Not counting on Copenhagen

For those of you who have been paying close attention to these events some of this may be overly simplistic and iterative, so apologies, sort of.

In December, governments from around the world will send delegations to Copenhagen to discuss a potential multilateral approach to climate change caused by the activities of humanity (Anthropomorphic Global Warming or AGW), as opposed to the changes in climate that occur over time. We have been told by some scientists (some say a majority) that climate change is progressing at a rate that will, within a relatively short period of time, result in catastrophic effects. Some have a particularly dire view. These effects, we are told, might include anything from acidification of the oceans to a point that causes major loss of marine species and habitats, to water shortages and even triggering an ice age.

I’m not a climate scientist, or any form of scientist for that matter, but I’ve read a bit from people who are. Fortunately for me, I guess, I have a general view that makes the arguments about nuances and complexities where we try to pin down likely effects to the most definite possible range, and then seek to discredit that range, largely redundant. That said, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change experts seem fairly authoritative to me, but maybe that’s because of this prior inclination. In any case, their reports seem to fall somewhere in the more rational band of analysis, but, again, maybe I’m biased.

For me, it’s pretty obvious that the human capacity to pollute and irredeemably alter our environment for the worse has exponentially increased over the past two hundred years, and continues to increase every day. What’s more, we seem to do this more to the most habitable parts of the world than to the bits that are inhospitable.

So it actually doesn’t take much convincing for me to get to the position that some sort of coordinated approach to reducing this impact is a good idea. Go ahead, I say to those who wish to, argue about what year the relevant level of sea rise considered catastrophic will occur. I guess we need to have these arguments because apparently it’s only by being on the brink of disaster that governments will be convinced to do anything substantial at all. And yet, do we really think they’ll rise to the challenge?

Japan has recently said that it’ll commit to cutting to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, so long as the rest of the world also commits to targets. Similar approaches have been taken by the European Union (20% from 1990 levels), and are currently being discussed by the United States (17% from 2005 levels) and Australia (minimum 5% independent of a deal at Copenhagen, possibly as much as 25%). All reliant on agreement at Copenhagen.

Recently, 10 African Union states signed a memorandum they’ll be taking to Copenhagen demanding that developed states commit to 40% cuts as well as the transfer of USD67 billion per year from developed states to assist them with adaptation measures, and threatened to walk out of negotiations if they’re not taken seriously. Meanwhile, China and India are refusing to be bound by any targets whatsoever (see link above at ‘similar approaches’).

In addition, developing states are demanding ‘technology transfer’ as part of any agreement. I think this would be great, but if we decode it what they’re asking for is that developed states hand over their intellectual property to new technologies that can assist in reducing carbon emissions. Given the long-term trend in intellectual property to extending periods of exclusive rights and clamping down on infringement, how likely does anyone think this is?

If we accept the logic that some agreement is better than none, which I do – agreement is always lovely, then any outcome from Copenhagen is a good one. It’s probably time that national governments engaged in a bit of expectation management if they’re going to accept a minimalist response. Certainly, that’s what seems to be indicated by this kind of article from John Hopkins Professor Scott Barrett when he concludes that:

Success in Copenhagen should not be defined by setting goals that lack domestic support and that cannot be enforced but by laying a foundation for making incremental improvements over time.

These inflated expectations might include, if the many scientists who have been warning us about potential cataclysm are correct, that we might actually be able to avert these kinds of repercussions and sustain our current standards of living. If they are right, a minimalist approach won’t be able to meet these expectations, and governments need to start informing their electorates of this if they want to avert electoral disaster. Of course, parliamentary democracy may itself be somewhat irrelevant in those circumstances, so maybe they don’t need to.

Fortunately for us, I suppose, there are a bunch of scientists who don’t think we’re on the brink of collapse, who question whether or not humanity is even causing global warming at all. They’re quite influential, too. I had an interesting argument with just such an adherent (is it stereotype-reinforcing to point out that he worked for a merchant bank?) last December, whose essential argument was it’s not happening and if it is we can adapt to it. Well, it appears, if the people he and others of his view deride are correct, that adaptation is getting ever closer to the only option left. It’s just as well we’ve got a plan to release sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, or to send either lots of little mirrors or one big one into orbit to deny the planet sunlight. Actually, part of me is a little bit excited by that plan, but that’s just because I’ve always liked science fiction.

Of course, the level of influence enjoyed by a merchant banker over public policy is likely to be far greater than mine. After all, I don’t even live in the country whose government I vote for – why would they listen to me, particularly – but apart from that, we do live in a capitalist democracy, and naturally bankers matter.

This makes a comparison with other international initiatives relevant, I think. Take, for example, the latest round of negotiations to reform the World Trade Organization. You may have heard reference to the Doha Round of negotiations. They have been stalled since 2001. Now, free trade is essential to the rationale and logic of the capitalist world system, and yet the same states that will meet in December to discuss measures that will impose significant cost burdens on capitalist production cannot even agree on how to pursue freer trade. Still, the most reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the recent G20 meeting regarding the WTO, it seems, is that it – unlike the global environment, if we believe those scientists – is not on the brink of collapse.

All of which gets me back to my earlier statement that I, for one, don’t need us to be on the brink of a collapse of civilizations to accept that less pollution and wanton destruction is a good thing. Maybe we’re not doomed, maybe capitalism will continue and prosperity will flourish across the globe. For my money, pollution is a Bad Thing and if we can cut it we should. Unfortunately, it’s not likely to be my money that will be considered in Copenhagen.

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