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Blame Games On Climate Change

By Nick Mabey and Malini Mehra

If nations can rise above past conflicts, why can't they work together at the climate change talks in Bonn?

This year was meant to be the year of climate change. Yet UN negotiations in Bonn this week towards a global climate agreement in Copenhagen (COP15) in December are stalling amid a flurry of weak commitments and recriminations. This combined with economic anxiety about pledging assistance to poorer countries is threatening to bring progress to a halt. If COP15 is to succeed, climate negotiators will have to learn lessons from the world of peacemaking and raise their game accordingly.

At present, climate negotiations are a parody of trade talks, with countries jockeying for advantage, and demanding the most from others while taking the least action possible themselves. The debate over "historical responsibility" has clouded focus and undermined the fragile trust between countries that climate change is a common problem that all must commit to solving.

Business as usual will not deliver the cuts needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Neither will politics as usual. Negotiators do not seem to realise that the Earth's climate system is not interested in their clever ploys or claims of action. It is only interested in the amount of greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere. The cry that it is "not fair" to ask China and India to limit their emissions makes no difference to the atmosphere. Every country will need to act radically if we are to avoid devastating impacts. This means that global emissions must drop by 60-80% from current levels by mid-century. If we fail to act, the poorest people in the poorest countries will be the first and the hardest hit.

So how do we address the issue of historical responsibility? Rich countries are responsible for over half of historical climate change and far more on a per capita basis. It is also true that most of the growth in future emissions will come from rapidly industrialising countries like China and India. Many different approaches have been proposed to divide up the remaining "carbon space" with sophisticated equity-based formulas.

Unsurprisingly, each one seems to advantage the particular country that proposes it. So India wants per capita emissions because it has a growing population. China wants credit for reducing its population and being the workshop of the world. Australia wants credit for being hot. Russia wants credit for being cold. The US argues it is too rich to cut emissions; the Africans that they are too poor. The list goes on.

Whatever the merits of each country's argument, the truth is that none of these approaches will be agreed as a basis for action at Copenhagen. However, argument over the past could fatally derail negotiations and deprive everyone of a stable future.

We need to step away from this blame game cul-de-sac and learn from the wisdom of successful post-conflict peace processes. Just look at what Northern Ireland, South Africa and Rwanda have to teach us. Here politicians and populations have made hard decisions to focus on building a better future, not by ignoring the past, but by acknowledging and managing it in an open way. Compared to the real level of pain, distrust and grievance in these societies, the often tactical outrage displayed in climate talks seems like play-acting. Sitting down with representatives of groups that have raped, tortured and murdered your loved ones is profoundly hard. It takes maturity, but one finds that people all around the world do it to avoid harm in the future. Compared to this, blaming British coal miners 100 years ago for today's sea-level rise in India seems a forced and meaningless abstraction.

If people who have suffered the immediate horrors of war can find it within themselves to rise above the past, and construct a better future surely we can achieve the same level of maturity in climate politics? Perhaps it is because the impacts of recent conflict are so raw that people are prepared to go to extreme lengths to make peace. The hard-won lessons from these harrowing experiences need to be learned by climate negotiators. If we lack the maturity to deal with climate change, the future is one of mutually assured destruction.

Moving away from the mad world of climate politics will require giving greater voice in international negotiations to the actual victims of climate change rather than their often remote representatives. Perhaps we should invite Desmond Tutu to host a climate change truth and reconciliation commission at Copenhagen? Perhaps this is what is needed to focus minds a little more. The climate can wait – but we cannot.

Nick Mabey is CEO of E3G (third generation environmentalism).

This piece originally appeared in The Guardian.

Image credit: Flickr/davi sommerfeld, Creative Commons License.

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The locus of climate politics has rightly been on reasoned ethical arguments about justice and equity. One can't wish them away if one is to expect a legitimate and effective climate treaty to emerge. That means that responsibility (historic and future) should be part of the equation, with adequate mechanisms for compensation where justified. Indeed, a shared understanding and acknowledgment of responsibility is indeed central to what any truth and reconciliation mission is all about.

Posted by: laservisor on 12 Jun 09

What most people do not know is that some environmental strategies allow countries to by-pass most of the responsibility issue (see Cap-and-Trade Problems and Alternative Strategies for Carbon Emissions, Renewable Energy...).

The responsibility debate was a problem with the Kyoto Accord from the outset! So was the possibility of fraud (now the object on numerous news articles) with cap-and-trade. There are atlernative options, but they need your support.

Tags: Alternative Solutions for Global Warming, Carbon Emissions, and the Environment

Posted by: Pierre Champagne on 13 Jun 09

In the spirit of constructive criticism, I would say that you should be more thoughtful of the plight of third world people.

Lets be honest, you know exactly why they are poor, a lack of the materialistic free market system that we have. Get beyond all that being a good white liberal stuff, and realize that what the people of the third world really want is to live a fat materially comfortable life like you do. And don't tell me that it doesn't really you happy, you know it does, you yell and scream at the top of your lungs whenever one of your politicians fails to deliver conditions for it.

Anyone who has ever, ever said a word about Reagan's poor performance can never, ever, say a word about how they despise material wealth. That is contradictory, and if held as an honest opinion is so contradictory it is almost creepy.

Then realize that by cutting back carbon based energy you are depriving these third world people of the live they have coveted since they first read off it.

Don't smash their dreams just because you have some silly bougie intellectual discomfort with recognizing it in your own life.

Posted by: tehdude on 14 Jun 09

It is laughable that the expectation is for the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the US government global emissions will rise 50% by 2050. In fact, China's 2006 growth in coal-fired power plants add almost double the CO2 than the European Union’s entire Kyoto reduction commitment!

If the US wants to cut emissions 80% by 2050, per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons. It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low – even back in colonial days when the only fuel burned was wood. Japan hasn't let its failure so far to meet Kyoto targets stop it from setting even more ambitious goals, like a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, but if meeting Kyoto's targets would cost Japan $500 billion, how much would it cost to cut emissions over ten times more? No realistic person ought to think CO2 emissions are going to do anything but grow.

Most countries are not meeting their emissions goals, and of the ones that have, it's because their economies are collapsing. In the US, this notion that we're going to reduce our emissions by 80% is pure fantasy. You are vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to change.

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 15 Jun 09

What can one say of such holier than thou posturing from the developed world which has lavishly lived off the planet's resources and continues to, but expects the poor to think of the atmosphere! Why is there such a reluctance to pass on economic benefits or transfer tech in return for emission reductions? That is the least you can do in damage repair. You will continue with your cars and gadgets and big rambling homes, when people in developing world are struggling to have a 6x6 roof over their heads? why bother to speak of equity? or responsibility? or false concerns about the planet?

Posted by: Jeyau on 16 Jun 09

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