Well it’s not been reported in any of the news media I come across everyday (British press websites, major news channels etc) but the 1st-12th of December sees the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan Poland. The conference in Poznan is a build up for the big climate talks set to take place in Copenhagen 2009 where I believe a successor to the Kyoto Protocol is supposedly going to be negotiated on.
Anyway, I was perusing the UN Poznan site and they urgency of the coming climate disaster really doesn’t come across in any shape or form (especially in terms of policy details and the discussions). I truly believe that the human race has about 3 or 4 more generations left if the climate continues to be impacted in the same way over the next 50 years. I don’t want to seem sensationalist, and I’m not grounding this completely on any movies made by former US Vice-Presidents, but from the almost near scientific consensus, lack of political will and continued high levels of pollution on show, I really can’t see us turning this thing around.
The main problem regarding climate change is its temporality. It’s a processes in which the effects take decades to become obvious and needs to be dealt with over a long time period. Those who are given the task to deal with the problem have a very short term outlook, namely 4 or 5 years in the case of politicians. If you need to get re-elected in a few years time, are you really going to enforce harsh environmental standards on companies and individuals if you feel it may effect your electoral chances? The British government have been widely perceived to have set the standard for Carbon emissions reduction which is now legally stipulated to have been lowered by 60% by around 2050. That’s a positive move as it legally forces future governments to stick to those targets whether they like it or not, but the cuts have been set long into the future by politicians who wont have to deal with the problem at the present.
Environmental protection is increasingly viewed as a luxury ‘good’ that, during periods of austerity as we’re about to enter now, have to make way for productivity and higher levels of pollution as Silvio Berlusconi recently made clear during negotiations to implement a programme which would force the EU to reduce its CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020. For Berlusconi, it is too costly now for companies to make the necessary investment in cleaner technology and perhaps pay for carbon credits and other market ‘solutions’ to the problem during a recession. This is probably the case, but it seems bizarrely wrong headed when the alternative is complete destruction of large tracts of inhabited land in the next half century. Millions of people are set to lose their land, livelihoods and perhaps even lives in areas that will be flooded, or suffer worse droughts… ironically, as ever, these worst effects of ’developed’ nations polluting and industrialism will be mostly felt by poorer nations such as Bangladesh and those around Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s clear though that at some point low lying areas such as the Netherlands, New York, large chunks of London and other Northern cities and states will feel the effects as well. Perhaps we’ll start doing something then… once it’s too late.
A troubling aspect of the current Kyoto Protocol and the talks in Poznan is the continue empahsis on market mechanisms such as carbon trading, technology development and so on. In the old days of industrialisation (when the now industrialised states were developing), environmental degradation was free of cost and not thought of as an externality. That has now changed and states are looking of ways to make heavy polluters pay. There are two major problems with this. Firstly, it gives the false impression we can buy our way out of this problem. Yes, industrialised nations are now cleaning up and have cleaner air and water standards than ever. This has been achieved by sending the old scales of pollution elsewhere, away from our own borders. An example is the current drive for supermarkets to stop giving out plastic carrier bags. Ok, great, so a huge multi national who flies produce in from all over the world which used to be grown here tells me I’m being immoral if I use 2 bags. We no longer shove the bags into landfill sites or burn it in this country, lovely. Or is it? It turns out 95% of Europe’s plastic bags and packaging is sent to China. A decent percentage of that is then processed and re-sold, but a hell of a lot of it is dumped either underground or in rivers etc. This whole approach gives the impression that developing nations live on a planet seperate from that of industrialising countries and can send their pollution elsewhere. This is obviously a joke.
The second big problem with the current approach is that placing these high environmental standards into the market is effectively locking out those states who haven’t done all the polluting yet, like the richest states and therefore wont have the opportunity to catch up with the developed states. This is probably in the interest of a lot of people for numerous reasons, but again, the rich nations are being hugely hypocritical in forcing standards on nations they didn’t have to meet when they were developing. If we lived in a world where class and power interests didn’t trump the need to protect our only habitat (the planet itself), perhaps industrialised countries would have to cut their emissions by a huge number (say 80%) which the hardships that may bring, while allowing developing nations to catch up (and once they do they can enforce cleaner standards). Such a move may well help save the human race, but it would shift power from certain countries and individuals to others. That’s not something those with power currently wish to envisage.
In the midst of the current economic crisis, capitalists have realised that the opportunities for gaining profit from instruments such as financial services is limited and therefore are returning to old fashioned means of making money. This includes the exploitation of natural resources which has suddenly seen a jump in investment in the Andean regions of South America. This is massively effecting biodiversity, but again, away from our view here in the west, and in places where the people are voiceless in global institutions and power structures. As we can no longer make money from silly numbers flying around on computer screens, we need to return to the dirty processes of extraction from the global south (basically taking un unfair share of somebody elses’ resources). Of course this is something the ‘developed’ world has a rich tradition and considerable skill in.
Profit making never used to be about man’s domination over nature. The early scientists such as Bacon and Newton etc actually wished to find God through scientific exploration and saw man living in equilibrium with nature and not able to divorce ourselves from that relationship. In the 19th century there was a clean break with nature in scientific discourse due to the crisis of religion (due to that pesky Darwin fella and archaeology) which lead to a collapse of the common episteme up until that point and a need for a new foundation of knowledge. John Stuart Mill was one of the pioneers of the idea the idea that nature was ‘wantonly immoral’ and such beliefs became widespread in not only academia, but the arts (nature portrayed as an unruly woman). Nature was seen to be below humans and necessarily conquered and shaped to our own liking.
With this came new conceptions of property and economists creating ‘pure economics’ which split economics from the global political economy with huge implications. Value was to be extracted from human relations and no longer largely based on morality as it had been in the past. Before this, property ownership was connected to the belief of sterwardship. Man was a steward of God’s Earth for future generations, as well as the wealth they held and therefore there was a moral obligation to maintain the environments serviceability. The current economic framework is one which holds a pure conception of property meaning once an individual owns something, they may do with it as they please which has obviously led to the rampant consumption we see nowadays and the fact win dispose of property so readily.
An interesting (yet worrying) book to read for those who are interested in the politics and implications of global climate change is James Lovelock’s ‘The Revenge of Gaia’. Lovelock sees the impacts of climate change as huge;
From the Wikipedia entry -
“Lovelock thinks the time is past for sustainable development, and that we have come to a time when development is no longer sustainable. He proposes that we need sustainable retreat from an impending Climate Storm; that we must retreat in an orderly fashion from the coming threats to our global habitat, to mitigate adverse impacts on human health and happiness.
According to Lovelock, by 2040, the world population of more than six billion will have been culled by floods, drought and famine. The people of Southern Europe, as well as South-East Asia, will be fighting their way into countries such as Canada, Australia and Britain. He says that “By 2040, parts of the Sahara desert will have moved into middle Europe. We are talking about Paris – as far north as Berlin. In Britain we will escape because of our oceanic position.” Lovelock believes it is too late to repair the damage. “If you take the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions, then by 2040 every summer in Europe will be as hot as it was in 2003 – between 43C and 49C (120F). It is not the death of people that is the main problem, it is the fact that the plants can’t grow – there will be almost no food grown in Europe. We are about to take an evolutionary step and my hope is that the species will emerge stronger. It would be hubris to think humans as they now are God’s chosen race.”"
Pretty scary stuff, but actually not that outlandish. Everything he predicts is pretty much backed by the Pentagon’s 2003 report to the president claiming that climate change is likely to lead to greater regional conflict, widespread rioting, possible nuclear war and that Britain may have a Siberian climate as the gulf stream warm air flows shut down (the only thing that stops us from being like Norway) and large scale regional conflicts over resources. Considering I’ll only be 35 in 2020, I have every right to be worried about such predictions being correct!
Anyway, if you can, try to maintain the pressure on whoever your representative is regarding the coming climate disaster throughout the economic crisis. Politicians deal with short term problems to save their own skins, make sure they retain a long term outlook. Don’t let them dither over the destruction of our only home!