Tomorrow world leaders will gather in Copenhagen to work out a new global strategy for combating climate change. The meeting is being billed as the new Kyoto, the solution to the climate woes of the world and the last chance to make a difference before it is too late. But there are a few things the promoters, activists, politicians and commentators keep overlooking including the depressing possibility that it may already be too late.
First, the double standard for developed and developing nations. The post-colonial world has major guilt issues to deal with and unfortunately for the environment and all humanity they feel the only way to address centuries of exploitation is to allow the places that allowed their massive growth and development to attain the same levels development. What this mentality ignores is the role of consumerism in fuelling development. The comfort of western societies is dependent to a large extent on the ability to access non-essentials instead of the sustainability of an economy in the long run or the responsible management of debt. Look at the current economic crisis in North America. Overlooking that is pretty minor in comparison to the complete meltdown of the 1930s, the only response governments have come up with is to stimulate the economy by spending money – because when a consumption based economy is faltering due to the greed inherent in the system the best remedy is to encourage what contributed to the problem in the first place, consumption! As a system of producing, selling, consuming, and discarding, the economic system of the west that non-western nations have been acculturated to strive for is continually increasing emissions because the only way to sustain the system is to consume more. It is important to remember that China and India (the largest population bases in the world) are still considered developing nations. This label is more applicable to India than China but in both cases it is worth asking what the impact on the environment will be when their billions of people are living the same way the west is.
Second, Kyoto was a massive failure. Not because the US and Australia did not ratify it, but because many of the countries who did created legislation that was so full of loopholes it would allow development and carbon emissions to continue to rise unchecked. One of the biggest offenders in this is Canada and oddly enough this one is not all Harpers fault. By the time the Conservatives under Harper came to power in 2006, Chretien’s Liberals had allowed the PR spin of signing and later ratifying Kyoto to mask nearly a decade of unchecked emissions increase and ineffective legislation. They choose to focus on the economy at the expense of the environment and when Kyoto came into effect on 16 February 2005, the Liberal government had allowed emissions to increase by nearly 22% of 1990 levels. This is a far cry from the ambitious target the government set in 1997 of reducing emissions by 6% of 1990 levels by 2012. As horrible as this is going to sound, can you really blame the Conservatives for saying in 2006 they were going to scrap Kyoto or their admission in 2007 that Canada would not meet its targets? Though it does not help that the current government has done little to legislate greenhouse gas reductions, given the state of emissions increase when they came to power coupled with a slowing economic growth can they be faulted for admitting the futility of last ditch efforts to meet Kyoto? Like the Liberals, the Conservatives have made PR based attempts to prove they care about climate change, greenhouse gas emission and the environment. The home tax credits, or the Liberal “One Tonne Challenge” revamped, is an example of this but there is still no legislation in place to force industry or the public to curb their reliance on fossil fuels. Until this happens emissions will continue to rise and the necessary allocating resources towards innovation and alternative sources energy will not happen.
Lastly, humans are a species fixated on the immediate. Throughout our existence the most drastic changes have come from the necessity to change. As long as we allow fossil fuels to be a crutch while investigating (not developing) alternative energies, innovation will not occur making all the meetings to discuss how to slow climate change redundant exercises in political rhetoric. This is possibly more depressing than admitting it may be too late because there are countries that have proven when given the opportunity to think outside the box and provided with the support of government innovation is possible. More significantly innovation without decreased standard of living is possible. No small part of selecting Copenhagen to host this round of climate talks has been Denmark’s willingness to take risks on sustainability and alternative energy. Yes as a coastal nation faced with the realities of rising sea levels necessity has played a large role in their innovation, but it has also been support by government money and legislation. Norway and Sweden are also countries where innovation has occurred. These countries have shown things like taxing emissions works and when government supports research and development of alternative energies innovation occurs. Canada should follow the example set by oil rich Norway to institute change and off-setting the environmental black-hole that is the tar sands.
Perhaps Copenhagen needs to be a failure, not another Kyoto. That will help force governments and citizens to recognize the situation we have created. Part of a failure at Copenhagen would be the admission of the past decades of toothless legislation around the world on various environmental issues. It means we stop painting things green and stop buying into the ‘green’ label. It means, like the successful social movements of the 1960s, people come together to lobby for change and force effective legislation. It means the environment stops being a site of political debate and instead all parties unify to take action – instead of falling prey to incipient partizan nit-picking. It means completely remaking our societal values and giving the environment the prominent place it deserves. Let’s face it without the environment, and everything that word encompasses, humans do not exist. We kill ourselves by killing that which sustains us, that which we have spent centuries exploiting and millennia trying to control. Oddly enough, humans now control future the earth through our wastefulness, insatiable appetites for more (of everything), and disregard for the consequences of our actions. The planet quickly heading towards a destruction of our own creation. We had the chance to prevent but chose not to. Maybe we still have the chance to prevent it but it will take turing activism into action, and the cooperation of individuals and government to create and enforce legislation to protect the environment, reduce emissions and support innovation. None of these ideas are new, neither are the environmental crises of 2009. Just listen to what Joni Mitchell sang about in 1970.