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