Live Earth's limits

Oliver Tickell
6 July 2007

It would be churlish to knock Live Earth. I am personally unenthused by it. But you could put that down to innate scepticism, only added to by the glitzy presentation surrounding the event. That, and the participation of so many global companies from Microsoft to Chevrolet and Coca Cola who are not obviously making themselves part of the solution to climate change. It somehow looks and feels like a corporate extravaganza fronted by A-list celebrities from Madonna to Al Gore - neither of them noted for their low-impact lifestyle.

Oliver Tickell is a journalist and campaigner on health and environment issues. He is the architect of the "Kyoto2" initiative

Also by Oliver Tickell in openDemocracy:

"Climate change: the last chance" (6 February 2007)

Oliver Tickell has also written: "Making preservation pay" (Ecologist, February 2007)


But does all this corporate and celebrity involvement make it a bad thing. Would I encourage readers not to engage, or to boycott Live Earth? No. An event like this reaches into millions of families and households that might just think about these issues and what they can do, and who would otherwise not give it a second thought. The whole cult of celebrity can be stomach-turning but this is at least putting the power of celebrity to good use. Likewise corporations need to be become part of the solution to climate change, even of they are not there already, and by attaching their names to Live Earth they are implicitly committing themselves to doing more in the future.

The grains and the sand

What will Live Earth actually achieve? In the short term, a non-trivial volume of carbon-emissions from flights and other energy use. In the longer term, more positive outcomes may result. The general public scepticism and indifference on global warming revealed by the Ipsos Mori poll published in July 2007 shows that there is a huge need to wake the public up to the real and imminent dangers we face, and to persuade people to reduce their climate impact. And this is the broad message coming from Live Earth and its sponsor the Alliance for Climate Protection, which aims to "persuade individuals, communities, states, and corporations across the world to begin to quickly reduce their own greenhouse pollution in order to become 'carbon neutral'.

Also in openDemocracy's debate on the politics of climate change:

Saleemul Huq & Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change: from science and economics to human rights" (7 November 2006)

Simon Retallack, "Climate change: the global test" (10 November 2006)

Tom Burke, "Climate change: choosing the tools" (21 December 2006)

Caspar Henderson, "The president's new clothes" (24 January 2007)

John Elkington & Geoff Lye, "Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007)

Dougald Hine, "Climate change: a question of democracy" (2 February 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (6 February 2007)

Yet individual action - whether by people, major corporations or even governments - is an insufficient response. Of course individual actions produce benefits in their own right and show a way forward for others to follow. But to tackle the world's climate problems, high-emitting industrial countries such as the United Kingdom need to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 80%. To do this we need to rebuild or reconfigure most of our energy and transport infrastructure over the coming decades. And then we need to finance the world's poorer developing countries to do the same.

No matter how much we do to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, the world is pretty well committed to a temperature rise of 2C by 2100 thanks to all the emissions already in the atmosphere and the time-lags built into the climate system. This will involve some major impacts including substantial sea-level rise, glacial melting, widespread drought and frequent extremes of weather - and the countries set to suffer the most are the poor countries who have contributed least to the problem. So we need to raise the money to help those poor countries adapt - and the bill will amount to some hundreds of billions of dollars, every year. More: we need to bring tropical (and for that matter temperate) deforestation to a halt. And then reverse it.

This goes way beyond what individual actions can achieve. To act on the scale required we need a truly global response that engages all sectors of business, government and society. So while we all need to do what we can as individuals or companies to be more climate-friendly, it would be a dangerous illusion to think that will be enough. We need to reach out far beyond individual action and engage in a greater debate on the new forms of global governance and the economic mechanisms that we will need to restore health and stability to our global climate.

An alternative embrace

This is something I have tried to do with my own Kyoto2 proposals. In a nutshell, these argue that the rights to produce greenhouse gases should be sold on a global basis, and the funds raised - which could reach $1 trillion per year - used to tackle both the causes and the consequences of climate change. But the urgently needed discussion about a future climate agreement to follow the existing, deeply flawed Kyoto protocol after it expires in 2012 is not happening. The very real danger is that we will sleepwalk into a Kyoto successor which inherits all the original's failings and will prove as ineffective as the first, with fatal consequences for our planet.

It is a strange irony that the most worthwhile recent contribution of ideas to the possible post-Kyoto framework came not from Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth or indeed the Alliance for Climate Protection, but from the erstwhile climate change denier Exxon Mobil (which is, incomprehensibly, not sponsoring Live Earth). The company is now arguing for fossil fuels to be controlled "upstream" at the point of production rather than "downstream" at the point at which they are burnt (as under the Kyoto rotocol and the European Union's emissions-trading scheme [EU-ETS]), and for the production rights to be sold, not given away (as under the EU-ETS) - in both respects echoing the Kyoto2 thinking.

As for the Live Earth event, I won't be going. However I will tune into the alternative Alive Earth internet concert organised by another non-sponsor of Live Earth, the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN). Alive Earth may not be strictly carbon neutral - YouTube's servers and my own computer all run on electricity after all, most of it produced by burning coal and gas. But at least no one has to drive or fly anywhere to join in, perform or enjoy. And it will be a guaranteed celebrity-free zone.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData