Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The G8: Cnuts of climate change

There has been no time in recent history where coordinated agreement from the great powers was more urgent. The triple crisis of energy, economy and climate change are no longer theoretical risks but clear and present dangers that have to be addressed.

A version of this article appears in today's Morning Star.

The G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy, showed that these problems could no longer be ignored. Even the fact that they produced a clear statement saying that human activity is provoking dangerous climate change is a massive step forward. This is a long way from the Bush era of denial and obstructionism.

Of the forty pages of official statements the bulk of them are around climate change. This compares favorably with previous conferences where the issue was kept off the agenda entirely. However, whilst we should recognize that advance it is also vital to distinguish between fine press releases and genuine commitments to addressing the problem.

The summit recognized that areas such as deforestation and aviation needed ‘attention’ but without any detailed proposals all this amounts to is global leaders smiling at questions they don’t know how to answer.

The summit formally agreed that “We recognise the broad scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2°C. “ Therefore they have set an ‘aspiration’ that we do not allow the heat to rise further than that.

It’s an interesting mix of criminal irresponsibility and delusion that aspirations alone can hold back the rising tides. Like modern day Cnuts the G8 leaders have confused the desire that a problem disappear with taking action. Unlike Cnut holding back the incoming tide we have the power to address climate change, but it seems our leaders are reluctant to rock the boat.

They have accepted that there will be ecological disaster, they just hope that there will not be so much disaster that the richest nations cannot cope with it. The fact that the G8 limited themselves to aspirations reveals their lack of agreement on concrete changes. They are like the person who says “I can’t promise to try, but I can promise I’ll try to try.”

The one firm commitment the summit made, to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050 is so long term as to become meaningless. Why are we supposed to believe that future governments will take action that our present leaders are unwilling to take?

Ironically, as the G8 weaseled its way out of making meaningful declarations they tried to pressure the governments of the five largest ‘developing’ nations Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Mexico to commit to binding medium term targets that they themselves refused to contemplate.

During the summit Greenpeace occupied four coal fired power stations in Italy. From one of the smoke stacks they hung a banner reading “Politicians talk, leaders act.” This could not have been more appropriate.

The developing nations are hit hardest by the uncertainty of climate chaos and it’s the poorest of each nation who are least able to cope with ecological disasters when they strike. These are the very people who have contributed the least to climate change and are in no position to address the behavior of rich nations.

Where there were agreements it was over continuing the free market project. For instance the delegates agreed that “Along with the ongoing WTO negotiations on the liberalization of environmental goods and services, we will intensify efforts to make progress on the reduction or elimination of trade barriers on a voluntary basis on goods and services directly linked to addressing climate change, as agreed at the Toyako Summit.”

This is the ‘if you’re in hole keep digging’ approach. With climate change, as with the whole economy, we’ve put the addicts in charge of the pharmacy so it’s no surprise when they can’t bring their natural instincts under control.

Whilst capitalism can be made more equitable, it can never be a genuinely equitable system. Those nominally in charge can attempt to make it more ecological sustainable only up to the point that it does not require a new approach. Now we’re at that point the G8 finds itself only able to commit the unborn to doing what they find impossible to contemplate.

Meanwhile the G8 itself is fracturing under the strain of economic collapse. The call for greater international coordination comes as governments find themselves pushed towards self interest and protectionism. There is no shared approach on the financial crisis so there is more than a little fantasy to the statement that reads;

“Our fiscal stimulus packages are increasingly investing in measures encouraging the creation of green jobs and low-carbon, energy efficient and sustainable growth. These include energy efficiency measures, investment in public transportation infrastructure, incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles, research in alternative sources of energy, support for renewable energy technologies, as well as in enhanced CO2 reduction, recycling and disposal such as Carbon Capture and Storage. “

It may be that some nations are moving towards this kind of green Keynesianism but the approach is neither currently implemented nor is it universal. Whilst Obama’s administration has taken more strides forward on climate change over the last few months than Bush’s did in its full eight years when compared to the task it’s all too thin.

Whether the aspirations of the G8 are born of some sort of delusion that the ecosystem takes notice of press releases or simply the powerlessness of not knowing what they can do whilst leaving sacred cows of capital intact what is clear is that this summit achieved little to nothing at a time when inaction is unforgivable.

Whilst Cnut tried to hold back the waves to demonstrate his lack of god like powers to sycophantic courtiers the G8 seem to be engaging in a similar posture, putting up their hands to hold back climate change whilst knowing they could only reverse the problem by committing heresy, challenging the free market dogmas of the past.

A version of this article appears in today's Morning Star.


ModernityBlog said...

Good to see you're getting coverage at the Star.

Now all you need is a paid slot at CiF!

Strategist said...

"Like modern day Cnuts the G8 leaders have confused the desire that a problem disappear with taking action."

Jim, is the anagram deliberate? Enjoyed it, either way!

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James said...

I think the latest view on the "holding back the waves" thing is that Cnut or Canute (harder to anagramise) wanted to demonstrate the limits of his power to courtiers who were urging him to over-extend himself. Other than that, yes!

Jim Jay said...

Indeed James, see last para

James said...

Wow, I really am the sort of idiot who misreads things.