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Climate change, Durban, and why we are not doing the right thing. Yet.

November 25, 2011

It seems to me that, on the eve of the Durban conference, the environmental movement is fast reaching an impasse, where none of us know what else we can try, what else we can say or do, that will actually bring about a response in keeping with the scale of the problem.

The fatalism that pervades most writing on the subject is regrettable, but how much longer can we continue to write optimistic pieces advocating agreements we know will never be reached, solutions we know will never be implemented, aid we know will never materialise? Frankly, I think we’re stuck, all of us.

For the record, I don’t think the problem is denial, so much as it is fear and complacency. The only solution to anthropogenic climate change is a pardigm shift so great it will lead us towards a future nobody can predict. Developed societies – as opposed to developing – abhor change and yearn constantly for some mythical stability that history suggests is a chimera, because we in the developed world already have what we want. Now we want to keep what we have gained and maintain a standard of living in the clear knowledge that to do so, others must pay a terrible price – the continuance of their poverty, their illness, their ignorance and their penury. It is climate colonialism, and the developing nations outside of the BRIC know perfectly well the last chance to alleviate their poverty is slipping fast away.

The most worrying thing is that nobody is offering any credible tactic, strategy, diplomatic initiative or economic solution that might make the slightest bit of difference, or provide some leverage to bring about change. I’ve recently been reading Barry Cunliffe’s Rome and Her Empire, and I was struck by the way that so many of those in power did not, or would not, accept that change was coming, pretty much until barbarians really were at the gate. So many of the signs and signals were consistent with what we are experiencing now, both in social, economic, political, agricultural and, of course, military terms.

It now appears that, two millennia later, we are no different, have learned nothing (Santayana, I hate you). The slow but relentless progress in destabilising our climate makes it hard to identify the precursors of the catastrophes that await, even though many signals appear to be pointing in the general direction. I write a lot about the ice, because – as the models predicted – we are seeing the earliest signs of anthropogenic climate change best in the polar regions, particularly the Arctic. The cryrosphere is one of the least ambiguous of all the signals we are receiving.

But it is an area of little economic relevance, outside of shipping routes and newly opened access to resources we will surely exploit, even as we hold conference after conference. It is scary to consider that each new meeting seems to be taking place in an atmosphere tainted by less urgency, not more; less realism, less conciliation, less understanding. Perversely, the more the problem is confirmed by science – e.g. the more the ice melts and the weather becomes more unpredictable – the harder it seems that the key nations, both developed and developing, are trying to entrench themselves in a position best described as recalcitrant.

What’s to do? The obvious thing is to wait, despite knowing perfectly well that for every day that passes, adaptation will be harder to achieve and more expensive to implement. The poor nations, those who have less to protect under a business as usual banner, may kick and scream and cry foul, and who can blame them? But their cries will not be heard among the clamour for consumer growth and free trade, initiatives that are diametrically opposed to sustainable development and social equity.

Like the general public, who will only wake up to the real scale and import of the problems on the horizon until long after the last opportunity to head them off, those of us who have been concerned about this issue for so long must bide our time (we can count the costs, the losses, the missed opportunities and growing hardships while we wait). Eventually, the barbarians will be at our gates once more, and when the waves crash over this current civilisation and wash much of it away, perhaps then we can build something more sustainable, more appropriate and more worthy of the intelligence we display only fitfully, and when we can be bothered.

Too many of the rich nations are, to an extent, acting like the Americans Churchill described so memorably; sure we’ll do the right thing, but only after we’ve tried everything else.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 25, 2011 7:58 pm

    Graham,, Your pessimism is warranted by the facts that we all face, but we must keep trying, as I know you will, to get the message across to those know-nothings who control the policies of government. In the U.S. it’s the republicans who are making the most noise now and we must defeat them in the next election. We’ll keep trying. We can’t give up, as Churchill did not give up!

  2. November 26, 2011 1:46 pm

    Top work Graham ,as usual. We do need to try and change things. Chasing the money never ever is the right thing, but it is all some or indeed most people understand. After all the fear and greed factors are deeply set into our DNA. But we seem incapable of learning from history. What is happening in the West shows how clueless most policy makers and leaders really are. Dear oh dear. No giving up though. #Occupy

  3. November 26, 2011 6:53 pm

    Well I gave a fairly bleak picture of things on CiF, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to change things for the better. The Deniers are a persistent and sick bunch to deal with, and I’m not sure anything will ever change their deranged anti-scientific beliefs, its the people in the middle that will be the ones who effect change.

    All the best.

  4. November 29, 2011 1:20 pm

    Very bleak but regrettably accurate. It seems that all the power to influence people and politics is amassed on the ‘dark side’. ‘Climategate 2.0’ is a good example where more emails that have nothing to do with questioning the science are released just in time for a conference that’s aim is to establish some sort of political framework for action. It gives the ‘dark side’ enough to generate smoke and mirrors and leave ordinary people confused enough to question the whole premise of human induced climate change. After all there is no smoke with out fire apparently.

    I really do now believe that nothing significant will happen to mitigate and adaptation will be the only course for those who can afford it and very much after damage has been done.

  5. markhb permalink
    December 27, 2011 10:19 am

    A Tour de Force, as usual Graham; and strangely prescient. The outcome of Durban was an agreement to agree, — once its too late.
    There is no choice but to wait.
    Only last week our little corner of New Zealand suffered a local deluge that caused floods the like of which had not been experienced in living memory. These extreme climatic events are occurring with increasing frequency and intensity all over the planet.
    The situation is becoming undeniable.
    People and their governments desperately want to do the right thing, but the human condition is culturally locked into a global economy which — like a supertanker — can’t be swiftly reversed by our glacial international process.
    The Churchill quote is sublime.

  6. December 28, 2011 1:06 am

    I agree that Durban was little more than agreeing to agree. So what will post Durban mean for the planet? In my own blog I looked at life after Durban;

    Life after Durban

    It was always a certainty that the COP 17 talks in Durban would reach some sort of agreement so that the government representatives and other delegates could claim some sort of success. That is how politics works, no one wanted to be seen as failing.

    But in reality and as expected the agreement was just an agreement to agree something at an agreed later date – 2020 in this case. Certainly better than nowt, ‘ But the intervening years could set the world on track for more than 3 °C of global warming’.

    So with this the best that seems to be on offer to the world, what, according to the science does a world with 3 °C of warming look like?

    For that the book ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas seems a fair source. I read this book awhile back and as the title suggests it lays out in chapters what to expect for each degree of warming and references the science to make those conclusions. My copy of this book is on loan so I can’t summarise the three degree chapter as I would like but in a Guardian article Mark Lynas summarised it as this;

    “Three degrees alone would see increasing areas of the planet being rendered essentially uninhabitable by drought and heat. In southern Africa, a huge expanse centred on Botswana could see a remobilisation of old sand dunes, much as is projected to happen earlier in the US west. This would wipe out agriculture and drive tens of millions of climate refugees out of the area. The same situation could also occur in Australia, where most of the continent will now fall outside the belts of regular rainfall.

    With extreme weather continuing to bite – hurricanes may increase in power by half a category above today’s top-level Category Five – world food supplies will be critically endangered. This could mean hundreds of millions – or even billions – of refugees moving out from areas of famine and drought in the sub-tropics towards the mid-latitudes. In Pakistan, for example, food supplies will crash as the waters of the Indus decline to a trickle because of the melting of the Karakoram glaciers that form the river’s source. Conflicts may erupt with neighbouring India over water use from dams on Indus tributaries that cross the border.

    In northern Europe and the UK, summer drought will alternate with extreme winter flooding as torrential rainstorms sweep in from the Atlantic – perhaps bringing storm surge flooding to vulnerable low-lying coastlines as sea levels continue to rise. Those areas still able to grow crops and feed themselves, however, may become some of the most valuable real estate on the planet, besieged by millions of climate refugees from the south.”

    Even though this book is now several years old, it’s conclusions of the science at that time are still sound and subsequent research over the intervening years either confirm them of show them to be conservative.

    Another source that predicts what a world a few degrees warmer looks is from National Geographic (including a short statement from Mark Lynas) and has no better news.

    Welcome to the world of our tomorrows.

  7. markhb permalink
    December 29, 2011 11:32 am

    Yes @Lazarus, the science is staring us all in the face.
    We left Europe five years ago and lifeboat builders are commonplace in these parts.
    It may all be a futile effort but the future certainly will be exceptionally challenging.

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