Monday, November 28, 2011

Where did Hope and Ambition go?... not the middle way

COP17 opens today in Durban: it's amazing to see how quickly expectations for serious progress through the UN process have fallen - from the precipice of an ambitious treaty to being drowned in the bathtub. Two years ago in Copenhagen there was a strong sense that world political leadership would have to see the writing on the wall, step up to the plate and agree to a treaty; certainly (it was thought) that these leaders would not arrive to simply preside over failure. In hindsight, it's clear that they were there to deliver eulogies.

By last year's meeting in Cancun, some hopes lingered that talks might be rescued, but now even those with the rosiest tints in their glasses are depressed and the cynics seem vindicated. What happened?

The US role is central, and the path President Obama has taken is indicative of the failings. Back in Copenhagen, Obama was still fairly fresh from winning election by promising Hope and Change, and was optimistic that Congress would support greenhouse gas legislation. He arrived sporting the Nobel Peace Prize from the previous week; surely, we had emerged from decades of stalemate and quagmire!? Flash forward to 2011 - after innumerable drone attacks and with military spending rising as inexorably as CO2 levels - the title "Nobel Peace Laureate" is rarely applied if not forgotten, a symbol of misguided hope. Obama's pursuit of a 'sensible' and practical middle way on all other fronts has led to similar ends: lame reforms of the health insurance system, hollow Wall Street reforms, brinksmanship over debt other words, Washington business as usual.

Which brings us back to climate change. Business as Usual is the worst-case GCM (climate model) scenario that is based on exponential curves of economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions - producing exponential growth in temperatures over this century. It was argued in Copenhagen that 2009 was the last chance to begin undertaking serious reductions in emissions, because kicking the can further down the road would not only lead to the necessity of even more steeply drastic and painful future cuts, but the likelihood that real climatic and ecological thresholds would soon be crossed. Of course the can was kicked, and emissions continue to exceed the worst-case climate scenario (despite the global recession), a reliable indicator that global leaders and the global economy have no intention of ever taking climate change seriously. Those who deny the reality of global warming seem to have won the current political battle, as it provides a convenient way out of taking action.

If faith in moderate reforms has faded into oblivion, what hope is left? A similar loss of faith in "the system" underlies the Occupy movement around the US and world, along with an understanding that only fundamental revisions in the way we live now can lead to conditions that remain livable into the future. This is the same conclusion demanded by climate science, and while climate change is just one undercurrent in the Occupy movement, the shift from reliance on "Official" leadership (whether it be presidents or climate change conventions) to the grassroots may be the only serious option left on the table.

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