Friday, December 04, 2009

Why Copenhagen will go nowhere

Gwynne Dyer explains why the Copenhagen climate summit will go nowhere:
Everybody involved knows what the one really fair and effective deal would look like, although they feel doomed to settle for something much worse. In this case, the fair and effective deal would take full account of the history, and it would look like this.

It would require the rich, industrialised countries to take really deep cuts in their emissions: 40 percent by 2020, say, and another 40 percent by 2035. The developing countries would cap the growth in their emissions at a level not much higher than where they are now—but they must be allowed to go on growing their economies, which means that they will need more energy.

All that extra energy has to be clean, or else they will break through the cap. They will therefore have to get their new energy from wind farms or solar arrays or nuclear plants, all of which are more expensive than the cheap coal-fired power plants they rely on now. Who pays the difference in the cost? The rich countries do, by technology transfers and direct subsidies.

What makes this lopsided deal fair is the history behind it. Emissions in the developed countries have stabilised or declined slightly (except for Canada, where they continue to soar), but they are still at a very high level. Indeed, what has made these countries rich is burning fossil fuels for the past 150-200 years—and in doing so, they have taken up almost all the available space.

In the early 19th century, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air was 280 parts per million. It is now 390 ppm, and four-fifths of that extra CO2 was put there by the ancestors of the one billion people who live in the developed countries. The point of no return, after which we risk runaway warming, is a rise in average global temperature of two degrees Celsius. That is equivalent to 450 ppm of carbon dioxide.

All we have left to play with is the distance between 390 ppm and 450 ppm, and on a business-as-usual basis we’ll cover it in less than 30 years. All the economic growth of rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil—3-4 billion people—has to fit into that narrow band of 60 ppm that the developed countries left for them.

That is why the post-Kyoto deal must be lopsided—but it is still politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries, most of whom are (wilfully) ignorant of that history.
Dyer, like virtually all liberals on this topic, fails to grasp the nettle here. The truth is that a two-thirds reduction in global emissions, which has got to be the long-term goal, means -- indeed, requires -- a radical revolution in economic expectations: it will mean not just smaller cars, but less travel, less air conditioning (in an ever hotter world, ugh), less heating, less housing, less clothing, less meat, less procreation... in general, it means LESS.

Such a shift would entail a most profound political transformation: for at least the last sixty years, and arguably the last two hundred, modern governments (of whatever ideological stripe, from Lenin to Hitler to Thatcher) have staked their claims to legitimacy on the premise and promise of delivering MORE. This ideology of endless growth -- call it "development" or "modernization" or whatever you'd like -- is the common assumption across all political systems; it is the fundament of how modern societies and polities understand what we are all about.

The Republicans are alas not wrong when they say that a serious effort to restrain greenhouse gases means a full-scale assault on "the American way of life." Few climate-change liberals are actually willing to admit this openly, even to themselves. (Nick Stern's line that, "Oh, it's only going to cost us 1% of GDP" is just hooey.)

Abandoning the ideology of endless growth means nothing less than a revolution in the meaning of government and society. Pace Dwyer, that is the real reason why it is "politically impossible to sell that deal to people in the developed countries" -- not because the masses are "wilfully ignorant of history," but because elites (political and economic) have no idea how to legitimate themselves absent the promise of endless growth.

Until we abandon the ideology of endless growth, there will be no popular will to significantly curb GHG emissions, nor any elite will to do.

Eventually, of course, the ideology of endless growth will give way, as all ideologies eventually do. But personally, I doubt that it will happen voluntarily. Rather, as the impact of global warming starts to become severe, smashing cities and dessicating countrysides, it will make further growth impossible. What will replace it will be a focus on saving what we can of what we have left.

Happily, I also doubt that any of this will happen in my lifetime (then again, I don't give myself that much time), but I think it's very possible that this transformation will begin to take place toward the end of the century.

Then again, if humanity has kept burning coal/oil in a BAU manner for another half century, then the amount of baked-in climate change the planet will be in for is truly scary to contemplate.

Louis XIV famously remarked, "Après moi, le déluge." Our generation is rendering this prediction literal.

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