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Climate Crisis will be the challenge of new decade

4 Jan 2010

Oisin Coghlan
Friends of the Earth Director

This is a slightly longer version of an article that appeared in the Irish Times on 31 December 2009

This is not how it was supposed to end. Internationally, this decade was supposed to give us a comprehensive global treaty to contain climate change. In Ireland, some of us allowed ourselves hope a soft-landing for the Celtic Tiger would herald a "post-materialist" era where environmental and social considerations where given as much weight as economic ones in policy-making.Obama

Instead, the Copenhagen climate talks ended in confusion and recrimination and in Ireland the economic crash has driven us back to very understandable materialist concerns about budget cuts and job losses.

The coming decade will see whether humanity is capable of overcoming a complex web of environmental problems that pose an existential threat to civilization. Climate, the most urgent and most mainstream of these problems, epitomises the challenges. Politicians and scientists agree we must limit global warming to less than 2°C to prevent runaway climate change. Current pollution trends put us on a path to 6°C of warming this century when 4°C or more would trigger the breakdown of civilization as we know it. To be closer to 2°C than 4°C we need to make global emissions start to decline before 2020.

That is the challenge of the decade. When we are writing our reviews of the 2010s there will be no more telling benchmark of human progress. Are global greenhouse gas emissions lower in 2019 than they are now? Put another way, will we choose survival? To answer this most basic question successfully humankind will have answer two subsidiary questions, one evolutionary, one political.

As a species are we evolved to tackle a threat like climate change? It doesn't seem to trigger our fight or flight reflex in a meaningful way. For most of us it seems remote and abstract. The gases that cause it are invisible. And the ultimate source of the threat is not external - it is us, our current lifestyles, our historical choices and our future aspirations. However unwittingly, we are the root of the problem, and therefore the solution. If an army were massing on our borders, if an asteroid were hurtling towards Earth, no one would question the need to act. But as we set fire to the only home humanity has ever known, we struggle to perceive the threat and have so far failed to act decisively.

The second question is a practical, political one. Can an international system of 192 nation states solve a global problem? The lesson of Copenhagen is no, at least not if we cling to our traditional approach to inter-state negotiating, where short term national advantage trumps long-term public interest. It is the tragedy of the commons writ large. For the vested interests in each state it makes sense for their country to keep polluting as much as possible and national negotiators act on that basis. Given the limited capacity of our common atmosphere to absorb that pollution, however, this approach will prove disastrous for humanity as a whole.

As the decade progresses there are three signs that would indicate we are moving beyond this "mutual assured destruction" approach to climate change. We need to see all three.

Firstly, are any of the players acting unilaterally to cut their emissions, against their perceived short-term interests? The obvious candidate is the European Union, itself a unique political formation where national sovereignty is pooled and cooperation has replaced competition in crucial areas. The EU has made a unilateral commitment to action on climate change, but it is a weak one. When you account for the caveats and the loopholes it adds up to less than half our fair share. So, will we see EU climate policy start to reflect the Union's pioneering nature? Will the EU move to cut its emissions by 40% by 2020, in line with the science.

The Union could act on the courage of its convictions. Those advocating the abolition of slavery did not say they would only free half their slaves until their competitors freed theirs. The Union could also act based on its long-term economic interest. A low-carbon economy will build energy security, resilience and sustainable jobs for the rest of the century.

China is acting to limit its future emissions, despite its determination not to be legally bound to do so. And the US is moving too, faster at state and company level than federal level. If the early years of this decade see these players significantly limit their emissions it will be both a sign of hope and an international confidence-building measure.

Secondly, will the emerging transnational forces gain the strength and focus to push nation states towards a global deal? The run-in to Copenhagen saw supranational civil society coalition-building reach new heights, with the likes of 350.org, Avaaz and tck tck tck mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Friends of the Earth alone had 500 activists in Copenhagen, representing our two million supporters across 77 countries. On the business side, lobbyists for polluting interests still hold the upper hand but this time over 500 TNCs signed a Copenhagen Communiqué most of which could just as easily have been written by NGO campaigners.

One reaction to the failure of our political leaders to represent our interests in Copenhagen would be despair. The other, in the words of Joe Hill, is "don't mourn, oragnise". The first indications are hopeful, with a prevailing message of "it's down to us now". But sustaining and growing a global mass movement on this scale is unprecedented. We are talking about the anti-slavery, women's suffrage and anti-apartheid movements rolled into one and telescoped into a matter of years. Where this movement is by mid-decade will be a key indicator of whether we can overcome the inertia and interests embedded in the international system. And whether each one of us opts for despair, indifference or action will determine the answer.

Thirdly, will our governments manage to agree a new treaty that provides a global framework for action and "mutual assured survival" rather than destruction? This is the key test. Can we lift our eyes to the horizon long enough to put aside short-term national advantage? This past decade there has been much talk of the G8, the G20 and now the G2, China and the US. But the new treaty must institutionalise the G1: humanity, and our common cause to protect the only ecosystem that supports our existence. In that sense the new treaty must re-imagine and re-shape how we relate to each other more radically that any since the treaty of Westphalia laid the foundations of the nation state system.

That treaty, in 1648, established the unlimited authority of the state within its territorial borders. The new treaty will have to give effect to the reality that the community of states must live within the ecological limits of our one planet. This logic applies not just to the absorptive capacity of the atmosphere, but also to oil production, which will begin to decline by 2020, and to water, soil and all natural resources. The bottom line is you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.

This was not a discussion you could even begin to have in Ireland during the last 10 years of boom. The bottom of a bust is not an easy place to start the conversation either but it is even more essential now. As we chart a course for the next 10 years we can surely agree at least that we don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past 10 and we don't want another bubble. And yet Ireland is already in another bubble, with greenhouse gas emissions that peaked at twice our Kyoto limit and remain stubbornly high despite the recession. We are the sixth most climate polluting country per person in the rich world and yet we specialise in special pleading. During Copenhagen you will have heard the IFA remind us that any deal must recognise the special contribution of Irish agriculture and IBEC say that the worst outcome would be a strong deal that committed us to tougher targets. We are slaves to cheap fossil fuels. We Irish would like the world to abolish slavery, and soon, but our slaves are special, we look after them better than anyone else and we don't think we should free them until after everyone else. Is that what you think? The coming decade will require you to decide where you stand, and soon.

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