Sunday, December 14, 2014

After COP20 Lima

There are plenty of folk (eg at CarbonBrief and Adopt a Negotiator ) searching the entrails of the climate conference for clues as to what happened and what the meaning of the finally agreed document will turn out to be. Let's step back from the details and try to catch the big picture.

First the positive. At Lima there really was nobody questioning the science; climate denial is all so last decade that it has become fine to just ignore anybody who doubts that burning fossil carbon will inevitably lead to catastrophic global warming. If you should still meet such a character just point to the Moon and ask him to fetch the cheese.

The game now is brinkmanship, and it's the biggest such game ever. The poor world, after centuries of colonisation, exploitation, theft and unfair trade has seen an opportunity for reparation. They didn't invent the industrial revolution, the fossil carbon complex that is set to destroy the habitability of the planet. They hold the moral high ground (though some of it is perilously close to sea level).

The rich world knows the score but wants to minimise its pain. The newly industrialising nations must not be allowed to become the new polluters just because they have no historical legacy of guilt. Adaptation payments may be deserved but its not easy to give away one's wealth. And, though is can't be admitted for fear of frightening the horses, the rich world's wealth is not so very secure. Economies, post 2008, are known to be fragile enough and with a quarter of the global stock-market based on potentially stranded assets of fossil carbon, any mismanagement of the transition to zero-carbon could bring the house of cards crashing down.

Maybe the collapse of Western capitalism isn't much to worry about when one's home environment no longer affords a sustaining livelihood. For some nations taking the risk of calling the rich world's bluff is no relative risk at all and the rich will have to blink first to avoid mutually assured destruction.

Let's keep the science in mind. I just saw this from @CraigBennett3 Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth UK, who used his 140 characters thus:
Some judge #COP20 against what politicians say is "possible" I prefer to judge against what scientists say is "necessary" &what is equitable
It's just one of countless such expressions of the sentiment that political leaders and the system they operate in are not up to the job.

Now herein lies a danger. It's rather easy to blame the politicians and to blame the system, but is that not just creating a scapegoat? If a politician announces big time consumption cuts, life changes to put fossil carbon-burning into history, and soon enough to avoid climate disaster, will she become Prime Minister in May 2015? No, not even if her name is Natalie Bennett. Most folk have not yet understood the peril. And some who think they have, have not properly.

The science is clear: business as usual has set us on a path to catastrophic warming that will surely see a mass die-off this century; BAU is not an option. Even the mitigation and adaptation pathways discussed and not yet agreed upon at Lima imperil billions. There is an optimism bias built into the way we interpret science. There is uncertainty in climate science but the probability space of error is skewed to the bad side.

In their excellent essay, The Collapse of Western Civilisation, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway fictionally recount, from the viewpoint of a historian way in the future, how climate change wreaked catastrophe in the late 21st century. They point out our convention of statistical significance leads to scientific 'truth' being accepted when there is some 95% confidence. The one in twenty chance, the low probability high consequence event, is ignored. When politicians talk of staying below 2°C they may not acknowledge that there's only a 66% chance of meeting their goal. Poor odds for survival of civilisation.

So let's drop the scapegoating, internalise the science truthfully, and work out what we, each of us, individually, can contribute to being part of the solution rather than part of the problem. The government does not have it within its power to force us to make the change. Governments in democracies, may be able to nudge, but are essentially followers not leaders. We have to push our own lives to carbon zero.

Just as the poor nations can risk all in the game of brinkmanship so too can we. At the end of the game we can stop shopping; it's our ultimate weapon. That would collapse the system in short order. And its outcome is no worse than climate catastrophe. On the way we can use every piece of engagement in the economy as a political tool.

For every purchase we make, be it a plane ticket, a chocolate bar, a garden fork or an entry to a poetry recital, our first thought should not be can we afford it but can the planet afford it. Will the transaction increase the amount of fossil carbon burnt or will it increase the sum total of human happiness at zero carbon cost?

We have the power to take the required action and when we do the politicians will be empowered to follow our lead.


Blogger Ralph Hobbs said...

Reminds me of the old 'Tragedy of the Commons' conundrum with everyone saying "why should I cut back to reduce my carbon footprint when all my friends don't!" Especially when most people don't see the environment as relevant to the bubble of their own their lives. Look how many decades it took to get the idea of recycling widely implemented by Govt and Councils, and it still isn't fully accepted by all my neighbours! It's only enforcement that finally made everyone do it.

4:13 pm  

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