Durban climate change conference and its meager outcome

Posted December 12th, 2011 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Durban climate change conference and its meager outcome

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

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What are we to make of the UN climate conference in Durban? It started out looking like complete failure, tempers flared, accusations crossed the room about who was to blame, it went overtime, and then a weak agreement was reached that still puts most of the hard decisions into the future.

The youth of the host country, South Africa, had something to say about all this:

You can read about the conference and its results here, and here, and here, and here (I think this last one from Der Spiegel is especially good). Contrary to what the conference chair said, this conference did not ‘save tomorrow today,’ but agreed that it was a pretty good idea and that these world leaders will continue to pursue that idea over the next decade. A fund was set up to help poorer countries address climate challenges, but the financing and actual commitments from the richer countries remain pretty vague.

Why is this so hard when so many parts of the world, including our own, are beginning to experience severe climate change impacts, when our own Pentagon is devising strategies for the coming world upheavals, and the United Nations is predicting hundreds of millions of climate change refugees over the course of the century? Are these people just stubborn, power-mongers, selfish, still in denial, etc.?

Well, certainly we have clashing national and economic interests. But there is another problem here, which has to do with who is negotiating. It’s a bit like thinking President Obama is going to start a serious campaign to put carbon emissions into precipitous decline when that would likely mean economic hardship for a time, a wrenching shift in our way of life, an assault on some of the most powerful corporate interests in the nation (the world, really), weakening our global economic power position, and guaranteeing that he does not get a second term.

Given the interests that he represents or must balance, I think it wrong to think leadership on climate change or any of our other wrenching ecological challenges is going to come from the president, no matter who he or she is. Why did he put off decision on the TransCanada tar sands oil pipeline until after next year’s election? Because he has to make that decision in a political environment that will dictate it for him.

Which is why I thought it wrong to declare victory when the decision was delayed. It is good to applaud a strategic retreat, but these battles are far from over.

Polluted skies over Milwaukee - the world we don't want. Photo: Margaret Swedish

When governments come together to ponder greenhouse gas emissions, they bring with them a host of concerns that have to do with their economies, with how to generate a viable economy as population continues to grow, how to compete in the intensity of global capitalism, with poverty, with agricultural issues and urban density, transportation and communications, with armaments (sadly) and our enormous defense industries, and on and on.

The thing about carbon and methane emissions is that they are waste product of almost every part of our lives.

So do I despair that any progress will ever be made and that therefore we are headed for, as James Hansen or Bill McKibben would put it, the ‘game over’ time?

I have never been apocalyptic about climate change (I can get that way about some of our other ecological stresses, like water and food shortages), though I can already see the suffering it will mean for humans over the next couple of centuries. And I don’t get into this ‘the planet is dying’ language, since that equates our potential dying with the planet’s. I can assure us again that the planet will not die, it will go on with new life forms in a new climate that may or may not hold us. That’s the point, really, not the demise of the earth itself.

But what I do know is that, since emissions and their impact on the atmosphere are waste product of the lives we live, we will not have a real impact on those emissions until we live different lives – and politicians are simply not going to dictate that for us. They need to be brought to the moment of real policy change by the movements built around the world – not just by we well-educated westerners, but we in humble partnership and solidarity with those who are feeling the impacts first and most – those with the fewest resources, those living in the most serious poverty, the disenfranchised, the communities around the world finding their voices to speak out and to organize in defense of their human and ecological communities.

In order to address climate change, we have to address systemic issues related to how the global economy functions, who has power, who makes the real decisions. Right now, what BP, ExxonMobil, and Goldman Sachs decide has far more influence on the course of the global economy than President Obama or Chancellor Merkel or the heads of Latin American governments. Right now, decisions made in the World Trade Organization have far more influence than any decision made at a UN conference.

And these are the things that have to change. We can’t reduce carbon emissions without addressing poverty, gross global inequities, and vast disparities in access to information and knowledge. We can’t reduce carbon emissions without addressing the fact of power itself, who holds it, and what its base is, its foundation, as these decisions are made largely out of our grasp and even without our knowing. Climate change is a systemic problem and cannot be addressed apart from that system. In other words, the system that creates the waste as necessary byproduct is not going to be the system that stops creating that waste. A new system is required. The people at the climate conference know this, and they are not prepared, or even have the power, to dismantle that system and create a new one.

Sunrise over Milwaukee's lake shore - the world we want. Photo: Margaret Swedish

That leaves us with the enormous challenge of continuing to build movements, awareness, and a new ecological culture. Signs of such movements are everywhere, but they are not yet enough to challenge the logic of an economy that has provided us with smart phones, global travel, fancy thermostats for constant indoor comfort, the technology I am using right now, and conveniences of life we could not even imagine when I was a kid that we now have nerve to think of as necessities.

So the challenge from Durban remains as it was before Durban – facing up to the profundity of the changes required to address our ecological crises (not just climate change). When that happens on a scale that approaches the scale of the crisis, we will see things change very quickly. But that culture does not exist yet on this scale. It exists in pockets of hope around the globe. The challenge  was, is, and will be learning how to live decently and compassionately in an era of crisis while at the same time creating the new way of life that can get us through and beyond the ‘end of the world,’ to get us  through the crisis to a better way of being human.

So this is the end of the world – not as apocalypse, but simply as end of one era, the industrial/mechanistic era that battered the planet’s ecosystems almost to their breaking point, and the beginning of a new one whose characteristics and prospects for a good life are still to be determined.

Heck of a project, that…

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