Global environmental policy-making is about as credible as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. We are basically going to have to wait a lifetime or for hell to freeze over for anything productive to happen.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time as a civilization. That is why this is the most important debate in the world today. Four or five year election cycles don’t allow for the kind of forward thinking that is required to solve such a complex global issue. Political culture has not adapted to the gravity of the times.
A 24 hours news cycle does not have the capacity to look ahead or embark on a dialogue of strategic planning. Academics are disconnected from the practices of social change and sheltered from society in academic institutions, rarely intervening in the public sphere. Without breaking out of that paradigm and old ways of thinking, we are heading full speed in to a brick wall. We have yet to figure out a way to grow the economy while reducing carbon emissions in this country. Is there a political party that doesn’t support growing the economy?
The methods of mass education and democratic deliberation are failing us in an unprecedented manner, particularly the negligence of mass media in ignoring this issue for too long. The environmental movement and political leaders of every stripe have turned the debate about emission targets in to a cryptic game of inside baseball and utilized a language which alienates a vast majority of the public.
Can anyone tell me what reductions of 25 or 50 per cent actually mean? How does that translate in to policy on the ground and how it does it affect the personal economic and social lives of citizens and communities? How do we mitigate the alienation that comes with change particularly in rural communities?
Without connecting with people in a real dialogue, an obscure scientific, political, media and academic game is being played, while citizens are once again left to be spectators. As Neil Postman would say, we are amusing ourselves to death. We are like inoperative citizens in a phantom society where almost half of us don’t even vote.
With so much at stake, the contamination of the public sphere by political parties and bureaucrats, mediated through the narrow confines of a conservative media frame, threatens to prolong our civilization’s need to completely rewrite the rules of the game, rather than simply kick the climate change ball a little further. We are caught up in the jargon, rather than acting to inspire or motivate the kind of changes that we need to make.
Politically, we have fetishized the environment and fighting climate change in to a meaningless term, a feel good aphorism for the age. Some times when those dolphins jump in to the air while Louis Armstrong sings, “It’s a wonderful world” during movie trailers that promote recycling, it does truly make me feel good inside. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are in complete crisis as a civilization.
The state of the world is, in reality, getting much worse. Things are really, really, really bad. And things are going to get even worse.
On the eve of a major international climate change conference, Canada and other industrialized countries are once again failing to grasp the urgency of the situation. Canada is heading into the United Nations’ Copenhagen gathering in December with a promise to reduce emissions by a paltry 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020. It has also vowed to reduce 60 to 70 per cent by 2050. Despite an international economic collapse and a once in a lifetime opportunity to remake the economic system, middle powers like Canada are simply following American foreign policy — to set agreements with major developing powers like China, India, Brazil and Indonesia rather than international targets.
Though there should be a nuanced approach in understanding the differences of developed and developing countries in setting climate policies and increasing the economic benefits to a greater number of people, advocacy organizations have yet again put the focus on international conferences such as Copenhagen as the guiding light to world environmental emancipation — unfortunately, it will prove to be misguided as much as it is well intentioned.
With or without the Harper government, Canada’s emission targets are unrealistic without a complete overhaul of federal, provincial and municipal policies that will limit economic growth. Signing global agreements without any enforcement mechanisms is nothing more than taking part in an act of bureaucratic inertia.
Reducing emissions is just one part of a broader overhaul that is necessary — we have created an international post-war economic system and a population bubble which has been perpetuating itself since the end of the Second World War. We have not invested rapidly in research and development with ecological goals in mind. Without significant government investment in R and D and the ability to commercialize such investments rapidly, the change will be too slow. Without billions of dollars in investment in urban centers for rapid transit immediately, reductions will continue to be out of reach. The federal government should be spurring on such investments by providing half of the capital costs to provinces.
Furthermore, none of these regional, national or international agreements deal with the very real crisis of world population. Though two bloody world wars led to the eventual development of the Bretton-Woods system, its very successes have relied on growth and economic indicators that have never placed a value on environmental protection. To kickstart changes, we need the equivalent of a Green ‘Marshall Plan’ with a complete redefinition of the role of the World Bank and the entire economic system. There will also be challenges, as many of these abrupt policy changes will be rightly viewed as neo-colonial in their nature and approach.
We need to understand the root causes of how we got here in the first place. We have known about the crisis of climate change for a long time. In 1957, Charles David Keeling began taking measurements annually of carbon dioxide emissions in Mauno Loa, Hawaii. Those measurements are the single longest recorded measurement of carbon dioxide emissions in the world. Keeling’s work was referenced in Al Gore’s ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ Keeling’s son Ralph continues his work today at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego.
Just after the 50th Anniversary of the Mauna Loa record, Ralph Keeling, who now studies the impact of rising CO2 emissions on oxygen levels, said in an interview:
“We are treading new ground in this from a global warming perspective as a civilisation in new ways. The nature of the threat – which is that we will see negative consequences, mostly decades or more in the future – is the kind of threat which has historically been ignored by human civilisations.
Human nature tends to focus on the immediate and assume that something 10 years down the road can be dealt with later. What people are being asked to do and reduce the impact and make some sacrifices now that might pay off decades in the future, I think it takes a really deep understanding of the problem in a way to even consider that. We’re not quite there yet, quite honestly, as a civilisation.
We’re going to need graphic images of damage where people see suffering and feel it in their own experiences. We are being called upon to reinvent our game – civilisation as a whole, I mean, and it is a troubling thing for people to contemplate doing… The pace is pathetically slow. It takes really aggressive government action like the Manhattan Project or the Marshall Plan at a global scale, a really international one, to make this happen in a comprehensive way. It’s a better way to make big changes sooner.”
What is interesting is that there was a consensus that human beings caused climate change since the 1970s. Unfortunately, the knowledge translation of that science took until well in to the 21st Century for it to become a popularly held belief. At the policy level, we are still a decade away before substantive changes will be introduced largely due to this lag. Greenwashing is a popular tactic – utilizing public relations methods to oversell the environmental benefits of corporate and government policies.
Rio and Kyoto were great to kickstart a dialogue, but very little was accomplished in reality. The same high expectations of Copenhagen, which will see all the celebrity endorsements, endless supply of political leaders, musicians and NGO’s posturing to save the planet, the reality is that it will be another ineffective intervention if history plays itself out — the public, unfortunately, isn’t there yet and the media have done a deplorable job of explaining the urgency of the situation.
As a civilization, we have not yet figured out a way to truly make this a global issue that affects everyone and requires unprecedented sacrifices about reducing consumption and changing lifestyles. It is a global issue and it does affect everyone, but that belief is not widely held on a global scale despite Al Gore’s power point presentation. It also doesn’t help when venerable organizations like the David Suzuki Foundation, which has been credible on so many issues before, are providing environmental spin for environmentally dubious projects like the 2010 Olympic Games — a bloated, carbon-spewing environmental culprit if there ever was one.
Until we popularize the breathtaking urgency of the science, there is nothing in the history of civilization to suggest that we have the capacity to make the breadth of changes that we need to as quickly as we need to before irreparable harm occurs. Neither the Obama Administration or the Harper government are capable of pulling off what is neccessary.
For Obama, with the realpolitic of American foreign policy and its diminished capacity in the new multi-polar world with Russia, China, India, the EU and Brazil rising in stature, the reality of attempting to assert American interests requires a disproportionate reliance on oil — the highest per capita need in the world.
Investments in clean energy and new technologies may take ten to twenty years to take a significant percentage of energy market share.
There is also the sobering reality of the future. The world population will increase from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. Since 1970, temperature changes have increased dramatically — the most since human civilization began. From 1750 to today, the temperature has increased 0.8 degrees celsius. If we continue on this path, the temperature will increase between 3-5 degrees celsius by 2100.
Major climate catastrophes and world wars over access to resources would certainly start before that – likely by 2050. The loss of species is already starting to happen, but will magnify within decades both due to weather and the impact of increases in human population. Economic catastrophes such as the pine beetle epidemic, forest fires or Hurricane Katrina will magnify. There will be mass flooding and increased competition for resources. Countries like Bangladesh will be going through internal upheavals.
Our carrying capacity is already overstretched in the world — adding an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050 will have unforeseen implications in a warming world. Access to clean water will be a global emergency. The loss of Arctic sea ice will result in methane being released in to the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change. Disease and epidemics will be more prevalent in a populated world.
The amount of carbon in the atmosphere has increased from 280 ppm to 384 ppm since 1950. It will increase by a further 100 ppm by 2050. Increases of this nature would take millions of years to occur on their own.
If we really want to avoid mass catastrophe by mid-century, governments need to invest billions in wind power, nuclear power, solar power and mass transit. Mass investments need to happen in the developing world. We also need to completely rewrite our economic framework so zero growth and population maintenance is at the heart of every nation-state’s policy framework. Consumption should be taxed, carbon should be taxed and road tolls should be utilized.
Personal energy consumption should also be measured and individuals should pay for their usage at higher rates. Everything needs to be on the table if we are going to actually make real changes.
As well, how can all of these changes be implemented in a short time frame without creating mass poverty and social unrest?
Whether it’s a conference in Copenhagen, federal politics or provincial, without citizen engagement and popular education, we will continue moving towards the cliff of climate change at an ever faster pace.
We cannot solve the crisis of climate change based on a world order, systems of decision-making and rules of the game that were developed after the Second World War. Only the collective trauma of crisis, graphic images and mass deaths have moved the world to change its international order so abruptly and so systematically before. Until we all have some sense of fear, some responsibility to intervene, some hope for making the hard choices that are necessary, our future will simply consist of varying shades of suffering.
Am Johal is a rabble columnist and the founder and Chair of the Impact on Communities Coalition.