Friday, December 3, 2010

Green Fundamentalism

One of the comments made by an NGO (Climate Justice Now!) during the last COP plenary session was interesting. It represented what has been called by some "green fundamentalism". He began by saying many of the same things the other NGO's were reiterating - action needs to be taken by the member states now, here at this COP meeting to ensure that conditions don't spiral out of control for the poorest and most vulnerable. But then he ended his comments by drawing a line in the sand. He demanded that the idea carbon trading be scrapped because it would create another market for a tradable commodity. He demanded that developed countries with the historical legacy of contributing the most greenhouse gases to the atmosphere shoulder the cost of technology transfer and adaptation. And he demanded that the best way to fund this would be to install a global tax on financial transactions.

The sentiment of the comments, there is a gross inequality between rich nations and poor people and who is affected by climate change, is shared by many. The prescriptions for what to do about it are not. This fundamentalist position on climate action takes such a hard stand because it sees climate change as not just a scientific or political problem but one that is fundamentally about social justice and inequity. Many of these positions were fleshed out in a meeting held in Cochabamba hosted by the President of Bolivia Evo Morales entitled the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth.

From an economic point of view, green fundamentalism is sometimes seen as anti-growth or at the very least, questioning whether the constant impulse for economic growth worldwide is sustainable. One way to cut emissions quickly would be to impose strict caps on economic growth and slash productivity. There is not doubt that this would, in the short term be effective. Last year, 2009, saw an overall decrease in the amount of CO2 emissions coming from developed countries like the U.S. and Europe. But this was not primarily due to some coherent set of policies aimed at decreasing emissions, it was the result of the global economic downturn. Economic stagnation is good for the atmosphere.

There is a certain kind of draconian logic to this idea that cutting emissions drastically (and therefore the economies of developed nations) is the only viable way to get to the cuts in CO2 emissions that will allow us to contain the magnitude of warming to 2.0 degrees C by the end of the century. This is especially true when there are only sporadic and fragmented attempts to jump start the renewable energy industries.

But cuts in CO2 emissions from reducing economic output is not politically palatable to the general public. We all remember the phrase "it's the economy stupid" from Bill Clinton's presidential campaign. This is what people care about. It sums up the political power inherent in a stable or growing economy.

Some of the loudest voices in Congress opposing any sort of climate legislation cite the damage it would incur to economic growth as one of their primary arguments. To a certain degree, both extremes of this debate centered in Cochabamba and the U.S. Senate, are distractions from any sort of compromise position being reached. In the EU's roadmap I talked about yesterday, they have calculated that not only would the transition of energy production (generating an 80% in CO2 emissions by 2050) cost less in the long run because of the growing cost of fossil fuels, it would also save consumers by cutting their electricity bills by up to 25% by 2020 and result in a net increase in jobs.

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