Settling wearily into my Deutsche Bahn seat at the start of a two-day journey back to Uppsala, Sweden, I’ve endeavoured below to capture my early thoughts on the latest attempt to forestall our headlong rush towards oblivion.
I said my goodbyes to the geographically divisive COP venue yesterday afternoon. The roadies were already dismantling the paraphernalia that accompanies such events and heavily laden trucks had begun trundling towards the next jamboree. This was my third COP, and despite a challenging schedule of events, I leave Bonn-Fiji more jaded than when I returned from its Parisian predecessor. I was certainly uneasy with the euphoria surrounding the Paris Agreement, but I could also see its potential for catalysing a transformation in global responses to climate change. Two years on and Bonn-Fiji signals just how entrenched, powerful and resilient our status quo is and how compliant the ‘established’ climate change community has become.
I’ve divided my thoughts into three short sections. First, a response to the depressing 2017 emissions data released during the COP. Second, a reflection on the “them and us” segregation structurally embedded in the COP venue. Finally, a tentative interpretation of how hope may yet reside in the emergent dynamics of contemporary societies.
Rising emissions and pitiful excuses
Last Monday (November 13th) the Global Carbon Project announced the results of its annual assessment of emissions data. In 2017 carbon dioxide from fossil fuels and cement is anticipated to be 2% higher than in 2016. Is this really such a surprise?
Witness the US and the EU’s fervour for locking-in high-carbon gas behind a veil of closing down old coal. Academic enthusiasm for evermore quixotic ‘negative emission technologies'(NETs) and geo-engineering to support ‘big oil’ and infinite growth. A growing cadre of climate glitterati ratcheting up its rhetoric to align with its rocketing emissions. The UNFCCC’s promotion of expedient offsetting to ‘neutralise’ emissions from air-travel to Bonn and its other global meetings. Meanwhile journalists remain unwilling or ill equipped to call time on this catalogue of subterfuge. It’s twenty-seven years since the IPCC’s first report and a quarter of a century since the Rio Earth Summit, but still our carbon emissions are rising.
Certainly the modellers can turn the ‘NET’ dial still further to the right – reconciling their Wonderland with our Paris Commitments. But away from the Mad Hatter’s tea party holding to 2°C is now much more of a profound challenge than we appear able to accept. Whether the latest depressing data signals that humanity was only ever set to be a destructive aberration is still not clear. Indeed we may yet discover the moral fortitude to wrestle a decarbonised phoenix from the fossil-fuelled flames. But delivering such a fundamental transformation demands we reject rhetoric, dishonesty and fear and embrace the challenges and opportunities posed by clear thinking, integrity and courage.
Them and Us: segregation at COP23
My principal concern with the organisation of COP23 stems from the highly divisive geography of the venues. The suits, twin sets and occasional indigenous dress of the negotiators and their entourages were firmly ensconced in the Bula zone – along with the ‘established’ journalists. Twenty minutes brisk walk away civil society, NGOs, academics, researchers and other ‘little’ people were given their own ‘Bonn’ zone. Ok, various ad hoc transport options linked the two – but more as a disorganised sop than a genuine attempt to facilitate easy flow between Bula and the Bonn Zone. In Paris, and even in Warsaw (Poland’s 2013 Coal-COP), the geography of the venues saw negotiators, policy makers, journalists and other climate great and good rubbing shoulders with a multitude of the unwashed. They heard protests, chants and songs as well as attended side events and shared coffee tables during breaks. But in Bonn segregation was cleverly engineered into distinct venues so as to minimise any such ‘disagreeable’ mixing.
This invidious isolation of political and business elites from the voices of others was further exacerbated by much tighter restrictions on who could observe the negotiations. Whilst listening to platitudes was permitted, once the machinations began ‘undesirables’ were ushered out should they report on the unholy alliances and underhand agreements that have thus far delivered a 60% increase in carbon emissions.
After twenty-three COPs, perhaps it is time to have a genuinely open process, where the high-level platitudes designed for public consumption can be compared with the detailed arguments, statements and alliances of the negotiators. A process where cogency and honesty would perhaps offer a refreshing alternative to the fluff and nonsense that is normally forthcoming. In 2017 the Greek Gods negotiating society’s prosperity or demise still think feeding the hoi polloi fables and myths is adequate?
Hope from Chaos?
The ‘perfect storm’ is often evoked as a prelude to impending doom – but it may also offer a metaphor of hope, or at least opportunity.
In the geological record our destructive inclinations will ultimately be little more than a curious anomaly. But continue with today’s scams, delusion and fear and the prospect for many humans and other species over the coming decades and even centuries looks bleak. However this preference for short-term hedonism (for the few) over longer-term planetary stewardship is a choice. It is in making this choice that I think the ‘perfect storm’ metaphor illustrates opportunities for rapid change, though not necessarily in a favourable direction.
The first two decades of this millennium are being marked by a series of deep upheavals.
The banking crises exposed the internal failure of our precious free-market model to both self-regulate and deliver on its central tenet – the ‘efficient allocation of scarce resources’. It also revealed how, with sufficient political will, unprecedented finances could be mobilised at the stroke of a pen.
And as the bankers and economists re-grouped to thwart progressive regulation, the power of unaccountable media barons was being appropriated by the amorphous twists and turns of social media. Concurrently political institutions in many parts of the world have faced serious challenges from the left, the right and ‘unforeseen’ circumstances.
Set against this, and despite an orchestrated campaign of denial, there is now common acceptance that responding to climate change requires significant government intervention. Rounding off this assemblage of upheaval, the plummeting costs of renewable energy have coincided with widespread recognition of the security and health implications of coal, oil and gas.
In themselves each of these discrete disruptions has important implications for the evolution of contemporary society. But broadly aligned they could represent something much more revolutionary – perhaps even a progressive and epoch-changing confluence of circumstances?
A few minutes ago I boarded the ferry for the short sea leg North towards tonight’s stop in København. This shift in mode signals my increasing temporal and geographical distance from Bonn and its opaque negotiations. Certainly amongst the charlatans, there will be many good people in Bonn working hard and with a genuine desire to make a real and meaningful difference. And perhaps in some important area they will. But stand back from the rarefied atmosphere of COP23, particularly the Bula zone, and the sheer scale of the challenge looms large. A belief that cleverly arranging angels or deckchairs can reconcile our Paris commitments with the dominant socio-economic paradigm is doomed.
Disturbingly, and with the exception of utopian technophiles, few of those deeply engaged in climate change are convinced we “can have our cake and eat it”. Sadly, senior policy, scientific, academic and NGO figures are seldom prepared to voice publically what they admit privately. This repressive influence of the status quo both demonstrates its stifling power and hints at its potential weakness.
Imagine a space where climate academics and others could be truly honest about their analysis and judgements and where disagreements were discussed openly and constructively. Add to this, informed dialogue on the ‘confluence of circumstances’ outlined above. And finally reframe climate change not as a threat to some arbitrary economic indicator, but as a secure, local and high-quality jobs agenda. Under such conditions, and with vociferous engagement by the ‘next’ generation, I can envisage an alternative progressive paradigm being ushered in – and soon.
Do I think this is likely – far from it? But I certainly judge such a decarbonised and prosperous future to be both plausible and desirable. COP – Conference of the Parties (annual climate change negotiations).
 The twenty-third COP was held in Bonn, Germany, but with Fiji as the co-host.
 Talks in the city of light generate more heat (a slightly longer pre-edit version is also available free)
 Natural Gas and Climate Change within the EU
 Duality in Science, The trouble with negative emissions – the former is available free. In addition a
recent paper may be of interest What if negative emissions fail at scale, a pre-print is available free.
Teaser photo credit: By GPSLeo – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64006570