On April 29th, at the UN Campus in Bonn Germany, the post-Copenhagen negotiations began in earnest. There were two surprises. The first was that the mood was good. Most everyone was on their best behavior. Even the US delegation was in charming mode. This will no doubt change as we move closer to the Paris winter of 2015, where the next big showdown will take place, but still, it was a relief, and a good sign.
The second surprise is that, with the whole meeting dedicated to shaking out new ideas, we actually got a few. These included an encouraging proposal from AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, to immediately focus the short-term ambition agenda on international support for scaled-up renewable and energy-efficiency deployment. And (the subject of this post) they included the emergence of a global strategy – still tentative, but increasingly defined – for breaking the deadlock on “equity.”
The background here is that the equity agenda continues to haunt the climate negotiations, as it has done since their inception. Nor is this just a matter of North / South bloc-politics-as-usual, though it’s certainly true that “equity” has been a political football since the earliest days of the climate talks. The real problem is that 1992’s UN Framework Convention of Climate Change very clearly obligates the developed countries to “take the lead” in facing the climate problem, and, when all is said and done, they have simply not done so. Even worse, the whole “development” project – the only project that has recently managed to lift significant numbers of people out of poverty – is being thrown into crisis by the scale and severity of the climate threat. In this context, the slogan is clearly right – equity is indeed “the pathway to ambition.” Absent a working agreement on its principles and implications, it will be extremely difficult to shift the negotiations onto anything like a high-ambition track. In may even be impossible.
See a mildly snarky comment from The Raw Story here, or the original study (NASA Faked the Moon Landing —Therefore, (Climate) Science Is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science) from Psychological Science. But two warnings: the study is behind a paywall, and it contains the phrase “conspiracist ideation.”
The first Carbon Bubble report, released a few years, was a very big deal. It told us that the whole “peak oil” trope was just wrong, that the real name of the problem was Unburnable Carbon. And it led Bill McKibben to publish his fabulous Rolling Stone article. And then came the Do the Math project, and the whole carbon divestment movement. Definitely a very big deal.
And now comes the second Carbon Bubble report, Wasted Capital, which was just released. It’s Phase II of the project and, far from being a rehash, it’s proof that the fundamental approach is sound. In fact, it’s huge news. Lord Stern (of the Stern Review) is now fronting. The modeling has been fine tuned, and now shows – among other things – that Carbon Capture and Sequestration is extremely unlikely to save our bacon. There’s an improved geographic analysis which shows just how hard the Carbon Bubble is going to hit the emerging economies of the developing world. There’s a huge amount of evidence that, not just stars like Jeremy Grantham but mainline financial analysts around the world are taking the argument on-board, and in a big way. There’s even a bit of speculation about how this is all going to interact with new round of the climate negotiations, which will reach their (next) crisis in the winter of 2015, six years after Copenhagen.
You may have already read Wen Stephenson’s The New Abolitionists. It was published in the Boston Phoenix some time ago, and it’s bounced around. But just in case you missed it, stop and take a look. Now, if necessary.
I don’t mean to say that this essay is above criticism. It contains nothing on the global side of the crisis, for example, and this even though the climate crisis is quintessentially global. And the discussion of worst-cases (the Tim DeChristopher meets Terry Root passage) is more than a bit thin.
Which is where this bit comes in:
“Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future,” DeChristopher tells Tempest Williams, “I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back.”
Actually, DeChristopher does allow some hope. “If you look at the worst-case consequences of climate change, those pretty much mean the collapse of our industrial civilization,” he tells Williams. “But that doesn’t mean the end of everything. It means we’re going to be living through the most rapid and intense period of change that humanity has ever faced. And that’s certainly not hopeless. It means we’re going to have to build another world in the ashes of this one. And it could very easily be a better world.”
This, I have to say, just doesn’t work for me.
Another weakness. There’s next to nothing here on how the rich / poor divide makes it next to impossible for us to succeed, not as long as we remain a “climate movement” per se. Even a “climate justice” movement, as DeChristopher and Stephenson mean the phrase, doesn’t put justice front and center.
Still, this piece is a keeper. It’s not just good, it’s damn good. Kudos to Stephenson.
I’ve noticed that when people draft their “scare the shit out of you” summary paragraph — the one that, it seems, we’ll be reworking for the rest of our lives — they often forget food prices, which will be rising fast and soon. This is unfortunate, in all sorts of ways. Human suffering, for one. Game changing political movements, for another.
Anyway, Oxfam is taking the lead on this front, and its work deserves a great deal more attention that it’s received. Start with Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices: The costs of feeding a warming world, which was published last September. Joe Romm wrote a nice summary here.
For a bit more historical context, don’t forget Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera, wherein we get this little bit of advice: “However much you twist, whatever lies you tell, food is the first thing, morals follow on.” (Click to listen to a fantastic version! Listen to it loud!).
(in five bullet points)
• The sine qua non of free market economics is secure property rights.
• The likelihood of severe and potentially catastrophic anthropogenic climate change is in part a consequence of our inability to enforce any right to protection from the harm to life and property caused by the cross-border impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.
• A secure regime of property rights requires enforcement and (in the long run) legitimacy.
• The existence of cross-border impacts requires the cross-border reach of enforcement and legitimacy.
• This implies a relatively strong version of world government.
What could be clearer?
–Paul Baer (email@example.com)
Atlanta GA, USA
It was never going to be easy to face the ecological crisis. Even back in the 1970s, before climate took center stage, it was clear that we the prosperous were walking far too heavily. And that “environmentalism,” as it was called, was only going to be a small beginning. But it was only when the climate crisis pushed fossil energy into the spotlight that the real stakes were widely recognized. Fossil fuels are the meat and potatoes of industrial civilization, and the need to rapidly and radically reduce their emissions cut right through to the heart of the great American dream. And the European dream. And, inevitably, the Chinese dream as well.
Decades later, 81% of global energy is still supplied by the fossil fuels: coal, gas, and oil. And though the solar revolution is finally beginning, the day is late. The Arctic is melting, and, soon, as each year the northern ocean lies bare beneath the summer sun, the warming will accelerate. Moreover, our plight is becoming visible. We have discovered, to our considerable astonishment, that most of the fossil fuel on the books of our largest corporations is “unburnable” – in the precise sense that, if we burn it, we are doomed. Not that we know what to do with this rather strange knowledge. Also, even as China rises, it’s obvious that it’s not the last in line for the promised land. Billions of people, all around the world, watch the wealthy on TV, and most all of them want a drink from the well of modern prosperity. Why wouldn’t they? Life belongs to us all, as does the Earth.
The challenge, in short, is rather daunting.
The denial of the challenge, on the other hand, always came ready-made. As Francis Bacon said so long ago, “what a man would rather were true, he more readily believes.” And we really did want to believe that ours was still a boundless world. The alternative – an honest reckoning – was just too challenging. For one thing, there was no obvious way to reconcile the Earth’s finitude with the relentless expansion of the capitalist market. And as long as we believed in a world without limits, there was no need to see that economic stratification would again become a fatal issue. Sure, our world was bitterly riven between haves and have-nots, but this problem, too, would fade in time. With enough growth – the universal balm – redistribution would never be necessary. In time, every man would be a king.
If you take a real bird’s-eye view of the climate negotiations – one in which only the largest features are visible – then you might say that they began in earnest with 1992’s negotiation of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. The next big event was the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 1997. Then came Copenhagen in 2009 and the following daze, which finally lifted in late 2011 with the Durban Platform, which provided for “a Protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force, applicable to all countries” to be negotiated by 2015 and to go into effect in 2020.
Those negotiations are now proceeding in earnest, and they’re taking place within civil society networks as well. One of those networks, the most established and extensive of all those working within the climate talks, is the international Climate Action Network, which consists of over 700 NGOs from around the world. And CAN, as it is called, has now agreed on its own positions, which will be the basis of its lobbying and outreach as we approach the big year 2015. These positions are represented by two “submissions” to the UNFCCC secretariat. The submission to “Workstream 1” (which covers the post-2020 regime that is now being negotiated) is here. The submission to “Workstream 2” (which covers the effort to increase ambition prior to 2020) is here.
There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?
Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon. It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.
Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth). This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.