by Shaun Chamberlin on January 5th, 2010
Waitin’ for Superman
That they should try to
Hold on, best they can
He hasn’t dropped them,
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift”
We’ve all seen Hollywood movies in which humanity is threatened by an unstoppable force, powerful beyond comprehension, which is eventually, in the final climax, held back and thwarted by our hero straining every sinew and pushing really hard…
Over recent weeks I have been in two meetings with Ed Miliband, our Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change – one just before Copenhagen, and one just after. At the earlier meeting he told us to judge him on the results of Copenhagen, and (despite my previous comments, and the fact that the UK is one of the minority of countries who have not endorsed a 350ppm target) I do believe that he tried everything he knew to be that hero and bring back a passable agreement.
Unfortunately, this Hollywood story isn’t a useful one for our current predicament. Sometimes superhuman achievements really are beyond the grasp of mere humans. Trying to pull together a global agreement reconciling the fundamentally incompatible demands of unlimited economic growth and a limited physical environment is one such fool’s errand.
In interviews in Copenhagen Ed appeared somewhat bewildered by the lack of progress and, frankly, somewhat dejected. It was hard not to feel for him.
For the technical details of what was eventually ‘agreed’ click here, for the text of the agreement itself click here, or for a more informal ‘executive summary’ see the clip below, but to cut a long story short, nothing was agreed that comes remotely close to addressing the scale of our climate challenge. Indeed, as I and many others have been pointing out for months, an agreement in line with climate science wasn’t even close to the negotiating table, so there wasn’t much point in hoping for it.
When we heard from the beginning that “talks are progressing more slowly than expected”, part of the explanation was that some of the smaller countries were stubbornly refusing to sign their own death warrants this time, no matter what they were offered to do so. Bloody inconsiderate of them.
“We’re dying here, we’re drowning; and some of us know that they don’t really care, because we have to beg them. Actions speak louder than words. If they really do care, please have a little listen to us.” – Jerome Esebei Temengil from Palau’s delegation
(In an idle moment I did wonder whether the negotiations would have proceeded any differently had a volunteer Palauan family locked themselves in a transparent box in the middle of the conference hall, set to gradually fill with water and drown them unless they released themselves upon hearing that the 350ppm agreement demanded by their delegation has been signed…)
Of course there were many reasons why various countries and other interests strove to undermine any meaningful agreement, but I think Algerian envoy Kamel Djemouai, who speaks for 53 African nations, outlined the worst-case scenario well: “No deal is better than to have a bad deal, particularly for Africa.”
Indeed, even the White House admitted before the talks that:
“An empty deal would be worse than no deal at all”
Yet we ended up with what the Financial Times described as “the emptiest deal one could imagine, short of a fist fight”.
Still, by the time of our post-Copenhagen ‘debrief’ Ed Miliband appeared to have decided (or been told) to put a positive spin on the outcome. Despite looking as depressed as anyone in the room, he described the Accord as a “critical first step”, and proceeded to argue that expectations of Copenhagen had simply been too high. Yet of course those lofty expectations were based squarely on the science, which remains stubbornly unchanged by the recent political manoeuvrings.
I suppose Ed is virtually obliged to appear positive about the political process, because that is what he has invested his life in, and what he is giving all his efforts to. And when that many world leaders gather it is inevitable that the outcome will be spun as some kind of at least partial success. But Ed’s comments in an article last Sunday are rather more telling: “In the months ahead, (Copenhagen’s) concrete achievements must be secured and extended”.
I wonder if such ‘unsecured concrete achievements’ were what Connie Hedegaard (initial President of the Copenhagen Conference and soon to be European Commissioner for climate change) was hoping for when she declared: “This is our chance. If we miss it, it could take years before we got a new and better one. If we ever do.”
And what do these ‘achievements’ add up to? Well, if all the aspirational numbers in the Copenhagen Accord were actually fulfilled, they would lead to a CO2 concentration of 780ppm (double current levels) and a 3.9 degree warming by 2100. If political reality and scientific reality cannot be reconciled, there will be only one winner – Nature and physics simply do not negotiate. As George Monbiot put it, “Goodbye Africa, goodbye south Asia; goodbye glaciers and sea ice, coral reefs and rainforest; it was nice knowing you, not that we really cared”.
So now the political focus shifts to the odd game of claiming that the Copenhagen Accord represents success while simultaneously blaming others for its failure. Thanks to the nationalistic, competitive nature of international politics, Miliband, Obama and all the other would-be superheroes are desperately trying to find their supervillain.
Others before me have pointed out that if an alien invasion were swooping in to attack, with projected human mortality and other effects similar to those of climate change, we would have united against the threat long ago. That is the kind of external enemy we could really get to grips with (Hollywood stories have trained us well for that one), but for as long as politics is treated as a competition between nations, cooperative efforts for mutual benefit will remain beyond us.
Perhaps this time the ‘supervillain’ we face is far more cunning than those movie aliens. He realises that in order to destroy the world with his dastardly plot he needs only to hide from view. As long as humanity perceives no hand but our own in any of these events, he can just sit back and calmly watch us destroy ourselves.
It seems we can accept being killed by our own foolishness much more easily than being outsmarted. Unfortunately, taking a long hard look in the mirror and battling our internal supervillains remains deeply unfashionable…
So where does all this leave us? What are our chances now of avoiding unstoppable runaway climate change, with all that entails?
90%-10% ? (I don’t need to say which way)
Not even close.
For years now, I have played host to a cordial internal conflict between the part of me that insists that there may still be a tiny chance left of maintaining a stable climate, and the part that accepts that unstoppable runaway climate change is now inevitable…
I kept reading and researching, the information kept getting worse and worse, and then I recently stumbled across a quote that brought me up short. A 13th Century Islamic mystic by the name of Hajji Bektash Wali made the following pronouncement:
“For one who has perception, A mere sign is enough. For one who does not heed, A thousand explanations Are not enough”
I confess that by now I may have had more than a thousand explanations of why it is too late, but it is still hard to give up hope on this one. In the article referred to earlier, Ed Miliband declared that:
“The challenge for all of us is not to lose heart and momentum. The truth is that the global campaign, co-ordinated by green NGOs, backed by business and supported by a wider cross section of the public, has achieved a lot… no campaign ever wholly succeeds at the first time of asking. We should take heart from the achievements and step up our efforts.”
And of course it is not just the politicians pushing this message. The likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth also spun the Copenhagen fortnight as “humanity’s last chance” to avoid the horrific impacts of runaway climate destabilisation, which leaves their calls for (yet) “one more big push” sounding a little hollow, even, I suspect, to them.
Yet the repeated calls to redouble our efforts do retain a certain allure. Yes, in part because finding peace with our own impotence in the face of such large-scale suffering is a formidable task, but I think even more because it would be so terrible to look back and feel that we gave up while there actually was still a chance there. Maybe there’s still a chance that there’s a chance…?
But what if we are on the Titanic and the iceberg has already been struck? Can we think of nothing wiser to do than to try to patch the hole as the ocean rushes in?
There are times when Hollywood heroism is just what is needed, but there are also times when superhuman efforts really are beyond us. And perhaps the perception the mystic spoke of whispers that one such time has come. A time to ponder the reasons why the latest political “last chance” wasn’t taken, to accept that a scientific technofix ain’t gonna save us either, and to look unflinchingly at the unpalatable, overwhelming realities of the period we are moving into.
Let’s at least allow ourselves to really ask: “What does life look like in a world of unstoppable climate destabilisation?”. What does my life look like there?
There are still lives to be lived in that world, choices to be made, love to give and suffering to alleviate. And only by allowing ourselves to explore that unknown realm can we see it for what it is, rather than what we might fear it to be.
On that note, I would like to introduce you to The Dark Mountain Project, started by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, which invites us to explore this very terrain. By way of introduction, this from their Manifesto:
“And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.”