Rebecca Solnit on 2012, and on 2013 as "year zero"

I’ve been worrying myself lately, trying to imagine a positive future that I can actually believe.  As opposed to sinking into science-based Catastrophism.

Rebecca Solnit takes a different tack in her end-of-year essay for Tom Dispatch, and, I gotta say that, despite a few clunkers — e.g. “For millions of years, this world has been a great gift to nearly everything living on it” — it rings true. In fact, her overall approach to the what-the-hell-do-we-do-now problem, one that’s both accessible and encouraging, has clear advantages over my “we need to actually plan for a fair global transition” style of rationalism.

Solnit’s point, basically, is that fighting to save the world will allow us to live well — in the classical sense of living “a good life’ — even as we face the dark and iffy days ahead. And that, by pursing both solidarity and clarity, we might also find that we have a real chance at a desirable, and even emancipatory future.

“Everywhere people are at work to build a better world in which we — and some of the beauty of this world — will be guaranteed to survive. Everywhere they are at war with the forces threatening us and the planet. I usually avoid war metaphors, but this time it’s barely a metaphor. Our side isn’t violent, but it is engaged in battle, and people are putting their bodies on the line and their lives behind the cause. The other side is intent on maximizing its profit at the cost of nearly everything.”

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America's first "climate dividend"

Great piece in the Huffington Post today on California’s new climate regime.  Mike Sandler, in a piece called The Birth of Carbon Pricing and Delivering California’s First ‘Climate Dividend‘ can see what, alas, many climate activists miss — allowance auctions can be understood in a very positive light indeed. Sandler writes here of America’s first climate dividend and offers an analysis that is astute in both its details (which I will skip, hoping that you read the article) and its overall import.  He even quotes the mad utopians at the California Public Utility Commission on the commons logic that is carefully embedded in the new system:

“The equitable distribution of revenues recognizing the “public asset” nature of the atmospheric carbon sink refers to… the idea that the atmosphere is a commons to which all individuals have an equal claim…Returning revenues equally to all residential customers is more equitable and comports with the idea of common ownership of the atmosphere given that residential ratepayers will ultimately bear the increased costs as a result of the Cap and Trade program.”

Read the article.  It’s a relief after all the recent bad news.

Equity: The Pathway to Ambition

Well, the annual climate talks began again today.  This time they’re in Doha, the capital of Qatar, which has the highest per-capita emissions in the world.

Equity is, of course on the agenda.  The surprise — at least it’s a surprise for some — is that its no longer a peripheral issue.  With the negotiations now tasked with setting the stage for a 2015 negotiations breakthrough, equity is getting some real time in the spotlight.  In that context, you might spare a moment to read The pathway to Ambition, the “equity opener” which was just published in the opening edition of the Climate Action Network‘s ECO newsletter.   I quite agree with it.  In fact, I confess, I wrote it.

The unedited version is just a wee bit sharper.  Here it is below.

“Is equity really the pathway to ambition?  ECO is here to say that it had better be.  Without equity, nothing else will work.  Which is to say that nothing else will work well enough.  Without equity the story of the climate transition will be a story of “too little, too late,” and as the scientists are anxiously  telling us – see, recently, the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat report – this is a story without a happy ending.

Let’s admit the public secret that we all already know – equity will either be shaped into a pathway to ambition or inequity will, assuredly, rise before us as an altogether unscalable wall.  We can see how this would happen.  The US — while insisting that it’s pushing bravely past the sterile politics of an obsolete North / South firewall – has managed to purge CBDR (and RC) from all official texts.  But to what effect?  Has it noticed that a supermajority of Parties understand the absence of new equity language as an affirmation of the original, and take the Convention’s language to remain entirely operational?  Has it noticed that actions provoke reactions?

Todd Stern, still the head of the US delegation, has rejected the Annexes as “anachronistic,” and has gone on to call for “the differentiation of a continuum, with each country expected to act vigorously in accordance with its evolving circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.”  It’s a good idea, though alas it suffers by its association with the US’s aggressive – and often abrasive – drive to destroy 1997’s Kyoto Protocol.  Coming into Doha, ECO can only wonder if this unfortunate picture is about to change.  With Mr. Obama’s re-election, there’s a chance to reset Washington’s international strategy.  There won’t be many more.

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Checking in with Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein, as it happens, is working on both a book and a movie on the climate crisis. Which is great, because she’s a talented spokeswoman, and a key strategist, and she’s working to put together a new framing, one that actually helps us get our arms around the crisis.

There’s a lot happening on the climate front, and most it is is integrated, one way or another, into this very nice half-hour interview with Bill Moyers.  The Moyers headline is “Capitalism and climate,” but the real thrust of Klein’s rap here is the climate crisis as an historic opportunity for progressives. The propaganda campaigns of the carbon cartel, 350’s Do the Math tour, the mainstreaming of the Carbon Tracker work, the great refocusing that has come in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it’s all grist here.

This interview is worth a close listen. As you do, study her framing. It’s damn good, though not perfect. Naomi, in particular, doesn’t have much to say on the international side, at least not here. Which is not at all a surprise, since the “US in the world” problem is a very, very difficult one.  The good news is that there’s really no fundamental disconnect between the domestic and the international sides of the climate justice agendas. It’s clear, at this point, that we’re all in this together. It’s just that some of us are riding first class, while others are trapped down in the holds.

And this is just as true within the US as it is globally.

“It is crucial that scientists sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on global warming.”

Amazing letter in Nature, by legendary — well, OK, famous — investor Jeremy Grantham.   You gotta read it, especially if you’re a scientist.

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. I am a specialist in investment bubbles, not climate science. But the effects of climate change can only exacerbate the ecological trouble I see reflected in the financial markets — soaring commodity prices and impending shortages.

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America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy

America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth (Yale University Press, 2012, 272 pages)

Gus Speth has been around the block — cofounder of the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, senior environmental advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Program, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at Yale, and a whole lot more. He’s been a busy man, and more importantly, he’s an honest one. While not repudiating his past efforts, he readily admits that, at least when it comes to “the existential threat of climate change,” they‘ve come to “ashes.” These days, civil disobedience is at the top of his very crowded agenda. His footnotes hold surprises (I was particularly amused to see Peter Barnes and Tony Negri sharing a citation). He’s well worth reading.

Speth’s particular talent — evident here as in his earlier books — is that he’s a kind of encyclopedist. As Herman Daly says on the book’s blurbs page, America the Possible offers a “selective, judicious, and integrated” narrative that brings together “the best current thinking on the American political economic crisis.”

The selections are generally excellent, and are animated by their integration into Speth’s overall argument, which is that when we collect and organize our best ideas, and then fit them together in just the right way, we can construct a coherent vision of a new and far better America, one that’s ready to prosper even amidst the coming storms. Such arguments have, of course, been made before, but Speth’s version is so wide-ranging that after a while you realize that he’s trying to summarize the shared ambitions of the progressive American green movement as a whole. This is of course a Very Big Ask, but all told Speth is remarkably successful. Which is not to say that there aren’t some real holes in his argument. But even the book’s weaknesses don’t seem his alone, but rather the shared weaknesses of, well, the progressive American green movement.

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The North-South divide, equity and development

The What Next Forum in Sweden has just published a nice, up-to-date overview of the Greenhouse Development Rights effort-sharing  framework. Many thanks to Niclas Hällström for pushing the GDRs team to put it together. Weighing in at about ten thousand words, The North-South divide, equity and development – The need for trust-building for emergency mobilization is now the best single introduction and overview of GDRs around, and we’re very glad to have it.

We’re particularly glad because this essay contains an extended discussion of how GDRs – as an “equity reference framework” – could help us navigate a trust- and momentum-building transition to the high-ambition mobilization that we so desperately need.

By the way, this new GDRs overview is part of a book-length collection of rare relevance called What Next Volume III: Climate, Development and Equity.  Take a good look at the Table of Contents page.  There’s lots of excellent stuff here.  In particular, Kevin Anderson’s Climate change: going beyond dangerous — Brutal numbers and tenuous hope is absolutely required reading.  And Dale Wen’s piece on China — China and climate change — Spin, facts, and realpolitik — is excellent.  If you still have Mark Lynas’ supremely unhelpful post-Copenhagen screed — “How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal?  I was in the room” — floating around in your head, Dale’s piece will help you to purge it for good.  And Matthew Stilwell’s Climate finance – How much is needed?, which is extremely useful.  And don’t miss A global programme to tackle energy access and climate change, by Tariq Bauri and Niclas Hällström.  This is a key piece of the puzzle.

After Sandy, solidarity

Excellent point from Oxfam’s excellent Tim Gore, in a blog post called From superstorm Sandy to climate solidarity: How extreme weather can unlock climate action.  To wit, climate disruption creates opportunities for solidarity, and we had better seize them.

Here’s a bit more:

“This increased confidence in attributing climate change to specific impacts on people’s lives, and on the bottom lines of businesses and entire countries, means weather extremes like Sandy should now be treated as major opportunities to leverage political action on climate change. It’s an idea that has gained increasing attention in recent years, from Alex Evans to David Attenborough (and in Oxfam, Duncan Green’s been haranguing us about getting better at seizing “windows of opportunity” for years).

In the context in which an abrupt change of course is needed to address the climate crisis – one some have compared only to mobilisation for war – crisis moments can create unique windows of opportunity for non-linear political change. That is precisely what we need. They can catalyse clear shifts in the values and priorities of citizens, business and political leaders around the world. Climate disasters in the global North and South alike are reminders of the common threat we face, and of the need to act collectively and urgently to avert yet greater harm.”

Praful Bidwai’s “The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis”

Praful Bidwai is a former Senior Editor at The Times of India and one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists.  He’s also the author of the recent book The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future. This book is notable in a number of ways, and not just because it contains a long and coherent chapter called “Alternative Visions: What would an Equitable Global Climate Deal Look Like?”

Bidwai is a rare analyst.  He writes as a man of the South, but at the same time he can be extremely critical of the South’s negotiating postures.  In fact, he devotes an entire chapter — “Rooted in Incoherence: Anomalies and Contradictions in India’s Climate Policy” — to an excoriation of India’s stance in the negotiations, which he judges to be incoherent, duplicitous, and short-sighted, and all of these by virtue of being rooted in an unjust model of development.  His essential claim here is not simply that India’s position is an undemocratic one that ultimately serves its elites, though this is a line he develops at length.  It is also that India’s position is based on unsound ethical claims that cannot possibly support a fair global accord.  That, in particular,

“the per capita norm does not capture, nor is it logically related to, the central concern highlighted by recent climate-related scientific findings: namely, the urgent need to prevent dangerous climate change.”

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Is Pablo Solon still a sign of the times?

Pablo Solon, formerly the Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations, is not the sort of guy who goes along to get along. You may recall that he delivered a now famous, late night speech explaining why Bolivia chose to “stand alone” by not signing the Cancun climate agreement.  It was, frankly, an astonishing performance, and while I didn’t entirely agree with it, well let’s just say that it punctured a consensus that had gotten just a wee bit too cozy.

Walden Bello, the founder of Focus on the Global South, is similarly not known for timorous opinions.  Walden is plainspoken even by the standards of Asian civil society, and quick to speak of fundamental things — capitalism at the edge being one of them.  These day’s he’s also an elected representative in the Philippine  Congress, where, I’m guessing, reality is more clearly visible that it is in, say, the US Congress.

Together, Solon and Bello have just knocked out Why are climate negotiations locked in a stalemate?, a must read op-ed that ran in the Bangkok Post on September 4, just as the last round of the climate talks was nearing its conclusions.  And it’s not just interesting.  It’s surprising and instructive.  For example:

“The refusal of the North to curb high consumption and the intention of big emerging economies to reproduce the Northern consumption model lies at the root of the deadlock in the climate change negotiations. . .

In reality US and China both want a weaker climate agreement. The US because their influential politicians and corporations are not committed to deep real cuts. China’s leaders realise that the longer they can put off a legally binding agreement, the better for them. . .

The climate talks stalemate is not the result of a contradiction between the two biggest powers but of a common approach not to be obliged to change their policies of consumption, production, and gaining control of natural resources around the world. . .

The position of the delegations of the US and China and many other countries reflects more the concerns of their elites than of their people. . .

The elites of emerging economies are using the just demand of “historical responsibility” or “common but differentiated responsibility” in order to win time and have a weak binding agreement by 2020 that they will be part of. The deliberate prolonging of the stalemate means allowing business as usual. Given that this strategy has led to a dead end, it is imperative that in the UNFCCC negotiations civil society must regain its independent voice and articulate a position distinct from that of the Group of 77 and China.”

Do, please, note the word “just” that appears before the word “demand.”  This is not a rap on the UNFCCC’s equity principles.  It’s a cold-eyed view of the realpolitik of a situation in which the “big emerging economies” have “launched into high-speed, consumption-dependent, and greenhouse gases-intensive growth paths.”

The climate negotiations are getting interesting again, and not a moment too soon.   We are, all of us, in a very tight spot, and while this op-ed will strike some in the South as unhelpful, the key point, for me, is the insistence that “the elites,” and not “the North,” are the key obstacle to mobilization.  In any case, if anything is certain, it’s that “civil society” finding its “independent voice” is a very good idea.