstrate how ordinary people can acheive sustainability through grassroots organisation. Climate Camp is an attempt at precisely this measure, but it should not be the only one.

If we are to see a serious effort against the threat of climate change, then these three hurdles must be overcome. Organisation, education, and an uncompromising radicalism are the key to any succesful act of resistance against the profit system, and the same remains true here. What we cannot do is bury our heads in the sand, ignore the sceptics, and rest our hopes on the supposed benevolence of big government.