Sunday, December 4, 2011

No Planet B

In the late afternoon on day two of the international climate change talks in Durban, Christiana Figueres (Head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) made a passionate case for why failure to reach an agreement was not an option: the future of humanity is at stake. She went on to stress that there is no Plan B, just as there is no Planet B.

As the Kyoto protocol on global warming runs out, the COP17 conference to agree a replacement limps towards failure. Sir David Attenborough, of the BBC Planet series, says that city dwellers are out of touch with what is happening in the natural world; and therefore don't take responsibility for the future of the planet. Judging by the response to date, politicians and corporate leaders are urban animals who - apart from the odd tropical vacation - spend their days inside the airconditioned spaces of parliament or head office buildings.

The message is that we may as well carry on belching carbon into the atmosphere because, if we don't, someone else will – an argument that could equally be used to justify selling one's daughter into prostitution. If the representatives of developing countries won't take responsibility, most other political leaders in developed countries won't either. The implicit message is that the job of tackling global warming can be placed on hold while they sort out the economic crisis. That, on more optimistic estimates, will take until about 2017. The planet will then be perilously close, scientists predict, to the tipping point for irreversible climate damage. 

Some say we need a miracle to save the eurozone and the banks. We need a far bigger one to save the planet. According to the World Bank's 2010 world development report, if all coal-fired plants scheduled to be built in the next 25 years come into operation, their lifetime CO2 emissions will equal those of all coal burning since the industrial revolution. Business leaders, particularly in financial services, are now the true rulers of the world. Can they take responsibility? It seems not yet. The world's banks may be running out of cash, but a report just published by environmental groups shows that in 2010 they invested nearly twice as much in coal-fired electricity and coal mining as they did in 2005.

No, if we want the planet to be saved, we must rely on the politicians. But, persuading the public that they should tolerate nearly a decade of austerity, is itself a daunting challenge for leaders; who have assured voters that neoliberalism could deliver uninterrupted growth. Global warming presents an even greater challenge. People have to be persuaded to make sacrifices for the common good. Neoliberalism, however, has left politicians holding the ring between competing demands for individual gratification. 

They run what the US political theorist Philip Bobbitt calls "market states", which have the sole duty of maximising opportunities for their individual citizens, and accept no obligation to social justice or collective welfare. The common good has become, to politicians of both left and right, a completely alien concept. They have no language in which to convey to their electorates the importance and urgency of what needs to be done. They will no doubt emerge from Durban with fine words and some semblance of agreement or, if nothing else, agreement on when they should make an agreement. But for now, the planet will just have to carry on burning.

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