Year 2, Month 2, Day 1: Stupidity Rhymes With Cupidity

Ban Ki-moon is going to change his focus to “green economics” in the wake of repeated failures to get the world’s biggest contributors to the greenhouse effect to behave responsibly toward their neighbors.

The Guardian (UK):

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general who made global warming his personal mission, is ending his hands-on involvement with international climate change negotiations, the Guardian has learned.

In a strategic shift, Ban will redirect his efforts from trying to encourage movement in the international climate change negotiations to a broader agenda of promoting clean energy and sustainable development, senior UN officials said.

The officials said the change in focus reflected Ban’s realisation, after his deep involvement with the failed Copenhagen summit in 2009, that world leaders are not prepared to come together in a sweeping agreement on global warming – at least not for the next few years.

My letter to the Guardian:

One can only imagine Ban Ki-moon’s deep disappointment at the failure of the world’s nations to make any meaningful progress on combating climate change over the past several years. The climatological evidence for anthropogenic global warming has accumulated at dizzying rates; scientific consensus on the threat humanity confronts is essentially universal, if you subtract a few petroleum-funded naysayers from the mix. And yet some of the world’s largest countries seem politically paralyzed, unable to do anything in the face of this slow-motion disaster (although there is ample indication that its pace is quickening faster than most experts ever imagined possible).

Perhaps the new focus on “green growth” will succeed where a plea for human survival has failed; perhaps an appeal to our economic motivations will motivate our leaders to do the right thing, albeit for the wrong reasons. And our descendants, if descendants there be, will remember that our generation knew — but chose to ignore.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 23: Don’t Tell Me No One Ever Died Of Seasickness! The Hope of Dying Is The Only Thing That’s Keeping Me Alive!

The Baltimore Sun notes that there is a tiny ray of hope poking through the gloom.

The best news to be found on the climate change front this month was a report that the polar bear, a threatened species that has come to symbolize the dangers of global warming, may yet be saved — if greenhouse emissions are reduced over the next two decades.

Unfortunately, that’s a big “if.” International climate talks that ended early this month in Cancun produced no legally binding agreement. They weren’t expected to — nor is the stalemate expected to break in the near future. Negotiators are keeping expectations low for next year’s United Nations-sponsored conference in South Africa.

Good news is now buried so deeply in the queue of nested conditionals that it requires special training to be able to spot it. Anyway, today’s was a pretty generic “Conservatives are idiots” approach, notable only for some clever wordplay in the last three sentences. Is it noticeable?

There is indeed cause for optimism on climate change. Eventually all but the most ideologically hidebound will recognize the reality of global heating and the importance of action. Is the time required for an intellectual turnaround more time than we’ve got? Climatic “tipping points” are moving past us inexorably; nature’s laws will doom the foolish and the wise alike. Most conservatives are inextricably attached to the notion that climate change does not exist (because it’s been discussed by scientists, who are presumably liberals) or cannot exist (because it’s not in the Bible). A few acknowledge the problem, and assert that our technology (along with the magic of market capitalism) will save us. But technological wizardry won’t pull our climatic chestnuts out of the tropospheric fire unless we start spending money on developing that technology. The only thing that’s absolutely certain is that the costs of inaction dwarf those of action.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 22: David Cameron Makes Positive Noises

The Pakistan Times runs a little piece about the British PM’s statement on the Cancun agreement:

LONDON (UK): British Prime Minister David Cameron has hailed the agreement at the UN Climate Change talks in Cancun, Mexico, as a “very significant step forward” to tackling climate change through multilateral action.

Cameron said he was clear that Britain would meet its international obligations and stressed he would continue to make the case for a “global, comprehensive and legally-binding climate agreement”, a message received by ‘Pakistan Times’ [Daily e-Newspaper] from 10 Downing said.

Always nice to hear people saying the right things once in a while, no?

The Cancun climate accord may be a small step, but at least it is a step in the right direction. There are few nations in the world that are as acutely aware of the need for a robust and realistic plan of action on climate change as Pakistan. Sadly, the planet’s wealthiest countries are among its biggest polluters, while the states which bear the brunt of extreme weather conditions are often those whose carbon dioxide emissions are statistically insignificant. Cancun represents at least a tentative step towards a global recognition that the richest can no longer afford to ignore those they harm. The coming years will determine not only the fate of the world’s nations, but of humanity as a whole. If the climate crisis has a positive side, it is simply this: awareness of global warming may force us to recognize our shared destiny as a species.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 21: Good Night and Good Morning.

The Christian Science Monitor runs another “Cancun isn’t much but it’s more than anyone expected” article. I used it as a hook to rail against the media and the corporatocracy.

I can see the full moon outside but it will be too late for me to see the eclipse tonight. Too bad.

The Cancun agreement marks a modest forward step in the struggle against global climate change, and one which is especially welcome given the overwhelmingly pessimistic predictions made before the conference began. But the forces aligned against realistic action on the complex tangle of environmental and economic issues are enormous. To take just one example, it is folly to imagine that the world’s oil industry is going to support a move away from our crippling dependence on fossil fuels. Equally problematic is the symbiotic relationship between our national news media and the corporate systems which bankroll them. These corporations (and their extraordinarily wealthy executive castes) will not allow the media outlets they control to tell the truth about global warming — because it would negatively impact their quarterly profit margins. And so, instead, we get equivocations, celebrity distractions, he-said-she-said stenography, false equivalences, misleading statistics and outright lies. This would be bad enough if the subject were a normal crisis; for a threat of this magnitude it is a moral catastrophe.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 19: Only Two Things Are Infinite…

The York County, Maine, Journal Tribune (York County’s only daily newspaper) runs an editorial citing “modest progress” at Cancun. Hard to argue with that. I used it as the opportunity to call out our media and political establishments for their anti-reality programming.

With all due respect to an excellent editorial summary, I would submit that the biggest challenge to managing climate change may not be reining in the greenhouse emissions of China and the U.S. It’s true that China’s is the largest share of worldwide CO2 output; it’s equally true that the dubious honor of the most emissions per capita belongs to the United States. And while humanity has never faced a planetary threat greater than atmospheric carbon dioxide, getting it under control will be easier than making our politicians grasp the enormity of the problem. Denial of science and scientific expertise is now an article of faith for conservatives, and a simple economic decision for the fossil fuel industries which bankroll them. As long as our media keep playing the game of false equivalence, in which the opinion of an expert climatologist is “balanced” by a corporate shill from a conservative think tank, we’re never going to make any real progress on climate change. Meanwhile, of course, the clock is ticking, and the world is getting ever hotter.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 18: Homeopathic Solutions for Climate Change?

Sunita Narain, the Director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, is less than thrilled about the Cancun accord.

The first agenda before Cancun was to decide on how much the industrialized countries – primarily responsible for this global problem – would cut. The target discussed at the Bali conference in 2007 was a reduction of 40% over 1990 levels by 2020. So, tough decisions were needed at Cancun.

The Cancun deal has been struck by letting these countries off the hook. There are no targets. Instead, it has been agreed that now these countries will take action based on what they “pledge” to do. Take the US. If the target was being set (as was decided in Bali) on the basis of its contribution to the stock of gases already in the atmosphere, then it would have to reduce 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Now, US has “pledged” that it will reduce zero percentage points in the same period. Cancun legitimizes its right to pollute. It is no wonder that it worked hard to stitch the deal. It is no wonder that western media and leaders are ecstatic about the breakthrough. It is their victory.

What Cancun has done is to shift the burden of the transition to the developing countries. If the combined pledges of the developed world are compared to those of the developing (including India’s commitment to reduce energy intensity by 20% by 2020) then the sell-out character of the deal becomes clear. The industrialized countries, who till now were being asked to take on the burden, will end up cutting less emissions than the developing world. They cut roughly 0.8-1.8 billion tonnes, against developing country pledges of 2.8 billion tonnes.

She has a point.

As an American citizen, I heartily concur with Sunita Narain’s assessment of the Cancun agreement. The inability of the world’s biggest polluters to take responsibility for the disaster they have fostered is a moral outrage, an ecological nightmare, and an economic travesty. What does it say about our system of values that wealth is so strongly correlated with pollution and environmental destruction? Of course, there are reasons for optimism in the fact that an agreement of any sort was reached at all; the current accord is assuredly better than the contentious travesty that was last year’s Copenhagen summit. But it’s hard not to feel that we’ve slapped a tiny bandage on a huge wound; when humanity confronts a threat that may well destroy the lives of billions, we need robust, concerted and immediate action to end our dependence on fossil fuels if our species and our civilization are to survive.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 16: Hearin’ It Through The Grapevine…

An editorial in the Guelph Mercury gives a qualified approval to Cancun’s results, while reminding us that the bulk of the work is ours to carry out.

Amelia Meister correctly notes that the Cancun agreements, while a tentative step in the right direction, leave much of the heavy lifting unaccounted for. This means that the world’s people will have to lead; our leaders are almost without exception too busy following the scents of money and power to be relied upon for responsibility on behalf of the planet. Meister’s suggestions for individual action are well-formulated, but she omits the most important one of all for those who are concerned about our global future: all of us must talk to other people. Because many of the world’s media networks have deep financial interests in spreading disinformation, staying genuinely and reliably informed about climate change is extremely tricky. It is up to us to move the conversation about climate change out of corporate control, and to help one another understand this complex and challenging subject. In the face of the gravest threat humanity has ever confronted, ignorance attains profound moral dimensions, along with human and environmental costs we cannot afford.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 14: Rah, Rah, Bah, Bah!

The Toronto Globe and Mail runs a fairly routine piece of cheerleading for the results of the Cancun conference.

But you know me — ever the contrarian, I have to point out that there’s a lot that the agreement hasn’t dealt with. Grumble, grumble, grumble; what a grouch.

While the Cancun accord offers reasons for hope at a time when the planetary warning signs are pointing ever more unequivocally towards irrevocable climate chaos, we should not be lulled into complacency by the diplomatic tour de force represented by a 193-nation agreement; the devil is, as always, in the details. The international community has never before faced a situation where smaller nations actually face physical disappearance due to larger countries’ long-term irresponsibility. The developed world needs to overcome the political and societal inertia that has prevented significant reductions in greenhouse emissions in the past, and must also recognize that the costs of immediate action on climate change are dramatically smaller than those of inaction. Finally, our news media should acknowledge that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is essentially unanimous; reporting which suggests or implies that there is equal evidence for both sides of the issue is irresponsible.

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 13: Not Bad News

The Cancun climate conference ended on a friendly note, with mild intimations of progress all around. Lots of handshakes and polite applause, with only a few dissenting notes.

Yvo de Boer, who stepped down this year after four years as executive secretary of the United Nations climate office, said that the success of this year’s conference was in large measure attributable to the modesty of its goals.

“This process has never been characterized by leaps and bounds,” he said in an interview. “It has been characterized by small steps. And I’d rather see this small step here in Cancún than the international community tripping over itself in an effort to make a large leap.”

In all, the success of the Cancún talks was a shot in the arm for a process that some had likened to a zombie, stumbling aimlessly but refusing to die.

Is it just me, or is that last paragraph a desperate journalistic attempt to reconfigure the “climate zombie” meme?

It’s vaguely reassuring that the Cancun conference did not end with walkouts and public squabbles on the issues surrounding climate change. When representatives of the world’s countries gather to discuss the gravest existential threat our species has ever faced, and conclude with a modest agreement that further progress needs to be made, that’s good news. That is to say, it’s good news if you think about the alternative: contentious squabbling over trivialities as a means of ignoring the looming, slow-motion disaster that imperils us all. As Michael Levi notes, the most significant work will likely take place in areas that are not addressed by the U.N.’s decisions, which means individuals and communities at the smallest levels of scale, and multinational corporations at the largest. The question emerges: can transnational corporate entities acquire enlightened self-interest quickly enough to make a difference to the planetary systems upon which their customers’ survival depends?

Warren Senders

Month 12, Day 5: FSM Is An Iron

The beaches at Cancun are being eroded. (USA Today) Perhaps building a resort city on a narrow, storm-vulnerable peninsula wasn’t such a great idea?

It’s a sad irony that the beaches of Cancun are under threat from rising seas and intensifying storm systems. The vulnerability of this tourist destination is eerily similar in microcosm to the state of our own global civilization, in which the survival and prosperity of billions of people is predicated on interdependent systems of extraordinary complexity. Food travels hundreds or thousands of miles to reach our tables; the fuel we burn comes from halfway around the globe; the products that support our consumer economy are shipped from China, Pakistan or the Philippines. A disruption anywhere will have huge impacts everywhere; as climate change’s effects are felt across the planet, our lifestyle will be threatened in various and unpredictable ways. Like a resort erected on sand, our civilization is built on a shifting, fundamentally unsustainable platform. One hopes this similarity is not lost on the delegates to the Cancun climate convention.

Warren Senders