No News Is Not Good News

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The real news out of Copenhagen is that there was very little news. If one looked for news anywhere but the media outlets following climate, sustainability, greening, and other related topics, news of what was going on in Copenhagen was under the radar screen. And much of was found in the general, not just the main stream media, covered the protests and other social aspects. This situation holds for all news about these subjects, not just the proceedings at Copenhagen. The world just isn’t watching. This failure to appreciate the full implications of unsustainability, far beyond the climate change piece, is ominous and promises trouble ahead.

For the first time in history, we are faced with global issues other than economic or military issues. Environmental degradation has long been viewed as a set of separate, regionally bounded problems, but now only the deniers or ostriches can continue to look past the global scope of the increasingly unsustainable Earth. Social problems, ofter relegated to the global economic market for remedy, also cannot be ignored as a set of moral issues that this market and the economic theory behind it cannot handle. Gleaning various communications from Copenhagen from the “official observers” and many colleagues and others reporting during and after the conference ended, I discovered several items that suggest that the overwhelming emphasis on the technical details of the agreement process caused some key happenings to slip through the cracks.

In spite of what most observers said about the failings and failures of CoP—15, there are several consequences that are positive and deserve, if not demand serious attention, not only in the media, but virtually everywhere. One of my colleagues, Edgar Hertwich from the NTNU, writes of the surprising (to him) attention paid to environmental equity issues. That equity, itself is a serious concern is not new, but he thought that, for the first time, it was gaining on the technological forces that have so dominated the climate change arena. Here is a few paragraphs from Edgar’s reportage from Denmark.

Our atmosphere is a globally shared, common resource that has been over-utilized by a mere 20% of the global population. In principle, all humans should have equal rights to use this resource. The climate negotiations are the only global negotiations allowing developing countries to raise the issue of unfair access to globally shared resources. Their positioning in the negotiations may at times seem self-serving, trying to extract bribes for pursuing a low-carbon development course which should be in the developing countries interest anyway, given their disproportional vulnerability to climate change. It would be a mistake not to take seriously the issue of climate justice and the connection of global resource access and economic product.  These issues must be accorded more importance by industrialized countries, which must be more willing to stop their irresponsible overuse of the atmosphere. 

Negotiations must not be a zero-sum game. Yes, we must equitably share our common resources among humans, both current and future generations. However, there is a large scope to improve energy and resource efficiency and to generate energy with much less emissions. International cooperation will in fact help us to take advantage of those opportunities, because it allows us to share technical progress and implement solutions more widely and thereby reduce their price.  Still, the climate debate has been so long dominated by technological optimists that issues of justice have been overlooked. I think it is about time to accord them more importance. We must start a debate about how to fairly share our global resources, both in principle and practically. A debate of principles is necessary to make clear to those guilty of too high emissions that the status quo is not right. A debate of practicalities is necessary to find low-carbon development options for poor countries and to avoid transfer mechanisms that corrupt developing country elites and impede development in ways that payments for the extraction of other resources often do.

Alan AtKisson, attending as part of the UN contingent, wrote

After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I came to an unsurprising conclusion… The world will never be the same.

My reading of the bulk of the news was just the opposite. Most commentators expressed a ho-hum attitude. Still business as usual in the US and in business. AtKisson continues:

But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that continues to interest me, for the events in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period.  The primary outcome of the negotiations was not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will be debated endlessly in the years ahead.  The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably.  Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.

Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15. The constellation of the now-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicated something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries was, to say the least, widely noticed.

If the understanding, even tacitly, that we are faced with a massive system problem which is not amenable to the usual zero sum games grows, then there is hope that world’s powerful leaders from every sector will stop trying to maximize their selfish gains. We all have been unwilling to recognize that it is exactly that behavior that has created the current mess. But this positive outcome will come to naught without action to reduce the stress on the planet and change the cultural drivers that have gotten us to where we are. Change, not compensation, is critical.