Copenhagen’s failed global climate change talks showed the size of the mess we’re in, and the perils of self-interest. However, they could yet be a catalyst for something bigger

It was a curious sort of detachment, watching history unfold at Copenhagen. In hindsight, will people say: that’s when our fate was decided? How ordinary and inevitable it felt; the sun rose and sank, and people went about their business just the same.

The climate change debate has a subtext that, in some ways, may be better left unsaid. Climate change is so fiercely fought, the evidence so trenchantly denied, because the cure for it is existential. This is a clash of world views. As George Monbiot wrote, that week of the global summit, this is about us, not just the weather:

No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way … Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments, and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers … are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.

Alexander McCall Smith (who was a Professor of Medical Law, and a respected bioethicist and jurist, before he turned pop culture writer) writes in his latest book, Corduroy Mansions:

And yet, if the means existed to do something, we would do it; the most cursory glance at human history confirmed that. Here and there, brave souls questioned this and were often howled down for their pains. Or people agreed with them, nodded sagely, and then did nothing. Very few people were prepared to … deny themselves … something that was readily available.

The author of Genesis called it dominion. Other populations, if not preyed upon, expand until they exceed the ability of the environment to support them, then collapse; that’s the natural order of things. We can choose to do differently – so far, though, we choose not to, and that determination to conquer the world, and anywhere else we can reach, will wreck it for us all. Ironically, it proves we’re not unique after all.

What we’re witnessing wouldn’t be out of character as a sort of apocalyptic dream sequence worthy of The Last Battle of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, or the Book of Revelation. And yes, I know that viewing matters in that light is symptomatic of Western, white, middle class, Christian acculturation – but since we seem hell bent on playing out the “dominion” part of that narrative, it might be worth remembering how that story plays out.

Of course, this is not actually about the end of the world. But it is this century’s history-shaping decision – just as, last century, we defended our way of life and ideals in the world wars, and before that, colonialists and missionary zealots set out to claim the world’s territory and “civilise” its indigenous people.

It’s about what price we will pay for adaptation – because while adaptation of some sort will be forced upon us, the sooner we act, the lower the cost will be – and whether that price is a new world order that threatens the supremacy of first world countries. If or when we decide to act, how generously will we act? Will we, in the rich world, switch to clean cars and renewable energy and a bit of eco-accessorising, and all go on as before, or attempt a fundamental reordering of the post-war consumption ethos, and a more equal world?

It calls into question some things we thought were progress, that have brought so much good, along with the bad. It puts us in a quandary of economic growth demands, butting up against environmental limits. It challenges the political consensus that economic growth is the foundation upon which modern societies have been built, and must continue to be built. We do not know how to function, or whether we even can, without economic growth; now we may have to try.

Riskily, it will be perceived, to some extent, as a tussle between left and right, because the necessary remedy does have a leftish flavour. Economic growth has been our proxy for social justice, minimising the need for overt wealth redistribution of the kind under discussion at Copenhagen, by “growing the cake” for everybody. Because we have squandered the luxury of time for markets to operate, as they do, slowly and imperfectly, governments will have to step in and regulate or incentivise, so there are overtones of “big” government.

To the extent that both red and blue political parties support the basic economic paradigm, differing on the size of the role of government, and what you do with taxes, not capitalism and growth, the real tension is between the Greens and everyone else. The “politics of enough”, or “restraint” in Monbiot’s language, is Green politics, and has been since the 1970s.

Politicisation of the debate is dangerous. People who have always believed in such ideals will consider themselves proved right, congratulate themselves on their perspicacity, and grasp at this chance of utopia. The other half of the population will oppose in principle what looks like political opportunism.

Even if we can avoid casting this in terms of who seems to be winning the political argument, it is, undeniably, a large reordering of society. Chris Patten likened Copenhagen to Versailles, and it is indeed the same kind of thing: about reallocating power, in the interests of future security. We haven’t been very good at accomplishing such a thing, historically, without a lot of conflict. We couldn’t even decide at Copenhagen whether the second Kyoto commitment period should end in 2020, or 2018.

This is my hope for the global summit at Copenhagen: that the story does not stop when we failed to grasp the nettle, but becomes a catalyst for ordinary people who have so far been silent, to make plain their disappointment and anger at the inadequacy of the conference result, and the short sighted self-interest displayed. To quote Monbiot, again:

So what happens now? That depends on the other non-player at Copenhagen: you. For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian every day – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic. Demonstrations which should have brought millions onto the streets have struggled to mobilise a few thousand. As a result the political cost of the failure at Copenhagen is zero.

But these are my fears: there are many, many reasons to doubt that this will happen. Even if people comprehend the scale of the consequences of climate change – and I am not sure that many outside “the beltway” do – once they also perceive that, probably, life in rich countries cannot be lived quite as we’ve learned to expect, how much easier and more human it is to take refuge in denial, anger, inertia, and so on. If we thought that the conversation about billions in direct payment to developing countries was a bit fraught, imagine the political impossibility of rich countries defending their own stagnating growth performance to the unemployed man in the street, while third world growth proceeds apace, in the name of equity.

A new way forward is beginning to be articulated, for example, in this Prosperity -- without growth? report from the UK Sustainable Development Commission (March 2009). The report’s suite of recommendations are in the same space as ideas currently floating in New Zealand – things like taxation policy, a “green new deal”, and whether GDP is a good measure of success. New Zealand has already arrived, by other non-climate change routes (to take a few examples, the Buckle tax working group, the Brash 2025 taskforce, and the November 2009 reports of the Reserve Bank and the Finance and Expenditure select committee on financial stability) at a crossroads that questions the best way forward. So we are well placed, going into this new year, to debate these ideas.

And yet, in 2009 we did not see the Key government express any vision, or shape coherent policy, or show any leadership at all – nor was there any appetite to even discuss radical change, of any kind. I’m afraid 2010 will be no different; I hope they prove me wrong.


Comments (4)

by Tim Watkin on January 06, 2010
Tim Watkin

Politicisation of the debate is dangerous.

And yet inevitable. Given the power and money at stake, there will continue to be a heated contest of ideas. Thing is, if it's as bad as many say, we need to act early and urgently. But if it's not that bad, we'll over-shoot and waste billions that could have been spent on malaria or unclean water and national interests will have been sacrificed. On top of that, psychologically speaking, we could look silly and panicked, and our collective pride is terrified of that.

As for the Genesis story, I only hope we don't end with the flood. Read on and the story ends with redemption and a rainbow.

by Claire Browning on January 06, 2010
Claire Browning

You've linked it to Genesis, Tim, but when I said "it might be worth remembering how that story ends," I was actually talking about Revelation! Fire, flood, famine ... a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees, and all the green grass, and a third of the sea creatures died, and so on. Here.

I really don't want to push that analogy too far - I've pushed it quite far enough already - but the similarity does intrigue me. Always used to wonder: but however could that happen? Pretty easily, as it turns out.

by Tim Watkin on January 06, 2010
Tim Watkin

I'd wondered whether you meant Adam and Eve being banished from the garden or Noah and the flood, plumping for the latter. Revelation never occured to me! Interesting that number of possible 'endings'...

by Sandwichman on January 07, 2010

The template for the mass movement that needs to happen is the 19th century struggle for the eight-hour day.  In that earlier struggle the limits were human physiological and psychological. The analogy can be a strong basis of identification, particularly in that a key recommendation of Prosperity Without Growth? is work time reduction.

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