Too much of nothing

Climate Change Update

World Reports


The US continues to push an insane climate policy.
We cannot avoid a climate catastrophe without a massive energy technology revolution.

It’s getting harder to hide the climate crisis. February saw a landmark conference in Exeter, UK, in which leading scientists drew a clear, unambiguous line. No more “uncertainty” for these guys. As John Schellnhuber, director of Cambridge’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, put it: “We now know that if we go beyond two degrees [Celsius] we will raise hell.”

The warming so far clocks in at 0.7°C, with an additional half degree or more already locked in. Beyond 2°C, the projections turn from grim to terrifying. Not only do global carbon emissions have to drop, soon and substantially, but so does atmospheric carbon concentration itself, which has already passed the highest point that can be plausibly called “safe.” And it has to do so while the developing world develops.

If, of course, we want to avoid “hell.” To help you decide, imagine the current global drought deepening, and settling in to stay; imagine three billion people, packed into developing nations’ mega-cities, under “severe water stress;” imagine a loss of a third or more of terrestrial species, including, of course, polar bears; and imagine the die-off of a drying Amazon. Imagine the Greenland and West Antarctic ice melting, and the oceans rising. Imagine, too, that “development” itself goes up in smoke, because global warming threatens to make international targets for halving global poverty by 2015 entirely unattainable.

No wonder, as all this seeps gradually into our resistant minds, we’re getting a wee bit alarmed. We have run out over the edge of the cliff, and now, like Wile E. Coyote tempting the laws of physics, we’re looking down.

The G8 (plus 5)

Obviously, this situation requires a global response. What seems less obvious, at least among the elites, is that this can’t be a business-as-usual response in which the climate crisis becomes just another excuse for strengthening neoliberalism.

The stakes would be clearer if it weren’t for the Bush regime. Because, frankly, even neoliberalism – especially the European sort – can look pretty good when compared to the kind of fundamentalism now being exported from Washington. Case in point: Tony Blair, and his attempt to focus the recent G8 Summit on two areas – climate change and Africa – that rarely rise to the top of the elíte nations’ agenda. Was this an attempt to cover the stench of his Iraq policies? Absolutely. But the question here is whether, whatever his motivation, he accomplished anything useful.

Did he, in particular, manage to accomplish anything at the G8 summit? Plenty of voices say he did, particularly on the debt relief side, though he clearly failed in his effort to bring the US back into the international climate regime. Even on the climate front, however, optimists cite Bush’s acknowledgement that climate change is real, and that human activities lie beneath a significant fraction of the recent warming. In fact, however, it wasn’t Blair who won the point here; it was the scientists, who with the help of some recently extreme weather have begun to drive the denialists back toward their holes. And it was the climate movement itself, which is weaving initiatives at every level – local, regional, national, and international – into a net that even GOP realists know they can’t avoid much longer.

The real action, though, is the one where the rich world and the poor world circle each other on the global playing field, each working towards a climate regime that somehow satisfies their “national interests.” Here, the big news at the G8 Summit was the attendance of high-level representatives from Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa, and the summit’s concluding plans for a “dialogue” with these same countries that will continue, quietly, before the next session of the formal climate negotiations this November in Montreal.

This was interesting. Because if we’re going to avoid global climate catastrophe, we’re going to do it by way of a new future in which the South takes a low-carbon path. Everyone knows this, though when it comes to the best strategy for pursuing this new future, the consensus immediately breaks down. The Europeans want real engagement with the developing world, at meetings that begin with clear-eyed presentations from scientists, while the Americans prefer to leverage their faith in power politics and technological salvation. As for the developing world, the tension is rising. Soon now, the formal debate is going to begin, and Beijing, New Delhi, and Brasilia have no intention of bargaining away their “right to development.”

Not that the G8 is a proper venue for global negotiation. But the G8 communiqué (one of Blair’s small victories) is quite explicit that the proposed dialogue is not to be seen as an alternative to the official UN talks, which, after all, won the Kyoto Protocol against all efforts by the Bush administration and its allies. The G8+5 discussion may even offer a helpful supplement to the official negotiations.

Or maybe not. Again, the problem is that the Bush people can make even neo-liberalism-as-usual look good. Paul Wolfowitz, as the new head of the World Bank, was on message at the end of the summit, emphasizing that the G8 has asked the Bank to construct a “new framework for mobilizing investment in clean energy and development.” Other commentary makes it clear that the Bank sees its role as one that will persist after 2012 when, if the Bush people get their way, Kyoto will expire without an heir.

The Bank is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It has single-handedly financed over $25 billion in fossil fuel-based projects since 1992, when the UN Climate Convention was signed at the Earth Summit. And even when taken together with the Global Environmental Facility, a nominally autonomous financing arm that was created to, in part, finance climate change mitigation, it has invested over 17 times more in fossil fuels and fossil power plants as in renewable forms of energy and energy efficiency.

You’d think that this would be enough, but not for the Bush crowd. Only a few weeks after the G8 Summit, the US moved to undercut the G8 process by pursuing a high-concept, technology-centered strategy of overlapping bilateral agreements in which it can maneuver freely, without the troublesome presence of either grim climatologists or European surrender monkeys.

The Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate surfaced July 27, though its building blocks – a series of bilateral technology agreements between the US and other countries – have been in the works for at least three years. As the run-up to the Montreal climate conference begins, White House managers decided it was time to go public. Thus the “Partnership” and the very focused messaging about the “post-Kyoto” era that went along with it. A New York Times story, for example, began by announcing that “The US plans to join China and India in an Asian-Pacific climate agreement intended to replace the Kyoto pact as a method to control greenhouse emissions…”

This isn’t actually what the agreement says. The Partnership “vision statement” goes out of its way to say that the partnership “will be consistent with and contribute to our efforts under the UNFCCC and will complement, but not replace, the Kyoto Protocol” – but it’s the spin. And this is all about spin.

The Partnership consists of the United States, Australia, China, India, South Korea, and Japan, and is designed, unsurprisingly, to address the climate crisis without mandatory emissions targets. Instead, it emphasizes the development of a variety of energy technologies, many focused on coal, and implies some as-yet-unspecified terms for transferring those technologies to the developing world. It is entirely voluntary.

We cannot avoid a climate catastrophe without a massive energy technology revolution, and without financing and tech-transfer regimes that rapidly spread the best new low-carbon energy technologies around the world. The question is if the menu here, which (like the Energy Bill) is heavy with “clean coal” technologies and puts in a good word for nuclear, is the proper infrastructure of the greenhouse transition. The question, too, is if Wolfowitz’s World Bank is soon going to announce a link between the Partnership and its “new framework for mobilizing investment in clean energy and development.” And, ultimately, the question is if China and India – both countries with huge coal reserves – are going to throw their lot in with the United States.

Tom Athanasiou is author (with Paul Baer) of Dead Heat, and co-director of the Earth Island project EcoEquity.

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