Political reality way ahead on points at start of round 16
When trying to absorb some of the usual deluge of reports which rain at the start of each COP, I thought again of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This is the psychological discomfort one feels when trying to hold two conflicting ideas in one’s mind at the same time. The UNFCCC process, which ostensibly seeks to have all governments sign up to meaningful, deliverable carbon reductions, is a veritable fount of such dissonance. On the one hand, we have the grand rhetoric on the scale of the task, the moment we must seize in order to define the nature of the next few centuries of life on earth. On the other, the pale political speak which talks of ‘realistic’ targets and expectations. I challenge anyone anywhere to hold these two ‘realities’ comfortably in their mind at once.
The reports that have emerged recently encompass the full spectrum of common discourses – the biological and the mechanistic aspects of the negotiations, as well as the philosophical and ethical. The biological matters, relating to the outlook for all of the world’s flora and fauna, usually have mechanisms attached to them. These exist to find ways and means of protecting or enhancing biological diversity, ecosystem health, biological carbon sequestration and so on. However, they usually end up looking like a means for monied interests to cash in. The new report by Friends of the Earth – REDD: the realities in black and white – paints just such a picture. The REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries) mechanism is described as another example of something sounding good until you look at the detail, the reality on the ground.
The other major theme in the reports is the effects of climate change. And it actually feels strange to read about it again. Over the course of this year there has been a gradual dropping off the agenda of climate change. Republican strategist Karl Rove recently told a shale-gas conference “Climate is gone.” While this kind of statement makes the mind literally ache, he may have been briefly correct. The ‘climategate’ affair which broke a year ago, and has murmered along in the background ever since, seemed to frighten the media away from the subject. I cannot recall a single mention of climate change on the BBC news this year – even when reporting on the floods in Pakistan or the heatwave in Russia. Even when BBC meteorologists discussed the subject! They only talked of weather, not of climate.
But climategate did expose some serious issues around climate science. Sharing of raw data is now expected to improve, as, hopefully, is the process and spirit of collaboration. However, regardless of what evidence is put to some people, they will appeal to anything they can, rather than try to accept that climate change is to any extent exacerbated by human activity. An article this year discussed research showing that when faced with inconvenient scientific truths, some people will question science itself rather than entertain the possibility that they may be wrong. Never underestimate the power of human denial.
On political realities, the most useful guidance I read on the actual negotiations was from Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, who said, “We have to recognize the realities that countries will act in their own self interest, that developing countries see the need for satisfying the aspirations of their public as an absolute necessity and that developed countries see recovering from the vicious recession as an absolute necessity and operate within that.”
On physical realities, another article discusses the likelihoods and outcomes of global average temperature rises of 2C and 4C. Bob Watson, former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and now chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is quoted as saying “Two degrees is now a wishful dream.”
Read the Lash quote, then the Watson quote. This is the crux of the problem, as I see it: ecological versus political reality. And the latter has been winning out, over and over again. Governments are not gathering in a spirit of trust and goodwill to solve a problem for the sake of our children, and all of future generations of life. Nor are these governments starting from an equal footing. Nor are they doing so unencumbered by the demands of industry and other multinational corporations. Nor are they negotiating with the wholehearted support and understanding of their citizens. Nor do they have an open-ended schedule to spend the time they need to get the job done. Nor are they equipped with a unifying vision for our global society, with shared values, working transparently with deep wisdom, humility and mutual respect.
Instead, what is playing out is a geopolitical game. Lash is accurate in all that he says, I believe. The same people that deal with the day-to-day politics in their country are having to fight it out through their negotiators, trying to satisfy their citizens, and all the economic interests that are in a position to bring to bear some influence over them. For the campaigners that attempt to give some balance to the process by screaming a voice of reason from the streets, they are up against almost insurmountable odds. Creativity, mobilisation and influence over public opinion are some of the only tools available, but in the end they are for the most part excluded from the process.
What is most difficult about all this is that the wealthier nations are not seeing the CO2 build-up as a clear and present danger. They still have power, light, heat, food, fuel, homes, jobs, all manner of digital entertainment. Where’s the problem? As has been pointed out for decades, by the time the rich nations see the problem on their doorstep it will be too late. So, what then? What hope, in what looks like a hopeless situation? Personally, the efforts of so many around the world every day give me hope. And it is not just the usual worthies, hippies and idealists. It is the entrepreneurs of the new economy, the researchers, scientists, investors, the green champions in neighbourhoods, schools, offices, corporations, municipalities, governments, it is the cultural creatives, the artists, it is the communities that band together to take action, it is the start-ups, programmes and initiatives that help them, it is the thinkers and doers around the world that see the problem and do whatever they can to act. They seek to deliver, to show what can be done, and demonstrate the multiple social, environmental, economic and political benefits of doing so. What they need is more encouragement from on high, to build on their efforts and create a critical mass toward greening every economy. They need those in Cancun for the COP16, the governments, negotiators and the entire UNFCCC process, to get real about ecological reality and expand the horizons of political reality.