As old readers of Badlands know, we've been great fans of George Monbiot for years and always recommend people visit Monbiot.com for a broad, deep perspective on environmental issues. Monbiot was in Copenhagen for the UN climate change conference. His report begins with a call for human decency and ends with a report of the probably tragedies arising from the failure of human decency at this conference. Of course, if tragedy is uncomfortable, one can always join the climate-change deniers and the onward stampede to continue idiotically plundering nature and destroying whole continents. This international mentality is mirrored at the local level because sewage always flows downhill. Apparently, awareness of natural limits on the planet has driven the major power states in the world into nakedly anti-democratic aggression against their own people and others. It is as if present and past imperial powers, when confronted with the planet's growing ecological distress, regress to imperial patterns of 150 years ago. Their policy is to seize more control while rejecting any responsbility for the human element in global climate change.
The leader who lost the most credibility at the conference was President Obama, who operates as if his popularity is as infinite as his ambition. They didn't buy that argument in Copenhagen. Although harassed by police, denied entrance to the UN conference or ejected from it, civil society, non-governmental organizations from around the world emerged stronger, more determined, articulate and unified than they entered Denmark The real intellectual breakthroughs occurred at Klimaforum, the alternative conference, among these groups despite the full panoply of advanced law-enforcement techniaques practiced against them. One listens with attention to Bolivian President Evo Morales' analysis that the problem is simply capitalism itself. Yet, one notices that some capitalist countries are doing a better job than others at adjusting to climate change, or, at a bare minimum recognizing the science that identifies it. It is the larger nations, more imperially agressive, not all capitalist (at least in name) that are the greatest problem.
California's governor, our beloved Hunchik, appeared and spoke effectively on regional and "sub-national" initiatives, like California's, to confront climate change. If true, it would have been an even better speech.
Badlands Journal editorial board
This Is Bigger Than Climate Change. It Is a Battle to Redefine Humanity
It's hard for a species used to ever-expanding frontiers, but survival depends on accepting we live within limits...George Monbiot
This is the moment at which we turn and face ourselves. Here, in the plastic corridors and crowded stalls, among impenetrable texts and withering procedures, humankind decides what it is and what it will become. It chooses whether to continue living as it has done, until it must make a wasteland of its home, or to stop and redefine itself. This is about much more than climate change. This is about us.
The meeting at Copenhagen confronts us with our primal tragedy. We are the universal ape, equipped with the ingenuity and aggression to bring down prey much larger than itself, break into new lands, roar its defiance of natural constraints. Now we find ourselves hedged in by the consequences of our nature, living meekly on this crowded planet for fear of provoking or damaging others. We have the hearts of lions and live the lives of clerks.
The summit's premise is that the age of heroism is over. We have entered the age of accommodation. No longer may we live without restraint. No longer may we swing our fists regardless of whose nose might be in the way. In everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous. We may no longer live in the moment, as if there were no tomorrow.
This is a meeting about chemicals: the greenhouse gases insulating the atmosphere. But it is also a battle between two world views. The angry men who seek to derail this agreement, and all such limits on their self-fulfilment, have understood this better than we have. A new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere, demands to trample on the lives of others as if this were a human right. It will not be constrained by taxes, gun laws, regulations, health and safety, especially by environmental restraints. It knows that fossil fuels have granted the universal ape amplification beyond its Palaeolithic dreams. For a moment, a marvellous, frontier moment, they allowed us to live in blissful mindlessness.
The angry men know that this golden age has gone; but they cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. Clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged, they flail around, accusing those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but knowing at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.
I fear this chorus of bullies, but I also sympathise. I lead a mostly peaceful life, but my dreams are haunted by giant aurochs. All those of us whose blood still races are forced to sublimate, to fantasise. In daydreams and video games we find the lives that ecological limits and other people's interests forbid us to live.
Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. 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, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.
So here we are, in the land of Beowulf's heroics, lost in a fog of acronyms and euphemisms, parentheses and exemptions, the deathly diplomacy required to accommodate everyone's demands. There is no space for heroism here; all passion and power breaks against the needs of others. This is how it should be, though every neurone revolts against it.
Although the delegates are waking up to the scale of their responsibility, I still believe they will sell us out. Everyone wants his last adventure. Hardly anyone among the official parties can accept the implications of living within our means, of living with tomorrow in mind. There will, they tell themselves, always be another frontier, another means to escape our constraints, to dump our dissatisfactions on other places and other people. Hanging over everything discussed here is the theme that dare not speak its name, always present but never mentioned. Economic growth is the magic formula which allows our conflicts to remain unresolved.
While economies grow, social justice is unnecessary, as lives can be improved without redistribution. While economies grow, people need not confront their elites. While economies grow, we can keep buying our way out of trouble. But, like the bankers, we stave off trouble today only by multiplying it tomorrow. Through economic growth we are borrowing time at punitive rates of interest. It ensures that any cuts agreed at Copenhagen will eventually be outstripped. Even if we manage to prevent climate breakdown, growth means that it's only a matter of time before we hit a new constraint, which demands a new global response: oil, water, phosphate, soil. We will lurch from crisis to existential crisis unless we address the underlying cause: perpetual growth cannot be accommodated on a finite planet.
For all their earnest self-restraint, the negotiators in the plastic city are still not serious, even about climate change. There's another great unmentionable here: supply. Most of the nation states tussling at Copenhagen have two fossil fuel policies. One is to minimise demand, by encouraging us to reduce our consumption. The other is to maximise supply, by encouraging companies to extract as much from the ground as they can.
We know, from the papers published in Nature in April, that we can use a maximum of 60% of current reserves of coal, oil and gas if the average global temperature is not to rise by more than two degrees. We can burn much less if, as many poorer countries now insist, we seek to prevent the temperature from rising by more than 1.5C. We know that capture and storage will dispose of just a small fraction of the carbon in these fuels. There are two obvious conclusions: governments must decide which existing reserves of fossil fuel are to be left in the ground, and they must introduce a global moratorium on prospecting for new reserves. Neither of these proposals has even been mooted for discussion.
But somehow this first great global battle between expanders and restrainers must be won and then the battles that lie beyond it – rising consumption, corporate power, economic growth – must begin. If governments don't show some resolve on climate change, the expanders will seize on the restrainers' weakness. They will attack – using the same tactics of denial, obfuscation and appeals to self-interest – the other measures that protect people from each other, or which prevent the world's ecosystems from being destroyed. There is no end to this fight, no line these people will not cross. They too are aware that this a battle to redefine humanity, and they wish to redefine it as a species even more rapacious than it is today.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009
George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at www.monbiot.com
Mr Obama, Here's Your Copenhagen Speech
Only one person can now rescue these climate talks. This is the speech to turn shambles to triumph
by George Monbiot
Everyone seems to be waiting for someone to break the dam. And everyone knows who that someone is. Because of the size and weight of the United States, and the moral power invested in the current president, it is Barack Obama, and Barack Obama alone, who can rescue the climate negotiations from the dismal bickering into which they have slumped. To save him the trouble, I have written the speech that could turn the talks around.
"Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. Everyone in this room is confronted by voices urging us not to act. There are those whose immediate interests would be damaged by the action we need to take. There are those who do not wish to confront the uncomfortable truths we must discuss. But the threat of climate breakdown transcends the usual political demands.
"All those of us who are elected to high office dream of a time when we might do what is right, rather than what is expedient. All of us dream of being statesmen rather than mere politicians. But when those opportunities arrive, all too often we duck them. There are too many political favours to return, too many powerful interests to appease. We cannot allow this to be one of those occasions.
"Most of us have agreed on the ultimate goal: to prevent more than two degrees centigrade of global warming. But it should not be left to the poorer nations to remind the rich world of what its own scientists say. Even the most ambitious cuts the wealthy nations have proposed cannot meet our goal. They are likely instead to deliver three or four degrees of warming, threatening many of the world's people.
"So I have come here to propose two policies which could meet the challenge our scientists have identified. This is the first. I hereby commit the United States to cutting greenhouse gases by 50% against our 1990 levels by 2020. I commit to this cut regardless of what other nations might do, but I urge you to compete with me to exceed it. We should be striving to outbid each other, not to undercut each other.
"I recognise, however, that even this measure cannot guarantee that we stay within the two-degree limit. Eventual global temperatures will be set by the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The best scientific estimate is that we can afford to burn a maximum of 60% of the carbon stored in the world's current reserves of fossil fuels. A safer proportion would be 40%.
"When I arrive home I will commission a taskforce to identify which of the fossil fuel reserves of the United States will be left in the ground. I will commission a second taskforce to identify the conservation and renewable energy projects needed to cover the gap.
"These policies will present the United States with a formidable challenge. But my country, with its great wealth and deep reserves of ingenuity and enterprise, is better placed to respond than any other. When the United States entered the second world war, it was unprepared for the challenge presented by its enemies. But within six months we turned the economy around to meet it. By the middle of 1942, more than 1,000 automobile plants in the United States had been converted to manufacture weapons. Ford was soon turning out a B24 bomber every 63 minutes, GM took just 90 days from a standing start to begin the mass production of amphibious vehicles.
"Today a similar technological revolution is required. Just as in 1941, we can rise to it, but, with the benefit of modern methods and materials, even more quickly. No longer will the United States, which has long been in the forefront of every one of the world's technological revolutions, be left behind in the most important race of all.
"The transformation I have announced today will not be painless. Some people will lose their jobs, some companies will lose the value of investments they have made. But, as with all such revolutions, this is likely to create more jobs than it destroys.
"I have no illusions about the resistance these proposals will encounter. This will be the political battle of my life. But I know it is a battle worth fighting. If I duck it, future generations will never forgive me, just as they will not forgive anyone in this room for failing to rise to our greatest challenge. This is the battle we owe to our children and to their children. This is the time to do not what is expedient, but what is right."
Can he do it? We should hope so. There won't be another chance like this one.
Copenhagen Negotiators Bicker and Filibuster While the Biosphere Burns
George Monbiot despairs at the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous climate summit
by George Monbiot
First they put the planet in square brackets, now they have deleted it from the text. At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face. As the talks melted down, everything that might have made a new treaty worthwhile was scratched out. Any deal would do, as long as the negotiators could pretend they have achieved something. A clearer and less destructive treaty than the text that emerged would be a sheaf of blank paper, which every negotiating party solemnly sits down to sign.
This was the chaotic, disastrous denouement of a chaotic and disastrous summit. The event has been attended by historic levels of incompetence. Delegates arriving from the tropics spent 10 hours queueing in sub-zero temperatures without shelter, food or drink, let alone any explanation or announcement, before being turned away. Some people fainted from exposure; it's surprising that no one died. The process of negotiation was just as obtuse: there was no evidence here of the innovative methods of dispute resolution developed recently by mediators and coaches, just the same old pig-headed wrestling.
Watching this stupid summit via webcam (I wasn't allowed in either), it struck me that the treaty-making system has scarcely changed in 130 years. There's a wider range of faces, fewer handlebar moustaches, frock coats or pickelhaubes, but otherwise, when the world's governments try to decide how to carve up the atmosphere, they might have been attending the conference of Berlin in 1884. It's as if democratisation and the flowering of civil society, advocacy and self-determination had never happened. Governments, whether elected or not, without reference to their own citizens let alone those of other nations, assert their right to draw lines across the global commons and decide who gets what. This is a scramble for the atmosphere comparable in style and intent to the scramble for Africa.
At no point has the injustice at the heart of multilateralism been addressed or even acknowledged: the interests of states and the interests of the world's people are not the same. Often they are diametrically opposed. In this case, most rich and rapidly developing states have sought through these talks to seize as great a chunk of the atmosphere for themselves as they can – to grab bigger rights to pollute than their competitors. The process couldn't have been better designed to produce the wrong results.
I spent most of my time at the Klimaforum, the alternative conference set up by just four paid staff, which 50,000 people attended without a hitch. (I know which team I would put in charge of saving the planet.) There the barrister Polly Higgins laid out a different approach. Her declaration of planetary rights invests ecosystems with similar legal safeguards to those won by humans after the second world war. It changes the legal relationship between humans, the atmosphere and the biosphere from ownership to stewardship. It creates a global framework for negotiation which gives nation states less discretion to dispose of ecosystems and the people who depend on them.
Even before the farce in Copenhagen began it was looking like it might be too late to prevent two or more degrees of global warming. The nation states, pursuing their own interests, have each been passing the parcel of responsibility since they decided to take action in 1992. We have now lost 17 precious years, possibly the only years in which climate breakdown could have been prevented. This has not happened by accident: it is the result of a systematic campaign of sabotage by certain states, driven and promoted by the energy industries. This idiocy has been aided and abetted by the nations characterised, until now, as the good guys: those that have made firm commitments, only to invalidate them with loopholes, false accounting and outsourcing. In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind. Corporate profits and political expediency have proved more urgent considerations than either the natural world or human civilisation. Our political systems are incapable of discharging the main function of government: to protect us from each other.
Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest. It was nice knowing you. Not that we really cared. The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.