The last lemming: World leaders betray us on climate change

July 19, 2008

Soon after Australian government adviser Professor Ross Garnaut presented his draft climate change review on July 4, world leaders gathered in a Japanese mountain resort for an expanded version of the annual G8 summit meeting.

High on the agenda was discussion of a unified stance on halting climate change. But for the fight against global warming, the events that followed boded poorly.

The heads of government of the world's eight leading developed powers committed themselves to "avoiding the most serious consequences of climate change". They also agreed to pursue a 50% cut in greenhouse emissions by the year 2050. But the correspondent for the British Independent, for one, was unimpressed.

"There is no detail in the [summit] communique; no medium-term targets; no commitment to agreeing [to] a legally binding successor to the Kyoto protocol at Copenhagen next year", the paper reported on July 9. "There is not even agreement on the date from which CO2 cuts will be measured."

US President George Bush's commitment to the "50 by 2050" formula was reportedly made conditional on participation by China and India, two large emerging contributors to greenhouse pollution. The Australian reported on July 10 that China and India rejected the US demands.

China and India maintain that since the developed countries grew rich emitting the great bulk of the greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, the developed world should first show its seriousness by taking important steps toward emissions mitigation.

The cuts offered by the G8 summiteers were not big enough to rate. "The long-term global goal for emissions reductions of 50 per cent by 2050 falls below what is scientifically required to stabilise the atmosphere at a relatively safe level", the Australian on July 10 quoted South African environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk as pointing out.

Especially among the leaders of the developed world, it seemed, everyone at the meeting wanted their country to be the last lemming over the greenhouse cliff. Statements of alarm at the dangers of global warming were fine, but when it came to sacrificing competitiveness on world markets, the concrete initiatives always needed to be taken by someone else.

Responsible action?

Except, some would argue, in the case of PM Kevin Rudd, who took up an invitation to attend part of the summit.

"[T]he cost of responsible action is much less than if we as a planet fail to act on climate change now", Rudd said on July 9. "The longer we delay, the higher the cost … It would be reckless not to act."

On the surface, Rudd's declarations appeared to defy a furious campaign from Australian business leaders to block a 2010 start to the carbon emissions trading scheme foreshadowed in Garnaut's draft report. Invariably, the corporate CEOs have claimed to support action against climate change, but not ahead of the pack.

A typical statement, cited in the Australian on July 8, came from Peter Coates of the mining firm Xstrata: "We support leadership. What we don't support is being leaders with no-one following. In other words, if America and India and China do not follow, it is an absolute waste of time and enormously value-destroying."

What might seem a clash of radically opposed visions, however, might as well have been scripted jointly by Rudd and the resource companies. Both sides have gone to the public with a careful nuance of positions that at their core amount to the same thing: denying the extent and urgency of the changes needed to prevent climate disaster.

Rudd evidently calculates that he cannot lose electorally from striking a pose of boldness and political courage. According to an international survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in March last year, 92% of Australians polled favoured taking steps to combat global warming. No fewer than 69% viewed global warming as a serious and pressing problem, meriting action even at significant cost.

Labor's concrete projections for greenhouse abatement, nevertheless, would still send us hurtling lemming-like over the climate precipice. The position, reaffirmed earlier this year by climate change minister Penny Wong, is to call for a reduction in Australia's greenhouse gas emissions of 60% by 2050.

As calculated last year by David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red: The Case for a Sustainability Emergency, the "60 by 2050" position corresponds to an eventual rise in global temperatures of about 3°C by the end of the century. But dramatic new findings released in April by leading US climate scientist James Hansen indicate strongly that the sensitivity of today's climate to increases in greenhouse gases is much greater than earlier supposed. Even 2°C would be catastrophic. In a speech to the National Press Club in Washington on June 23, Hansen argued: "the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than 2° Celsius … is a recipe for disaster, not salvation."

Hansen calls for the ending by 2030 of all greenhouse emissions from coal use, combined with a massive reversal of deforestation and widespread sequestration in soils of carbon in the form of biochar. In practice, this would amount to cutting net emissions to near zero within a few decades.

Among lemmings, it is clear, there are various ways to jostle for advantage as the cliff-edge draws nearer. While Rudd strikes an essentially false pose as the principled risk-taker, the business leaders have relished the chance to assume a counter-pose as sober, practical-minded guardians of economic well-being. Even, in some cases, as protectors of jobs.

Sidelining the backsliders

Can the global rush to disaster be stopped? Would even the most resolute action by Australians make a difference?

On the basis of what transpired in and around the G8 summit, the answer has to be "no", so long as the world's existing leaders are entrusted with the job. Any solutions have to lie outside the conventional political process.

For Garnaut, trying to reconcile the conflicting interests in the emissions reduction wrangle is a "diabolical" task, in which success is elusive and perhaps impossible. Garnaut, however, is very much a creature of the economic-rationalist think-tanks and the Canberra bureaucracy. He clearly finds it impossible to imagine masses of people entering directly into political action, sidelining the governments that act for the coal bosses and energy privateers.

Can a mass movement of such scope and power be built in Australia? No-one can argue that the stakes are insufficient, or that a basic awareness of the greenhouse danger is lacking. How would such a movement enforce its will? Making greenhouse backsliders unelectable would be one element in its practice. Other elements could include strikes, boycotts and mass civil disobedience.

Would the successes of such a movement be irrelevant, when global greenhouse emissions are dominated not by Australia, but by the earlier-mentioned US, China and India? Certainly not. The rise of such a movement, anywhere, would amount to a global political bombshell.

Even in China? The suggestion that mass struggles in Australia could not influence developments in China is implicitly racist. Do people in China somehow not care about the fate of their children? Moreover, this suggestion betrays an ignorance of the popular struggles already generated in China by the country's appalling environmental problems.

To gauge the potential for a mass activist movement against global warming to spread internationally, and specifically to China, it is time to return to the 2007 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey.

Organising and agitation

Eighty per cent of the people polled in China, compared to 85% in the US, recognised global warming as an important threat. Thirty-three per cent viewed it as a critical danger. An impressive 42%, almost identical to the 43% in the US, saw the issue as worthy of action involving significant cost.

This is an ample base for mass organising and agitation. In the context of a popular, expanding world struggle against global warming, could China's "communist" leaders succeed in crushing a mass protest movement? That is very much an open question.

Meanwhile, the Chicago survey has more. "If the developed countries are willing to provide substantial aid", it asks at one point, "do you think the less-developed countries should make a commitment to limit their greenhouse gas emissions?" To this, 79% of respondents in China answered "yes".

The obverse of this question, posed in the US, yielded equally intriguing results. Should developed countries, respondents were asked, provide "substantial aid" to less developed countries that made a commitment to limit their greenhouse gas emissions? Sixty four per cent of those polled agreed that developed countries should do just that.

The question of how to stop global warming thus takes on a fundamentally different cast from the contorted shape it assumes in mainstream commentaries. If the US and its allies were to take, say, a few trillion dollars from the cost of their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and use it to help developing countries reduce their greenhouse emissions, the key problems would likely be quite soluble. Governments in developing countries would be content, and legislators in the US could count on re-election.

No-one, however, should hold their breath. To stop climate change, the road we must pursue is that of mass popular struggle. The primary obstacle ahead is not "China and India", but the coal-gouging, war-waging ruling classes of countries like the US and Australia.

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