Just back from a wet weekend in Wales, attending the AECB Annual Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Star turn there was local resident George Monbiot who made great use of the fabulous clay amphitheatre (OK — lecture hall) that forms the heart of the new WISE building. George talked without notes or slides for 75 minutes in the gathering dusk, and as the evening light faded, his mood grew ever darker. I was spellbound.
Much of the content of his thoughts will be familiar to those who read his columns in the Guardian. (Or you can RSS his articles here). Copenhagen - a disaster. Cancun - don't expect anything at all. Obama can't deliver and without the USA on board there is no hope of replacing Kyoto with anything much at all. The problem is that the nation states are each arguing their particular corner and that no one is prepared to deliver anything really substantial in the way of carbon emission cuts. And for the first time the whole political process is going into reverse, as more and more people are becoming sceptical about climate change, further weakening any political resolve that once existed.
So far, so bad. That much I anticipated. But he finished with an examination of why the climate change campaign had been so spectacularly unsuccessful, concluding that at least part of the problem was that it had been conceived as a liberation movement similar to other great campaigns of the late 20th century, like feminism, gay rights, civil rights and anti-roads protests. But in reality, combating climate change isn't really like any of these other issues: it's fundamentally a rather boring economic, rational matter that the world either acknowledges and acts upon, or doesn't. There is no liberation involved anywhere. Quite the reverse.
I would go one stage further and suggest that climate change negotiations have also become bogged down with issues regarding equity of resources in general, and human wealth in particular. This is because the amount of carbon we burn is closely related to how much money we have, both as individuals and as nations. And you can't equalise the amount of carbon we all consume without equalising the wealth of nations.
That might be on the agenda for some people, but most people in the West want to stay rich, and don't want to see their wealth level down to something like they enjoy in, say, Turkey, or Brazil, or wherever we need to be in wealth terms to get our carbon habit down to an acceptable level. Now the way the climate talks are presented, this part of the agenda is pretty well hidden from us, but my guess is that people are wise to what is really going on, which is why the right is so quick to spot "communist conspiracies" and the like every time they hear the phrase "global warming."
In that sense, they are right. The debate has been shaped by the Monbiot's of this world. They have hijacked a technical issue and turned it into a moral crusade, using climate change as a vehicle to bring about a worldwide redistributon of wealth. That's not to say they aren't justified in pointing out the anomalies of carbon use across the world, but it's hardly surprising that the presentation of the issues has brought about a huge and powerful counter-reaction by the lobby groups that want to keep wealth where it is, thankyou very much.
It's not as if capitalism itself is the enemy (as someone in the audience suggested). Capitalism as a way of organisng human endeavour is full of examples of self-restraining ordinances where laws are put in place to stop free-market practices running riot. The pharmaceutical industries only exist thanks to the laws of patent; design, software and entertainment are each underpinned by copyright law, and even the arms industries concur with various conventions on what you can and can't make. And we have a working example— in the Montreal Protocol — of chemical industries stopping the use of various gases implicated in climate change. Capitalism is easily reformable, if it's seen to be in the common good.
So why is carbon reduction so intractable? Just why is it proving so difficult to get a meaningful political framework we can all sign up to? Are we all so hooked on cheap energy that we can't imagine a world without it? Does carbon underpin the very basis of Western society? Does its removal from our lives threaten our civilised values? All good stuff for another day.....
Meanwhile, you could do worse than dip into Zero Carbon Britain 2030, a CAT publication that was also given an airing at the conference.