Monday, December 10, 2012

Reasons for Optimism on Climate Action

The COP 18 Doha climate talks are over. Like COP 17 at Durban, very little was achieved. There is an agreement to discuss a way to possibly finance ‘loss and damage’ induced by climate change in the poorest parts of the world. The Kyoto Protocol, due to expire this year, has been extended to 2020, with agreement to have a post-Kyoto ‘road map’ ready by 2015. However, since Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the US have opted out of Kyoto, and since parties to the Kyoto Protocol constitute only 15 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is difficult to feel optimistic about these agreements.  On the other hand, the many so-called ‘side events’ revealed a wealth of people from civil society, the private sector, and some governments committed to pushing for meaningful action on climate change despite the unwillingness of the world’s most powerful actors to do the same.
These actions at Doha reveal some hard truths about ourselves – both positive and negative – in relation to climate change. While the forces in support of the status quo often appear immutable, I argue here that, on balance, there are more reasons for hope than we often realize.
First, let’s look at ten reasons for indifference. Standing at the heart of inaction on climate change is apathy. We are a lazy lot: give us our essentials – sugar, salt and fat – in quantities enough to stupefy and we are lazier still. Second, whether we are sitting stupefied on the couch, or struggling for survival as one of the bottom billion, we are too preoccupied with our own individual lives to think collectively. Third, we all suffer from attention deficit disorder, and as a result are easily distracted by the next ‘shiny thing’. Fourth, as Marie Antoinette knew only too well, we are drawn to ‘shiny things’ that appeal to our baser instincts. Give us ‘bread and circuses’, increasingly of our own choosing via personal devices such as smartphones, and we can easily ignore those things that are much more difficult and painful to think about. Fifth, given that Western consumerist lifestyles are at the heart of the problem, being told that ‘we must change’ is primarily met with a ‘say what?’ amid the din of buy, buy, buy. Sixth, rather than change we hope to invent our way out of ‘the problem’. Plus, geo-engineering is so cool!
Seventh, climate change does not affect us all in the same way. The poor will be most seriously affected, but, hey, out of sight, out of mind, right? Others will benefit economically: longer growing seasons, more arable land, access to natural resources such as oil and gas. If I had a penny for every time a Canadian said to me, ‘Global warming? Bring it on!’, well, the penny would still be relevant. Eighth, state and corporate power derives from a carbon-based economy, so global leaders must control the language around climate change: we can adapt; it’s a result of sunspot activity; it’s part of a natural cycle. This, by the way, is a message that we all like to hear. Ninth, the most powerful people in the most vulnerable places – the one-percent amid the bottom billion – have options not available to others resident in their part of the world. At worst, when the heat hits the fan, they can move to another country. Tenth, as the Canada-China oil sands deal shows us, in the face of global financial crisis we are only too willing to sacrifice the planet for promises of ‘net benefits to Canada’: short term gain for long term pain.
As the climate science shows, change is upon us. We are heading for a world that will be 2 degrees warmer by 2050; 4 degrees warmer by the end of this century. A recent World Bank study has outlined the havoc such temperature change will wreak. Do we have a critical mass of committed individuals out there ready to act? To want less? To put down their shiny things, and carefully consider the hard questions? Clearly, not yet. But here are a few reasons why we shouldn’t give in to the forces of apathy, complacence and narrow self-interest.
First, humans show time and again the will and capacity to rally around discreet events: earthquake in Haiti; floods in Pakistan; drought in the Horn of Africa. Second, our apathy is balanced with an equal measure of empathy: as we are increasingly connected through social media, and as our families are flung far and wide around the world, the discreet and remote is suddenly commonly felt and local. Third, a global cohort of young people care about their common future. They have no time for the cynicism of their elders. The average age of Canadian Cabinet Ministers is 54. If all 38 of them live to be 80 years old, only six will be around in 2050. In contrast, most of our university and college students will survive to 2075. Pushing for positive change must focus on our youth. Fourth, humans can take instruction and follow direction: once a specific action is identified people respond well (e.g. cease the use of aerosols because ozone depletion is caused by chlorofluorocarbons). Fifth, we also show a willingness to change if there is proof that our actions have positive effect. Recycling programs are now accepted as obviously beneficial around the world.
Sixth, because climate change affects us all in a wide-variety of ways, we need not wait for ‘The Big Event’.  We can act incrementally. Seventh, the climate action coalition is multi-generational, multi-lingual, and multi-ethnic. There is no way to cast it as a ‘special interest group’. Lastly, in the absence of an overarching unifying event, the differential impacts of climate change means we can be motivated for highly individual reasons (even if just to appease our own worried children), while we take personal and/or collective action at whatever level of society we wish. Are you listening, Minister Kent? Your grandchildren are counting on you. Do the positives outweight the negatives? Despite the disappointments at Doha, I believe that they do.  

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