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Durban: Deep Change And Climate Talk

Politics / Climate Change Dec 07, 2011 - 02:28 AM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleOne thing is sure: world climate is changing. The second thing is that nobody knows why, but the favoured official reason is global warming due to burning fossil fuels, followed by all and any human activity able to release carbon containing gases, and other greenhouse gases. This activity includes deforestation, burning wood and organic wastes, marsh and peat bog draining, cement making, urbanization, road building, agriculture, industrial development, port construction, and several others.

Usually the disc stops there but the music goes on, and on. In October the Berkeley Earth project released a scientific study on global temperature change since the 1800s. The study was partly paid by  arch climate change-denying industrial interests but nevertheless came in with massive rises in global average temperatures, of as much as 10 degrees celsius (degC) only since the 1950s. Here, the problem is clear: if this was a worldwide and uniform rise in before-and-after temperatures the results would already be catastrophic. So the most important first question is: What do we mean by global average temperatures (with a plural "s") ?

This is an extremely controversial question - in fact the basic reason why Nobel prizewinning physicist Ivar Giaever resigned from the American Physical Society in Sept 2011, because the APS continues officially supporting the claim that global average temperatures have risen a lot, especially in the last 50 - 60 years, and this is almost certainly due to fossil fuel burning. Giaever's argument is there is no such thing as "global average temperature", but local and even regional average temperatures (with an "s") can and do change, in his opinion by rather small, even tiny amounts given the fantastic change of the environment caused by human beings, especially in the last 50 - 60 years.

Next consider that according to the IEA and the US Dept of Energy, greenhouse gas emissions jumped by a record amount in 2010, exceeding the worst-case scenario of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most extreme estimate made in 2007. Globally, the result of burning about 7 billion tons of fossil fuels in 2010 produced about 29 billion tons of CO2, prompting John Reilly of the  MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, to remark “The more we talk about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing”.

The United Nations climate talks in Durban are known as COP-17 meaning Conference of the Parties, Year 17. The supposed (and official) goal is initiating an international treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire in December 2012.

As we know, the turn-out of world leaders at Durban is low: president Obama, US Congress leaders most committed to fighting global warming, and the most vocal European leaders on climate issues, including Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Nicolas Sarkozy are all absent. Their embarrassing experience at the COP-15 Copenhagen meeting of 2009 was enough to keep them away from Durban.

However, in theory and given the facts as reported by many studies showing ever rising global average temperatures, it could have been imagined these leaders would rush to Durban and address this urgent planetary-scale threat with speed and determination. In particular, leaders of countries burning the most fossil fuels should in theory be pushing for a fast move to a carbon-free "green energy" system, as well as massively limiting deforestation, cement making, urbanization and other carbon emitters.

In fact and clearly, to limit political damage and avoid being close to a conference where nothing is achieved, the Durban turn-out was minimal. As if that wasn’t farcical enough, Brazil was forced to move the date of next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit, celebrating the 1992 Rio conference where global warming "came of age", so that it will not conflict with the British monarchy’s celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Participation at Rio+20 by world leaders will be low, much lower than in 1992 because, very simply, the entire set of global warming-green energy and linked issues have gone off the boil and out of focus.

The European Union, which has in theory done the most to legally force carbon dioxide emissions cuts since Kyoto came into force - but since 2005 has itself only reduced emissions of CO2 in recession years -  has adopted the stance that it will not extend European action, and its interpretation of the pact, unless the ministers of all other countries sign up to a “road map” for a completely global, worldwide pact. This new pact, nicknamed "Kyoto 2" would set mandatory and similar or identical emissions reduction targets for all countries, rich and poor. Knowing the chances of that are vanishingly low, the EU stance is equivalent to bowing out.

Climate activists ask how they can raise the temperature of the movement, not the planet, because the results from 17 years of international negotiations is a sharp movement backwards from the weak promises and previous ambiguous engagements made by world leaders.

The probable best result of COP-17 for climate activists, and strictly to save face, would be "freezing" all international action until new climate negotiations take place in 2016, with no enforcement of any treaty until 2020 at the earliest. More likely, the Kyoto Protocol will simply be left to expire, without enforcement from Dec 2012.  In response to this likely outcome, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA said: “If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door to [holding global temperature growth to less than 2degC] will be closed forever.”

As noted by a furious UN environment executive, Achim Steiner, putting off doing anything now makes the task of doing something in the future all the more difficult and less likely to be successful, as greenhouse gases continue to grow instead of shrink. Like Steiner, activists argue that the countries that are currently talking about "deferring" any agreement on applying emissions cuts on a global and mandatory basis, to 2020 or further, are taking a bet with world climate stability, taking us from high risk to very high risk. Supposedly, according to the activists and "climate doomsters" such as Al Gore, James Hanson and Britain's Jim Lovelock, postponing the investment and spending of hundreds of billions of dollars on green energy projects, capturing and storing CO2 underground, building "ecological" new cities and measures ranging from subsidizing electric cars to reafforestation is a dangerous bet with only one result: every year, our options to avoid climate change will shrink.

Some activists, including Gore and Lovelock go on to argue the stability of the whole biosphere is threatened by unleashing uncontrollably vast planetary forces, but backhanders and under-the-table deals made by corrupt politicians in the service of corporate interests, fighting the activists, are thwarting the needed public spending. In particular, they rail that Americans — who produce twice the emissions per capita of Europeans and more than 8 times Chinese per capita emissions — are in many ways "hard wired" to hold out against any measures that impact their lifestyle. They prefer bigger cars and bigger homes with central heating, value personal choice, are suspicious of scientists and distrust  sweeping government intervention of the type they say is needed to confront rising emissions.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in the New York Times, summed up the way America's middle classes react to what is left of the global warming debate with her recent article entitled “What Happened to Global Warming?”. She poked fun at American climate activists like Al Gore and James Hanson for refusing to understand that "ordinary Americans" have an apparently genetically-inspired perverse desire to drive 450-horsepower juggernauts because that is personal freedom. They either hate or distrust scientists, and are programmed to live in the biggest houses they can borrow to buy - heated as much as possible in winter, and chilled in summer.

Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the influential but vastly criticized Stern report on climate change (2006), essentially argued that the root of the problem - inaction or refusal to act - is very simple: free market capitalism. Coming from anybody else, this argument would be laughed off as marxist fantasy.

Stern claimed that climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen. His impressive (critics call them impressionistic) calculations of market costs that will arise from inaction or refusal to act against global warming would be on a scale far larger than the two world wars of the last century, over the next 80 - 90 years. Cost of inaction might rise to well above $100 billion a year (in current value dollars), according to Stern.  Naomi Klein, arguing her own anti-capitalist thesis says that action against global warming would be an existential threat to the very fabric of the capitalist system, because it would attack one of the primal features of capitalism - a system based on relentless and never-ending growth that runs right against a stable biosphere on a finite planet.

The expansionist, profit gouging extractive mindset which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is fundamentally called into question by any real action to fight climate change, according to many climate activists. Scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits ends up by demanding a new civilization paradigm, grounded not in dominance over nature but by respect for natural systems and cycles of renewal—and this new civilization must be acutely sensitive to natural limits. With this ideological marketing, it might be surprising that the global financial system (perhaps because it is in its death throes?) has literally thrown more than $500 billion at several thousand "green energy and cleantech" start ups through 2006-2010, of which about 65% have already collapsed with the loss of all funding. According to Nathan Myhrvold, former chief tech officer at Microsoft, and a friend of Bill Gates, this Silicon Valley-type attempt at "reinventing energy" was operated along strictly speculative capitalistic principles - featuring massive loss and waste, which is at least as much a hallmark of capitalism as constant growth. Cancer operates the same way.

The replacement of capitalism with an economic and political model based on cooperation not competition, production for need not profits, predicated on real democracy and egalitarian parrticipation by the public would indeed seem to answer the principle set out by Karl Marx concerning ideal communist production: “(which will cover) the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations” with “the least expenditure of energy”. The basic problem is that nothing like this ideal-type system of production exists.

While intellectuals like Klein shy away from the "revolutionary thesis of climate change", leaving space for a reformed capitalism with a much reduced corporate sector wedded to global governance and somehow not tied to endless growth, with a “managed transition paradigm” for energy and economic transition, the more likely real drivers of change are slowing down the rates of environmental degradation and resource depletion, and simply buying time. Apart from recession and mass unemployment - both rather effective in slowing economic growth and cutting fossil energy consumption - the tilt towards long term austerity programmes in most OECD countries, in large part due to previous and present excesses of government largesse towards, and open pocket support to uncontrolled "casino type" capitalism could or might aid the shift to new paradigms. Both Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, and its equivalent in many other countries, the anti-nuclear movement, and a range of other mass movements clearly show that capitalism of the present sort is not popular and that environment is popular.

We could take a look at the outlook for massive change in the Arab world - as of December 2010 - and compare it with today's outlook as of December 2011. Whoever imagined Spain's Los Indignados would rise up, in 2010? What seemed pie-in-the-sky dreaming a few months ago, is now the new spirit of global revolt against tiny minorities, often posturing behind a "democratic" smokescreen. Change really is possible. The amount and type of change that is possible has suddenly shifted dramatically.

The evidence that political and corporate elites will bow to either public pressure or technical and scientific reason, for example on environment issues and resource depletion, and either allow or enable a managed transition to a completely different economic and social paradigm is incontrovertible: they will not.  Force is needed. Taking the Arab revolt of 2011: the time is long gone when this could be called "the Jasmine revolution" with its image of tinkling tea cups. Civil war is the reality.

Well may the White House (on Nov 25, 2011) say that it is opposed to the use of violence and repression and defends universal rights including the freedom of peaceful assembly, supports political and economic reform and meeting the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people. On the ground, change does not happen that way. Those who run the system and profit from its operation will stop at nothing to defend their privileges.

Over and above what we can call "local capitalist and middle class issues", there is a far vaster range  of ecological contradictions and challenges due to geopolitics and latter-day imperialism. These bigger issues most certainly surface in the now 17-year story of why the Kyoto Protocol would never work.
The missing factor is the competition that goes on between old and new countries, that is old and new rich countries, in the race to industrialize, urbanize and consume more energy. This is the story of civilization. Expecting the so-called "international community" to sign on for a stampede to green energy but in no way touching the bases and operating methods of capitalism, leaving all existing privileges in place, and freezing change at that level is a real pipe-dream. It wont happen.

Geopolitical intrigue and the jockeying for competitive advantage is plain in the so-called "Kyoto process" which in fact is almost exclusively a talk process. When or if it changed to a threat process, for example carbon-based trade tariffs to exclude Chinese and Indian exports to the OECD, we could reasonably expect this to create serious and real international dispute, with worse to follow.

One of the fundamental sticking points in Durban is already "mature" and well known: the dispute between developed nations which claim that the bulk of recent increases in emissions come from the emerging and developing countries, but are exempt from binding emissions reduction targets under the present Kyoto Protocol.  Led by the United States, OECD countries have used this argument to cudgel developing nations into agreeing to drop their insistence on any new climate agreement treating poor and rich countries differently. Both poor and rich countries must act the same.

Using this argument, OECD countries - especially the EU's 27 member states which also use it against other rich countries - can say they will do nothing to undermine their economic competitiveness against the emerging nations which are unconstrained by having to limit carbon emissions. The response or counter-argument from the emerging nations is simple: the developed world has a historical debt to pay for bringing the planet to the brink of biospheric, climatic and resource depletion crisis by its 150 year lead in using fossil fuels and most recently by developing the consumer society - which the emerging countries now want, need and can afford.

The emerging countries have powerful ammunition in arguing their case: the United States, Europe and Japan with about 13% of world population takes more than 45% of world fossil energy supplies, with the US alone consuming 30% of world resources and producing 25% of global CO2 emissions, with only 4% of world population.  The US is often "advised" by Chinese and Indian climate, energy and environment experts to set an example to the rest of the world, seriously cut its fossil energy consumption, seriously invest in renewable technologies and stop preaching to lower income countries.

Unfortunately, this war of words has no effect - as long as it stays in the shape of words. The rules of mercantile and imperial competition between nation states overrides anything less than or below international conflict. As we can quite easily suppose, this international conflict is coming. The stymied Durban climate talks - in their own small way - have only helped the coming.

Climate activists can work the slogan “There is no Planet B”, but the real message is even simpler: There is no Plan B without political, economic and social transition.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2011 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

© 2005-2022 - The Market Oracle is a FREE Daily Financial Markets Analysis & Forecasting online publication.


09 Dec 11, 02:03
Thank you

Thanks for a well balanced and inclusive article - it's becoming more difficult by the month to find quality articles like such as this, regarding this firebrand topic. I applaud your effort and contribution to the debate. I agree wholeheartedly that conflict seems very likely in the future because I see it as very doubtful that any relevant governments will take meaningful action on their own.

"The horror," Kurt said at the end of Heart of Darkness, "The horror!"

"Spirit of Shelby"
09 Dec 11, 08:43
junk science

Global warming and cooling has been happening for millions of years.

Man-made global warming is a lie, and 31,000 scientists say it is a statistical lie.

Please don't be fooled by the lies.

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