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Copenhagen: climate countdown

The United Nations climate-change summit is a vital moment in the world’s effort to avert catastrophe. openDemocracy authors reflect on what needs to happen and how much Copenhagen can achieve.

Andrew Dobson

Sue Branford

Oliver Tickell

John Elkington

Øyvind Paasch

Ian Christie

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Andrew Dobson, Keele University

The single most important thing that needs to happen to avoid catastrophic climate change is an unprecedented outbreak of international and intergenerational solidarity. This is because solidarity is the basis for the kinds of actions - individual, national, global - that must be taken to keep global warming to below 2 degrees Centigrade.

The idea that there is an invisible hand that will sweep up self-regarding actions into a coherent set of climate policies is a chimera. The climate is a commons, and we have forgotten how to look after anything properly that is held in common.

Over forty years ago Garrett Hardin identified the result of individuals pursuing their self-interest in the context of a finite resource, even when it is obvious that it is no longer in their interest to do: the “tragedy of the commons”. This is exactly what is happening with climate change.

So what to do: privatise the commons (Hardin’s preferred solution), or create a Green Leviathan that forces individuals and countries to keep their greenhouse-gas emissions to around 450 parts per million (ppm)?

These solutions are either unworkable or undesirable (or both), which leaves one option as the basis for the voluntary restraint that is needed: solidarity. But what hope is there for this option, given that appeals to global justice as the basis for climate policy are constantly made and just as constantly flouted?

What is missing is a new context for these appeals: one that makes them the default option rather than the outlandish one. This is what the participants of the Copenhagen conference on 7-18 December 2009 should have been and (even at this late stage) should now be focusing their creative energies on – devising a way of recreating the psychosocial conditions, in peacetime, of a war economy. Forget the deals. Recreate the conditions of a war economy, and voluntary restraint will follow.

Also by Andrew Dobson:

"A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

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Sue Branford, GRAIN

Almost every month in the past decade, new evidence has emerged that severe climate change is now unstoppable, and already happening in some developing countries. The only way to prevent the very worst is to change radically the way we live so that greenhouse-gas emissions fall very rapidly indeed over the next decade. That means transforming our lives, particularly with respect to transport, energy, housing and food. This last factor is important: few people know it, but the global food system - the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, the fossil-fuel used to transport commodities around the world, the packaging and freezing - accounts for almost half of total greenhouse-gas emissions.

The climate conference in Copenhagen has not tackled the problem in the right way, largely because it is trying to build on the Kyoto protocol (even though this failed to reduce global emissions). The main “solutions” it has put forward - carbon-offsets and carbon-trading - will allow the rich countries to buy their way out of the problem. At best, this could lead to tiny, incremental steps towards sustainable Co2 emissions; at worst, the carbon-markets could become another speculative bubble, making the rich richer, but doing nothing to reduce emissions. What is required, instead, is a range of far-reaching, radical reforms whereby the developed countries both slash their own emissions and provide billions of dollars to poor, developing nations in reparation for damage already caused.

The best thing coming out of the Copenhagen conference is that it is raising public awareness of the seriousness of the crisis. It must “fail” because, if it is seen to “succeed”, it will lead to a popular perception that the problem is being solved. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Also by Sue Branford:

Lula's last challenge: the Amazon” (9 December 2009)

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Oliver Tickell Kyoto2 - for an effective climate protocol

The most important thing is for countries to view climate change as a global problem that requires a global solution. And therefore to plan a way out of the country-based system that we have at the moment - which is, as is more than ever evident at Copenhagen, creating a conflictual dynamic that is blocking progress.

Also by Oliver Tickell:

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

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John Elkington, Volans

The COP15 agenda must be seen in a wider frame. The Copenhagen meeting is a crucial event, but climate change is a global phenomenon that will play out over decades, indeed generations. We must learn to think and act accordingly.

The severe stresses on the planet will probably not offer a single unmistakable sign of the urgent danger we now face, as happened with the ozone-hole over the Antarctic in 1985. Instead, the evidence will continue to accumulate incrementally, challenged at every stage by sceptics and deniers. As the process unfolds, there will be a spreading need for educative and entrepreneurial approaches – from immersion courses in climate-science for business leaders; to engagement by NGOs and activists with innovators and investors thinking about geo-engineering solutions; to a global unleashing of the “power of unreasonable people” (the Eden Project’s Tim Smit, Janine Benyus and Craig Venter come to mind).

COP15 matters profoundly - as will its successor meetings. But in the long view it is likely to matter less for its immediate political impact than in how it influences the next generation of innovators. The challenge is to find, connect with and support those people as they switch on to the century’s single biggest challenge.

Also by John Elkington:

"Can democracy save the planet?" (24 April 2008)

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Øyvind Paasche, Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research

As emissions of greenhouse-gases continue to soar, the possibility of a destabilised climate-system increases. Reducing that risk is wholly dependent on a significant reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

The faster those cutbacks take place, the better it is for limiting the chances of catastrophic climate change. Where the lack of action over mitigation has made the climate future more uncertain than ever, curbing greenhouse-gases is essential.

The more predictable future climate changes include warmer temperatures and a steady rise in sea-levels. The gradual and foreseeable nature of these changes in principle allows for adaptation. In stark contrast are the changes associated with floods and droughts, which might very well might be the ones we should fear the most.

COP15 remains a historic chance to “bend the trend”; but it requires that countries such as China and the United States (responsible for roughly 40% of total global emissions of CO2) sign a legally binding agreement. The way the conference has progressed makes this unlikely.

The best that can come out of COP15 seems therefore a raised awareness among citizens that, in the wake of this meeting, we must take responsibility and put pressure on our own governments. The worst thing that can happen now is that the momentum currently existing around climate change is lost because of a negotiation breakdown.

Beyond that, what is urgently needed now is that one or more industrialised countries demonstrate that a carbon-neutral economy is possible. The power of example has hitherto been underestimated in the global-warming debate.

Also by Øyvind Paasche:

After glaciers: a new climate world”(12 October 2009)

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Ian Christie, Green Alliance

We can have no certainties about the thresholds at which catastrophic climate change will be initiated, nor is there any “silver-bullet” policy available to address it: climate change is a vastly complex array of issues that demands many coordinated policies at all levels. The likelihood is that we need to keep temperature rise to 2 degrees C at most in order to be reasonably confident of sustaining human development and resilient ecosystems. Even 2C might be “too much”: we cannot know for sure. So all states and businesses need to act on a precautionary “insurance” principle based on the best assessment of the models and observational evidence. This requires global greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions to peak in the coming decade and decline steeply thereafter.

To achieve this, OECD states must lead in making large gains in energy conservation and efficiency (very achievable) and in investing in sustainable energy systems; and new industrial powers must be given incentives to follow suit, reducing their carbon intensity of production and then also making absolute cuts in GHG emissions. The later the peak is reached, the greater the risks. In the light of all this, the most important thing, if one item has to be picked, is for political consensus to be secured in the United States for urgent action on emissions and a low-carbon transition. Without full US cooperation, any international framework for action is badly flawed.

Copenhagen matters as part of a continuing process of global cooperation, research and debate about the right priorities, principles and policies. It is not going to be the definitive climate-policy event, mainly because of the lack of consensus on diagnosis and action in the US. Copenhagen is important as a chance to reinforce urgency about what the available models and evidence tell us; to establish the principles and priorities for an eventual “global deal” in 2010-12; and to raise public awareness and the quality of debate about the issues. The best it can deliver is the outline of a binding deal and a signal that all the big emitters are serious about action to ensure GHGs “peak” globally in the coming decade.

I hope for two other things as the conference nears its end in an (at the time of writing) apparently fraught atmosphere: first, a clear statement that climate action is a matter of justice for the vulnerable and poor states and people who have contributed least to the problems and stand to suffer most; second, serious analysis of the weaknesses of emission-trading systems (ETS) and of the merits of the alternative, a carbon-tax regime that will do what ETS has failed to do so far, set a carbon price that accelerates low and zero-carbon innovations and gives incentives for rapid cuts in emissions.

Also by Ian Christie:

When the levee breaks” (29 August 2007)

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About the authors

Sue Branford is co-editor of Seeding and manages the publications of the agricultural-diversity NGO, Grain. She reports regularly from Latin America for the BBC and the UK Guardian.

Ian Christie is a writer, researcher and local government policymaker. He was joint head of environmental and economic policy at Surrey County Council.

Andrew Dobson is professor of politics at Keele University. Among his books are Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford University Press, 2003); (as co-editor) Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Green Political Thought (Routledge, 4th edition, 2007). His website is here

John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com.

Øyvind Paasche is the leader of the Bergen Marine Research Cluster, Norway and chair of research at the University of the Arctic

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

Read On

openDemocracy writers explore the politics of climate change, including the debate of that name (edited by Caspar Henderson) in 2004-05:

Stephan Harrison, "Kazakhstan: glaciers and geopolitics" (27 May 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

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

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

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

Andrew Dobson, "A politics of global warming: the social-science resource" (29 March 2007)

Andrew Dobson, "A climate of crisis: towards the eco-state" (19 September 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate change: from issue to magnifier" (19 October 2007)

David Shearman, "Democracy and climate change: a story of failure" (7 November 2007)

Tom Burke, "The world and climate change: all together now" (7 December 2007)

Saleemul Huq, Oliver Tickell, David Steven, Camilla Toulmin, Andrew Dobson and Alun Anderson, "Was Bali a success?" (18 Dec 2007)

Mike Hulme, "Climate security: the new determinism" (20 December 2007)

John Lotherington & John Elkington, "Can democracy save the planet?" (24 April 2008)

Andrew Pendleton, "The global politics of climate-change: after the G8" (17 July 2008)

Mike Hulme, "Amid the financial storm: redirecting climate change" (30 October 2008)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change futures: postcard from Poznan" (11 December 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: rock the state, save the planet" (21 April 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Climate change: a failure of leadership" (8 May 2009)

Simon Maxwell, "The politics of climate change" (15 June 2009)

Andrew Pendleton, “The G8 and climate change: towards Copenhagen” (8 July 2009) 

External Relations Authority, "Report on World 87" (20 August 2009)

Øyvind Paasche, “After glaciers: a new climate world”(12 October 2009)

Paul Rogers, “The climate peril: a race against time” (13 November 2009)

Andrew Pendleton, “After Copenhagen” (4 December 2009)


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