Thursday, December 1, 2011

COP17: A Ripple of Hope?

Things on the whole seem pretty hopeless, with climate change denial the de facto guiding principle of most governments’ policies but we should not lose sight of the fact that other struggles for change have started out the same way. We ended slavery. We ended apartheid. We can win this one too.

The Problem
Here’s another view on what needs to be done (Farhana Yamin, Climate Change Portfolio Manager for The Children's Invenstment Fund Foundation, London).

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a good start towards a worldwide legal framework for regulating emissions, but that is all it was meant to be. Instead, it has become something of a high water mark.

Obstructive governments of countries like Canada are selling out their own future, let alone that of the rest of the planet. Let’s keep up the pressure for change.

Politically, selling solutions to climate change is hard for two reasons:
  • the fossil fuel industry has managed to plant the myth that there are only two options: their way or the stone age
  • the effects of climate change are very slow, and hard to separate out from natural variability
In reality, whatever we do, we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Rather than 200 years of supply (some put coal at up to 300 years, but that has to go down for a variety of reasons, including replacing oil, which runs out much sooner) at current rates of use, we need to compound for increased demand. Taking that into account, we have less than 100 years of fossil fuels left, even less if currently undeveloped nations develop using fossil fuels. Over that period, fossil fuels will not just disappear gracefully, but become increasingly expensive and hard to extract, as the easy sources dry up and worldwide demand increases (you may have noticed this effect already when you refuel your car). The net effect of all this is a succession of economic catastrophes as various industries adapt to the new reality of their energy source becoming unaffordable.

Observing climate change in the real world is a bit like trying to watch your toenails grow. No matter how hard you look, you can see nothing happening, but check back after long enough and something is different. Worse, the effects of the current level of emissions will take years to be felt, because longer-term effects like reduction in Arctic ice will continue to unfold for decades or even centuries, even if emissions do not increase. Ice reduction is important because ice is much more reflective than most other surfaces on our planet so less ice means more incoming solar energy is absorbed.

Because observing the change is hard and requires looking at swings in long-term averages (and worse still, effects far into the future), it’s hard to translate scientific knowledge about climate into the political cycle, where time-scales are much shorter, typically of the order of 6 months to a year. Even without concerns about climate, depletion of fossil fuels is an important issue for everyone. The developed world will have to make a transition as big as that from horses to cars, while the developed world has no opportunity to join the old type of industrialised economy because the wealthy nations have already consumed beyond the planet’s means.

Why it’s not Hopeless
We as individuals can contribute to consciousness by reducing our energy and environmental footprint, but, in the end, we need to force systemic change. The thing that pulls these two concepts together nicely for me  – doing the best we can in our own space and the need for global systemic change – is Robert Kennedy’s speech in Cape Town in 1966. I quote his words because I can do no better (I might rephrase in gender-neutral terms but that was the language of the era):
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
This ripple of hope speech is well worth listening to today, more than 40 years on. It applies not only to the traditional concerns of civil liberties and human rights campaigners, but also to the future of humanity – and that is what climate change is about. Here is another clip of RFK speaking. We need more of this today.

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