Copenhagen Is Not Just About Climate Change -- It's About the What Kind of People We Want to Be
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Although the delegates are waking up to the scale of their responsibility, I still believe that they will sell us out. Everyone wants his last adventure. Hardly anyone among the official parties can accept the implications of living within our means, of living with tomorrow in mind. There will, they tell themselves, always be another frontier, another means to escape our constraints, to dump our dissatisfactions on other places and other people. Hanging over everything discussed here is the theme that dare not speak its name, always present but never mentioned. Economic growth is the magic formula which allows our conflicts to remain unresolved.
While economies grow, social justice is unnecessary, as lives can be improved without redistribution. While economies grow, people need not confront their elites. While economies grow, we can keep buying our way out of trouble. But, like the bankers, we stave off trouble today only by multiplying it tomorrow. Through economic growth we are borrowing time at punitive rates of interest. It ensures that any cuts agreed at Copenhagen will eventually be outstripped. Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it’s only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil. We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accomodated on a finite planet.
For all their earnest self-restraint, the negotiators in the plastic city are still not serious, even about climate change. There’s another great unmentionable here: supply. Most of the nation states tussling at Copenhagen have two fossil fuel policies. One is to minimise demand, by encouraging us to reduce our consumption. The other is to maximise supply, by encouraging companies to extract as much from the ground as they can.
We know, from the papers published in Nature in April, that we can use a maximum of 60% of current reserves of coal, oil and gas if the average global temperature is not to rise by more than two degrees(1). We can burn much less if, as many poorer countries now insist, we seek to prevent the temperature from rising by more than 1.5C. We know that capture and storage will dispose of just a small fraction of the carbon in these fuels. There are two obvious conclusions: governments must decide which existing reserves of fossil fuel are to be left in the ground, and they must introduce a global moratorium on prospecting for new reserves. Neither of these proposals has even been mooted for discussion.
But somehow this first great global battle between expanders and restrainers must be won and then the battles that lie beyond it – rising consumption, corporate power, economic growth - must begin. If governments don’t show some resolve on climate change, the expanders will seize on the restrainers’ weakness. They will attack - using the same tactics of denial, obfuscation and appeals to self-interest - the other measures that protect people from each other, or which prevent the world’s ecosystems from being destroyed. There is no end to this fight, no line these people will not cross. They too are aware that this a battle to redefine humanity, and they wish to redefine it as a species even more rapacious than it is today.