While the Cancún climate talks were under way, I published several different versions of the following short essay, which first appeared as a blog post in “Triple Crisis,” then as a comment in Eurovoice newspaper’s “Comment:Visions,” and finally is slated for publication in the academic journal Solutions. Here is the Comment:Visions version:
In late 2009, the United Nations quietly published a strategy paper describing what may be the most powerful single intervention in the global endgame on carbon. (I led the writing of this paper as a consultant to the United Nations Division of Sustainable Development, but the ideas largely came from other people, inside and outside the UN system.) Called the “Big Push,” the strategy builds around three key elements:
(1) Establishing feed-in tariff mechanisms globally (that is, guaranteed-purchase price supports for renewable energy)
(2) Investing heavily in renewable energy in the developing world through those mechanisms, and
(3) Providing an array of technical and policy support services to speed adoption and implementation.
Pursuing such a strategy would help the world decarbonize much more quickly, because it would accelerate the drop in price for renewables dramatically, using the enormous scales of the market for energy in developing countries — who urgently need clean, affordable energy services most. The logic here also builds on historical examples, such as the rapid drop in computer chip prices that was engineered by the U.S. government through its purchasing policy in the 1960s.
Economic modeling demonstrated that a “Big Push” strategy, while it looked expensive relative to the levels of aid and investment on offer in the global negotiating process, paid enormous dividends. Per capita incomes would rise much faster than a business-as-usual scenrio — in every region of the world. The poorest developing countries would experience a massive uplift in incomes, and even the already wealthy countries would get wealthier. The “Big Push” of initial subsidies would result in renewable energy becoming the default investment option (without any subsidy) in just 10-20 years, at a price affordable to all.
So why is this idea not on the table now?
First, the dollar figures probably look scary. Renewable energy will eventually become fully competitive with fossil fuels anyway; it’s just not happening fast enough. To make it happen “fast enough” requires placing orders for about a thousand extra gigawatts of solar energy (over what the market would generate on its own), and 100-200 extra GW of wind energy, as soon as possible, at an investment cost of USD 1 to 1.5 trillion, spread over ten years or so.
That sounds like a lot of money. But it equates to about 10 years of what was already pledged at Copenhagen ($100 billion annually), and only two years of U.S. defense spending. And the paybacks, once again, are enormous: improved incomes, better quality of life, and reduced climate risk, all around the world.
And it would happen about as fast as one could possibly imagine, in real political, economic, and technical terms. The “Big Push” would help renewable, carbon-free energy get over the hump of initial investment costs, after which the market would kick into overdrive, as it did for computer chips.
What about the risks? Deutsche Bank, working with the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, has already through the details of the investment scheme that would be necessary, including the insurance and risk management, in their “GET FiT” program (“Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariffs for Developing Countries”), published in April of 2010.
What about the capacity issues in these countries? There the Big Push strategy looks to the successful example of the Green Revolution, with its army of technical experts, extension workers, trainers, and support mechanisms of other kinds, which helped whole countries retool their agricultural systems with amazing speed.
And finally, what about the politics? How hard is to roll out a feed-in tariff program globally? The answer is, it’s already happening. Country by country, feed-in tariff mechanisms are already law (well over 50 countries already have it), or in the process of becoming law, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Egypt, Serbia, and Byelorussia.
The economics works. The technology is there. The political mechanisms are already moving into place. What’s lacking, then? Only a shared vision that we really can pull together, and push hard on a big problem.
There are obviously many things we need to do to create a carbon-neutral society. But for accelerating the process, I see no better candidate than the Big Push.
The fall has been so full of climate change-related seminars that I earlier forgot to write up this one: a day on The Health Impacts of Climate Change at Stockholm’s prestigious Karolinska Institute (Oct 11, 2011). (Here I must reveal that my wife works at the Institute, Sweden’s leading medical training and research center, as its sustainability coordinator.)
All climate seminars start with a review of the science, and this one had the benefit of local expert Henning Rodhe, who divided the topic in two: things we “know for sure,” and things that are merely “likely.” The physics of the greenhouse effect is in the “for sure” column — and that puts a minimum temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.0 degrees C., the melting of sea ice, and a sea level rise of at least 200 cm in the “for sure” column as well.
What’s merely “likely,” for example, is that shade, or “negative forcing,” of the aerosol particles we have put into the atmosphere are roughly balanced by the warming effect, or “positive forcing,” of CO2 itself. Take away the aerosols, up goes the temperature still more.
And “likely” is accompanied by another, bigger word, “uncertainty,” which translate to things like 1-6 extra degrees of warming by 2100, or up to a meter of sea level rise. Because the largest uncertainty, noted Rodhe, relates to what we humans are actually going to do about all this in the coming years.
The health-related star of the show was Tony McMichael of Australia, an IPCC author and a very thoughtful epidemiologist whose remarks ranged over a much broader terrain than just “health” — though human health is, in McMichael’s terms, the “anthropocentric bottom line” when it comes to thinking about all global ecosystem impacts …
“It’s so bleak, it’s very depressing. But we are activists. When things are bleak, we don’t give up. We get busy.”
So said Meena Raman of the Malaysia-based activist group Third World Network at a small seminar on climate change held in Stockholm this week. For me, it was an excellent opportunity to get updated on “The Road to Cancun” — the current state of climate negotiations, leading up to the next big UN conference on the matter next month in Mexico.
Last year, I was “in the game” in a small way (see “Reflections on CoP-15 and its Aftermath“). This year, I am just a distant spectator. Frankly, I have not felt very motivated to follow the action. While my assessment of last year’s CoP-15 was a bit more positive than most people’s, I have to confess that my mood has also turned gloomier when it comes to climate change. The recent power switch in the US congress — which effectively ties down the Obama administration, a critical actor in this drama — didn’t help. The climate news gets worse, while the resolve to take action at the highest levels has become, if anything, weaker and weaker.
My mood was hardly improved by listening to Per Holmgren’s quick summary of current climate science. Per is a well-known TV meteorologist in Sweden who just stepped off his TV platform to work on climate issues full time. He confirmed what we have already known, for years and years: it’s bad, getting worse — likely to get a lot worse. “Are people understanding the situation better?” I asked. Yes, especially younger people, said Per. I meet 12 and 13-year-olds who discuss peak oil and all the rest of it. What about geo-engineering? I’m afraid we’ll have no choice but to do some of that, said Per, at the least “lighter” varieties, like carbon capture and storage.
After that gloomy review of the physical situation, Niclas Hälström then mind-mapped the crowd through the political situation, from Kyoto to today. It was no less complex, and no less gloomy. Niclas’s diagrams showed swirling tendrils of connections … the Bali Action Plan … REDD … Annex 2 Countries … the Copenhagen Accord … this is the vocabulary one must learn to follow climate negotiations as a spectator sport. Even when you understand the concepts, it’s still confusing. (I am reminded of watching cricket as an American university student studying in the UK. No matter how hard my friends tried to explain what was going on, I never really understood, and still don’t.)
After Meena Raman’s talk (I’ll report on her talk in a minute, I’m building up to the high point of the afternoon), an official from the Swedish government provided a “balanced” perspective — meaning that he sometimes spoke positively, sometimes gloomily. Sweden is “more than meeting” its Kyoto targets; but the EU targets, not to mention the world’s, are another matter. His talk was informative, but amounted to reading a press release from PowerPoint slides. I had to leave in the middle to pick up my kids from school, and I had the feeling that I would not miss very much in the way of news. (I will refrain from commentary at this time on Swedish climate policy per se.)
This is the third and last installment on my series of posts from the Climate Existence 2010 conference, organized by my friends and colleagues at Uppsala University’s Center for Environment and Development Studies (CEMUS). To read the posts in order: 1. Bill McKibben 2. David Abrams
I am on the 5:23 morning bus, leaving the Sigtuna Foundation. It was astonishing to me how many people assumed I would be driving home last night — driving home in a car, from the climate conference! After hearing how essential it was that we change our habits! Of course I took public transport to get here, a comfortable two-hour ride, door-to-door. I could have taken the bus-train-subway-bus combo home late last night, but sleeping over made more sense.
The conference will continue through Wednesday, but my work and my family draw me home. It’s the Autumn Break, my kinds are home from school, and my wife has taken holiday.
I’ll reflect more on the conference, and on my performance last night, in a minute. But first I will continue down memory lane for a bit, for the last time I was here at the Sigtuna Foundation was also my first time (as an adult) in Sweden, and the occasion of my first “date” with my wife — a date that lasted ten days.
That event was a seminar on sustainable development hosted by the Swedish government. I came to speak, and I also helped find a few of the other speakers — friends from the Balaton Group. Kicki, my wife, was working for the government then. At that point, she and I had no idea, of course, that our international fling was going to turn into a life together; now, ten years later, I am awake early and out the door with a longing to get home, to see her and our children. It is somehow harder to be away for one night, here in Sweden, than to be away for a week in Africa or elsewhere.
Last night I did a formal, two-set musical performance for the first time in a few years. I’ve performed often enough informally, and am frequently asked to “do a few songs” in connection with a conference speaking engagement. But this was different: I was the official evening entertainment.
This is the second in my series of posts from the conference “Climate Existence 2010.” The series began with a post on Bill McKibben’s opening keynote. This one covers the afternoon keynote and the workshop I went to, which awakened some memories …
“We don’t live on the Earth. We live in the Earth. Or rather in the EAIRTH.”
This is David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous or more recently Becoming Animal. He is explaining why he is proposing a slight change in the name of our planet. The addition of that “I” puts the word “AIR” in the middle of the word “EARTH.” It calls our attention to something that is both invisible and essential.
Because the air is invisible, says David, we tend to treat it as nonexistent. That’s why we can treat it like an open sewer, as McKibben called it this morning. But for indigenous people, that very invisibility is part of what makes the air so sacred to them. “It’s a kind of a secret,” says Abram (who is also a sleight-of-hand magician, who likes secrets). “Secret. Sacred. Same word.”
“The air is the unseen medium of exchange,” says David. We speak when breathing out, not breathing in, and our sounds are carried on the air to each other. For oral-history people’s, the air is “a thicket of meaning,” full of stories and spirits.
He introduces us to the word Ních’i — Navajo (Dineh) for “holy wind.” This was translated as “spirit” by the early anthropologists, “but they missed that this inner wind was entirely continuous with the wind out there,” with the air. David traces the origins of various words related to air, and consciousness, and they intertwine beautifully: “atmosphere,” for example, from “atma” and “atmos” in ancient Sanskrit, meaning … air, and soul.
He is drawing (I find this on the internet, searching on the phrases I hear from him in real time) on an article he published in 2009, “The Air Aware,” published in Orion magazine. David’s words are carefully chosen, he is a “writerly” writer. It is an inspired reading. But he occasionally breaks out of the box of his own text (and literally steps out from behind the podium) to speak, rather than read, and to breathe, and to make his case for taking the reality of the air-in-which-we-live-and-breathe more seriously, more passionately. (“Passion,” from Latin, replacing an Old English word that combined “suffering” with “endurance.”)
The last time I saw David Abram, fifteen years ago …
I’m attending a conference in Sweden called Climate Existence. I’m here not as a speaker, for once; I’m here as a musician, scheduled to perform this evening. I’ll blog some of the highlights over the course of the day. Here is what was happening just as I walked in (late) to the event, in Sigtuna, Sweden: Bill McKibben’s lecture, blogged in its entirety.
I walk in to the Climate Existence conference just as Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org) is warming up … and talking about how quickly the planet is warming up. Nineteen countries set new temperature records this past summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Pakistan set the all-time temperature record for all of Asia. Russia’s heat wave alone reduced
The atmosphere is 4-5% “wetter” (more humid) than it was just a few decades ago. All that wet air translates to a lot more rain. This creates much greater risk of torrential downpours and flooding events.
Up by the Khyber Pass, which usually gets 1 meter of rain per year, about 4 meters fell in the space of a week. Stream flow gauges recorded stream flow more than 50% greater than the previous peak in 1929 … before the gauges themselves were washed away. The result was the drowning of Pakistan in geopolitically destabilizing floods, watched in horror around the world.
That’s the result of just 1 degree average warming. We are locked in to getting another degree. And if we are not able to stop burning fossil fuel far more quickly than we’re planning now, we’re going to get 4-5 degrees.
“The bottom line is, we do not want to find out what 4-5 degrees looks like. There’s no reason to think we can sustain our civilization under those conditions,” says McKibben, for reasons ranging from sea level rise to depressed food production — 40-50% less grain production, for example.
McKibben’s Conclusions, his interpretation of the “Scientific Bottom Line”:
“(1) We need a very, very quick transition off fossil fuel.
(2) Even if we do that, we’ll have to change a lot of other things to adapt to those changes we’ve already locked in.
(3) If we cannot make that transition off fossil fuel, then the temperature will likely rise enough that effective adaptation becomes impossible.”
“That puts in place a set of parameters that have to especially with speed.”
I’m complicit, of course. I bought the juice. I like the juice.
And of course, I routinely wonder at the general sustainability of shipping orange juice (and a lot of other stuff) around the planet, using fossil fuels. It doesn’t seem quite right. There are a lot of things that “don’t seem quite right” that I just don’t do, since I worry about climate change. But I do buy orange juice. It somehow falls into the category of small things, essential things, that are somehow (there’s that word again) okay — like wine from Australia, or the occasional tomato in winter.
And yet I couldn’t help but wince when, during our morning routine, I read the back of the package of “Eco-Juice” concentrate:
“Jo® Juice is as climate-smart you can get. No water is transported unnecessarily and the little package [a Tetrapak 0.2 liter box] gets reused as cardboard. A Jo plus fresh water gives you a liter of tasty ecological [organic] orange juice.”
Somehow, this just doesn’t seem right.
First of all, it would depress me to believe that a box of orange juice concentrate is the most climate-smart solution for a breakfast drink here in Sweden. We do have lots of berries here in Sweden, most of them growing wild, which is exceedingly “ecological”. We also have many other local sources of Vitamin C, such as rosehips. (A thick brew of “rosehip soup” used to be more popular here. My wife likes to drink it sometimes; my children won’t touch the stuff. They like orange juice.)
Second, “no water is transported unnecessarily” dodges the point that it is mostly water that is being transported. And that little word “unnecessarily” suggests that transporting some water, in the form of orange juice, is in fact necessary. Desperately necessarily. More necessary than not dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Somehow.
Third, the reuse of the package is hardly smart; it’s just standard. It would be stupid *not* to reuse the package, but it should not qualify as smart to downcycle a box of orange juice into cardboard. Smart would be a package that cycles around endlessly in continuous use, takes itself back to the factory between refillings, and, oh, I don’t know, absorbs CO2 out of the atmosphere while keeping your windows clean. Somehow.
Then there is the ecological/organic bit. Well, I’m a big fan of the ancient, pre-pesticide, naturally-fertilized farming techniques we call “ecological.” But these oranges were grown in Brazil. I’m glad for the Brazilian orchard workers and surrounding ecosystems that their exposure to bad stuff was minimized. But once again, these oranges had to travel a long way to get to the middle of the Scandinavian peninsula. Quite a few things were done to the climate along the way, involving ships and trucks and packaging plants, and few of these things should qualify as “smart.”
I am getting increasingly worried about the way we eco-label products. Maybe consumer items like this could be labeled, “Relatively less climate-stupid.” There are a lot of products that do deserve to be called “relatively less stupid,” or even “much less stupid,” where the designers and growers and companies involved have taken serious steps to reduce environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions.
But there are not so many products like this that are really smart. Not yet.
A Little Weblog Essay about Our New House, and its Various Environmental and Sustainable Features and Benefits
This week my family moves into a new house that we have just finished building — or rather, that the builders have just finished building, financed by the proceeds on the sale of our previous apartment (we sold it a year and a half ago, just before the financial crisis, and have been renting a little place since then). We have the additional help of a loan from our local bank, to whom we will be paying interest for years and years to come. But at the moment, looking at the now-complete physical realization of a dream, this financial commitment seems more than worth it.
The house is our design (drawn by my wife, Kristina AtKisson), from floor to roof, and we’ve tried think “eco” and “sustainable” every step of the way. At the same time, we wanted to build a “normal” house. This has always been our ambition: to demonstrate how normal it is to be sustainable.
So, from the outside, there is nothing about this house that says “green.” You can’t tell by looking at it.
What’s so green and sustainable about this house? Here comes the virtual tour …
A Good Piece of Land
We start with the lot itself. We chose a southwest-facing slope, which means we will get the benefit sunlight for much of the year. This will bring needed heat and light in spring and fall, reducing our energy costs. (Nobody in Sweden gets much sun in the winter.) You can bet we’ll be growing some vegetables, probably in terraced plots. And right behind our house, on the top of the hill, is preserved natural land. Our backyard is berries, trees, a small pond, and the little forts built by day-care and school kids who come there to play.
Efficiency in Overall Form
Then there is the shape of the house: cubic, with a peaked roof, which is close to spherical as you can get (a sphere being the best shape from an energy-and-thermodynamics perspective).
Sunlight Streaming Through the Windows
On sun-facing side, there are lots of highly-efficient triple-glazed doors and windows to let in that sunlight when it’s around, and hold in the heat when it’s not. Those windows are also “bio-clean” glass, which means we’re using a tiny bit of bio-mimicry in that product, as the structure of the glass will naturally shed a lot of the dirt that would otherwise accumulate.
The house is made of wood, and the wood itself comes — to the highest degree we could specify — from Swedish forests managed under Forestry Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards. Most of the framing etc. is FSC certified; other bits, like the floor, are from vendors who use FSC lumber, but have not bothered to get formal certification (which costs them money). About three-quarters of Sweden’s commercial forests are managed in this way.
Heat from … Heat
To heat the water for showers, laundry, and the heating pipes that run through the cement under the wood floors, we have a heat exchanger that pulls the warmth out of the air and wastewater and re-circulates that warmth into the house (and adds new heat as necessary from electricity). When we showed the specs on this unit to our builder, he was amazed: it has the same efficiency as a groundwater-based heat exchange system, which extracts heat from deep wells. We’ll occasionally add more heat to the air with an efficient, enclosed, wood-burning fireplace as well (also eco-labeled); and that heat will also get re-circulated through this system.
Not “Passive,” but “Active” — with Almost the Same Efficiency
We decided not to go for the increasingly popular “passive house” design, which means your home heating needs (though not your hot water) are covered by body heat and waste heat from the lights and machines in your house. For one thing, we don’t have so many lights or machines on usually; and the ones we have are highly efficient. We didn’t want to be dependent on these secondary heat sources.
But we do aim to achieve the same energy consumption levels of a passive house, by keeping the thermostats lower and generally thinking a lot about energy consumption. And our walls are extra thick, extra tight, and extra insulated. (Source of the insulation material: recycled glass.) The walls are not quite as thick as for a passive house, but that was a trade-off we made in order to increase the light coming in through the windows. (I confess: quite a number of decisions were made with aesthetics and comfort in mind first, and environmental performance second.)
Somewhere, a Windmill is Making our Electrons … but Someday the Sun Will Too
As our source of electricity, we purchase certified wind energy off the grid. We do this through a major supplier, rather than smaller, alternative wind cooperative (there are a number of these in Sweden), in order to add our voice to the “normal” market demand signal: “Make more renewable energy, please!”
But we’re thinking ahead, and we had the builders prepare the house for future installation of solar photovoltaic panels. The hookups are all ready; we just decided to build the house first, and take our time with studying the solar energy options and watching how the technology develops. (I’ve heard some really exciting things about new solar cells.)
A Green Kitchen
Actually, it’s white, and stainless steel … but all the cabinets, counter, the faucet etc. are officially eco-labeled (“environmentally marked” as we say in Swedish). So are the windows and the front door and anything else that we could find with an eco-labeled option available.
And All the Best, Efficient, Ultra-Normal Equipment
We installed the usual (for our part of the world) washer, dryer, refrigerator, dishwasher and stove — and they all have the highest energy ratings available on the Swedish market. The fridge has a futuristic looking “Save Energy” reminder built right into the door. The dryer we’ll use only when line-drying doesn’t work, and the dishwasher … well, I’m the lazy one in the family who wanted a dishwasher in the first place, and produced research data showing that the total energy consumption and environmental impact per dish was lower than with hand-washing.
Don’t Forget the Sweaters and Socks and …
Really, we like wearing sweaters inside in the winter. It’s cozy. It’s good for you. And T-shirt-temperatures inside a house just feel weird when there is eighty centimeters of snow outside your window. There are lots of other little tricks to reducing energy demand, and we try to use all of them, like not draining all the bath water out right away, but waiting until it gives off all its heat first. (The heat exchanger grabs even more heat from the room-temperature water before it departs the premises, re-circulating even more heat back into the house.)
So, What’s *Not* So Eco About this House?
Well, building a house is hardly an energy efficient, environmentally friendly affair. Trees get cut down. Rock gets blown up and rubble gets moved around with heavy machinery. Delivery trucks come, garbage trucks go, and workers come and go in their large, petroleum-driven vehicles.
And there’s plenty of stuff in our house that is not exactly on the approved list among hard-core greens. Take the aluminum roof: it’s durable, it looks great, but we don’t know where the aluminum came from — and we do know that wherever it came from, it had a huge environmental impact. (Industry people tell us the aluminum in the roof is from recycled sources, but we haven’t verified that yet.) Some folks would also scoff at the foam in the rear support wall, a petroleum product; bit it also happens to be a great insulator, and it’s keeping that carbon dioxide bound up for as long as the house stands.
Neighbors to us who built even greener used organic insulation; but we chose the ordinary mineral variety, scared off by one friend’s bad experience with rotting insulation, and pleased to learn that the source of the insulation fibers was recycled glass. “Organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable.”
Of course the cement for the foundation has its big carbon emissions price. But really, the biggest climate criminal in our house-building story is not the house.
It’s the car.
I’ve written about our car before: an 85% ethanol-driven Ford Flexifuel. We made so many extra trips in that car during the building process — because we lived farther away from school temporarily, and because we had so many extra errands to run — that I suspect a serious analysis would show our increased car use to be one of the largest sources of increased carbon emissions, even compared to other parts of the building process. After we have moved in, and the house shifts into “use” phase (see below), the car is sure to be our biggest source of environmental impact, because the impact of the house itself — driven on renewable energy — will be pretty close to zero.
That’s why my wife wants to just get rid of the car. Again, I’m the resistant one, arguing (okay, I’m stretching it) that we at least need to able to respond to emergencies, get to the fairly-distant hospital quickly, etc. Maybe I just like knowing that I can go grocery shopping at 8:30 at night, when the buses are few and far between.
But we’re seriously looking at abandoning the car once we move back into our neighborhood and settle back into our regular routines of bus, bike, and walking transport. Or (this is more realistic, given my confessed laziness), getting a plug-in electric hybrid once they come on the market. In any case, we want our car-related carbon emissions, already reduced thanks to our Swedish-Brazilian ethanol, to go down drastically.
Because It’s the Use Phase that Really Counts
In life cycle analysis of consumer products, it’s very often the use phase — the many years of actual living in a house, wearing a garment, driving a car — that has by far the largest environmental impact. We’re going to estimate our climate impact for the actual building process, and take steps to “neutralize” it as best we can. But we’ll focus mostly on living in ways that reduce our climatic and environmental impact in the long run — not just with regard to the house, but also with what we buy, and what daily choices we make.
The distance to my office, for example, is going to be dramatically reduced … to about 15 meters. We’ve built a small free-standing cottage in back of the lot, by the forest, that I’ll use as my main office and studio. Wind energy will drive my computers and internet link (though not the internet itself, of course), and I’ll be running more and more of my trainings and meetings via the web, from there.
In Conclusion …
We’re not trying to be eco-saints; we’re trying to be eco-normal, in a suburban Swedish context. The whole point of building this house was to be able to live closer to the natural world (I love having a forest right out the back door), and closer to our sustainability values. It was a big investment, but we also think the overall running costs in financial terms will be the same, or lower, compared to where we were living before.
And of course, the quality of life will be higher. Our daughters are excited to have their own rooms for the first time. And I’m looking forward to waking up every day in my wife’s truly lovely architectural design, looking out at a giant old oak and a mature (tasty) apple tree, in a community of good friends and neighbors.
Both Kristina and I are well aware, maybe even achingly aware, that what is super-efficient “eco-normal” for us — a small-to-medium sized house by modern Swedish standards, in a normal Stockholm suburban area — is still super-luxury compared to most of the world. So this house, the dream that took over two years to convert into a reality, will be our “home base” for our continued work to try to help make that world greener, fairer … and hopefully, more sustainable.
After attending CoP-15 (as a UN Observer, on temporary assignment to the Division for Sustainable Development, though of course I write entirely in my individual capacity), talking to numerous delegates and observers and NGO activists during the event, and reading over a hundred articles on the process and the outcome, I have come to an unsurprising conclusion.
The world will never be the same.
But it’s the way that the world will never be the same that interests me, for the events of the past two weeks in Copenhagen signal not just a change in global climate politics, but a change in global politics, period. The primary outcome of these negotiations is not just the Copenhagen Accord, the relative merits and demerits of which will now be debated endlessly in the months and years ahead. The second, and likely more important, outcome is the global realization that the balance of things on this planet has shifted irrevocably. Copenhagen marks a phase shift in the way the world sees, understands, and governs itself.
Much has already been written (and much more will be written) about how the result of the negotiations boiled down to a dialogue between China and the United States, though this was something that longtime observers had already been saying was the case, months before CoP-15. The constellation of the instantly-famous eleventh-hour meeting between Wen, Zuma, Lula, and Singh (the heads of state for China, South Africa, Brazil and India respectively), into which Obama barged uninvited to make the final deal, also communicates something all by itself. The absence of any European country from the conversation that ultimately mattered most – not to mention the absence of Russia, Japan, and all the other countries — was, to say the least, widely noticed. It is the height of understatement to note that in the end, no one can accuse the European nations, among them the world’s former colonial powers, of imposing their will on the conference’s outcome.
While those closing, dramatic moments in Copenhagen were definitive and emblematic, the process leading up to them was already quite revealing. Many complaints have been heard (and will be heard) about the CoP-15 process, the delays, the procedural wrangling. Strangely, I found it all a sign of progress — at least, from the standpoint of equity and democracy in global governance. The CoP-15 process reminded of nothing so much as the U.S. Senate, where all U.S. states have equal representation, regardless of their size, population, or wealth, and every Senator has an equal capacity to disrupt or smooth the proceedings with filibusters or smart behind-the-scenes deal-making. This makes for challenges when trying to take tough decisions, but it is, in purely political terms, highly democratic. (The UNFCCC goes one better and operates by consensus, meaning that every nation’s “vote” is equally powerful, at least in theory.)
My colleague and friend (also my client for the UN assignment mentioned above) Tariq Banuri made an interesting observation during one of the final side events, which was also the last in a series of panel discussions and debates on the general topic of geo-engineering. The subtopic of this last panel was the governance of geo-engineering — not only the doing of it, but even the research about it. Who decides, and how? What governance structures exist to steer research (much less action) on whether we can, or should, try to meddle directly with the amount of solar radiation coming into the Earth, or the amount of heat that is trapped here? Speaking for himself, and not for his Division or the UN, Tariq noted that the world already has a governance structure, with a parliament where global laws are debated (the UN General Assembly and related other bodies, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change), but no executive branch. It’s as though Jefferson had won the arguments over federalism during the founding debates on the US Constitution, and all executive power had been devolved to the states, said Tariq. This is how the UN functions. Its “global parliament” can pass “laws,” but the execution (or even acknowledgment) of these “laws” is left to the individual countries, acting in their individual executive capacities.
We saw this on perfect display at CoP-15 in the negotiations between China and the US on the issue of reporting and transparency. “Sovereignty” was the stated reason for China’s deep reluctance to agree to independent monitoring and verification of its emissions. In other words, to offer a free interpretation, China was saying, “we have our own executive branch, and we resist these world federalist attempts to strengthen centralized global governance with extra-national control mechanisms.”
We saw this anti-federalist, sovereignty-asserting behavior also on display in the overall dialogue among the countries. Old categories like “developed” and “developing” and “emerging market” appeared less and less relevant with each passing day. Sudan, the Maldives, France, Indonesia … it would be impossible to say which of these was most “powerful” during CoP-15. They participated as true equals, with President Nasheed of the Maldives probably clocking more media time, for example, than President Sarkozy of France, whose media savvy is legendary.
Of course, the categories of “developed” and “developing” remain essential when talking about the flow of climate funds, issues of equity, vulnerability, adaptation, etc. But I am talking here about the democratic process of the world. Just as a blustery Senator from a relatively poor Southern state in the US can become a pivotal figure in the US national political dialogue, the CoP-15 process established once and for all that when it comes to a global negotiation and deliberation process, even the smallest or economically most marginal nation can find a powerful and influential voice.
The US Senate is a better model for understanding post-Copenhagen geopolitics than, for example, the European Union, because despite the obvious dissimilarities between countries formerly classed as “West European” and “East European,” these continental halves are still more similar than different. The countries of Europe share a common, interlinked history (religious, cultural, economic, political) going back millennia. At the global level, however, real commonality of history is a new phenomenon, and plays out against a backdrop of much greater diversity. This is a situation more like that in the United States (though, of course, even more extreme); and therefore the dynamics are more like those on display, historically, in the U.S. Senate.
That increasing global democracy should go hand-in-hand with reshuffling of power concentration into the “G2” (US and China) or “G2+3” (add India, Brazil, and South Africa) — constellations that were seen as decisive in Copenhagen — is not a contradiction. Both phenomena can co-exist, and geo-engineering provides a sobering example. On the one hand, the great powers will ultimately be forced into more extensive governance decisions regarding whether, and how, to examine the last-ditch planet-hacking options we call geo-engineering. In the meantime, however, several commentators have recently pointed out that some geo-engineering interventions are so cheap and easy, any single country of moderate size could decide to undertake them — the ultimate in “democratic empowerment” in the context of global environmental governance. As with nuclear weapons proliferation, even the theoretical possibility of unilateral geo-engineering means that no country with the capacity to do it can be ignored, any more than the world can ignore North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Dynamics like this mean that global governance on issues of climate will never be fully reducible to a conversation among the largest and most economically powerful states. Therefore an inclusive global engagement of all actors in this drama is a not optional, but mandatory.
Another unexpected outcome of Copenhagen concerns the enhanced role of the press when it comes to understanding what is happening in this increasingly complex globalized democracy. Many today talk about the decline of official news agencies, and the rise of blogging or even Twitter as signs of a new, dispersed information economy. Copenhagen crushes this myth, for during CoP-15 everyone, everywhere, probably including the delegation members themselves, was dependent on the news — professionally gathered, well-written, carefully edited, and broadcast as soon as possible in widely accessible form. There was no other serious way to know what was going on. Only the global news agencies and largest press organs had both the access and the capacity that allowed them to stitch together a reasonable picture, and present it in relatively coherent narrative. (An official translator told me that, even with direct access and participation in the discussions as they were occurring, it was impossible to understand exactly what was going on.) Those inside the Bella Center were getting their information from the latest AP or BBC or other posting, as much as they were from watching the closed circuit television cameras or whispering in the halls. The bloggers of this world may be important for airing underreported facts or building the body of global opinion. But the press is, more than ever, the entire world’s Fourth Estate, and therefore indispensable.
As for the Copenhagen Accord itself, I believe the world is being a bit quick in jumping to judgments, both positive and negative. Only time will tell whether the agreement was truly the best that was possible under very difficult circumstances, and therefore a major step forward, and therefore something that we can and will build on in the near and mid-term future … or whether it was an unmitigated (pardon the pun) disaster, as many already claim. The Accord’s major flaws have already been acknowledged by several of its chief last-minute architects, President Obama noticeably among them (and Chinese Premier Wen noticeably not). The most troubling among these flaws, from the perspective of science, may be the obvious delay that will likely result from this Accord in terms of when the world will peak in its emissions and begin finally to head down, instead of continuing to head up. Every year of delay in “bending the emissions curve” means that the slope of the curve on the other side of that peak must be steeper. This is a mathematical way of saying that the longer we wait to start reducing, the faster we must reduce, once we start.
If, that is, we wish to keep the global temperature from rising more than two degrees above pre-industrial normal during the remaining ninety years of this century.
That, dear friends and readers, is a very big “if,” because it is attached to a very difficult and not-fully-shared “wish.” To want to save human civilization and natural ecosystems as we have come to know them, we must believe that these things actually are in danger. Even if we do believe they are in danger, we must care enough — as a big, complex, democratic, geopolitically fractious, yet somehow unified world — to take the mammoth actions required to save them. We must be willing and able, as a world, to take coordinated action of a kind never before seen on this planet.
It is the scale of this “must” that ultimately gives me hope after Copenhagen, and causes me to hold back both harsh judgment and optimistic praise. That, and the rather open-ended quality of that word “We,” which cannot be reduced to national leaders, national governments, or the United Nations. This “We must” is the most challenging thing the human species has ever attempted, and it is not going away. This “We must” involves everyone, everywhere; and it will be with us for a lifetime. Of course the negotiations over the first-ever comprehensive, legally binding global treaty to transform the world’s management of energy, forests, and climate-related development patterns were dramatic, confusing, problematic, and disappointing for many; it would be something like a miracle had they not been.
The Earthquake in Copenhagen truly marked the end of one historical era, and the beginning of a new one. It is an era of more democratic global governance (at least in the sense of how power, actual and perceived, is dispersed among nations). An era of continuous struggle to understand what is happening to our planet, and continuous effort to share that understanding. An era of nations being forced to collaborate, more and more closely, and over several decades, on planetary management. In the hindsight of future history (especially environmental history), CoP-15 will likely loom large indeed as an inflection point, a time when everything changed — or rather, was finally seen by all as changed.
As in all earthquakes, some structures were probably destroyed during this event. But as in all earthquakes, these were mostly the older, more rickety structures — mental models and international patterns that have outlived their usefulness.
And as in all earthquakes, there will be a time of mourning losses, regretting the “we-should-have-knowns,” and blaming those who, after the fact, are seen as not having prepared adequately for the inevitable. But soon, very soon, the rebuilding will begin.
And for that rebuilding to succeed, all of us will need to pitch in and help. Indeed, pitching in is not really an option.
In twenty-one years of work on sustainability, I have never before attended a UN meeting. Even when the big sustainability conferences happened (Rio ’92, Johannesburg ’02), I stayed home, content to keep working on projects that were more specific, less global. In fact, even though I lived in New York for years, on two occasions, I have never before set foot in the United Nations Secretariat building. So it is no wonder that I wandered around the Secretariat offices for half an hour looking for a specific conference hall. I’ll explain the meeting I was here to attend in a minute. First, here is how I got lost, and found again, on my way to a briefing for ministers and delegates on current climate science.
The UN is — obviously — very diverse. People of every sort, languages of every inflection swirl around you here. But in all that diversity, it was rather difficult to find someone who could tell me where I was supposed to go. “Go to the sixth floor ECOSOC conference room,” I had been told, only to find out that there was no such thing. (It did, however, seem possible to get a Ukrainian tranlsator on that floor. I must have mis-heard the instructions.) So I wandered here and there, kind people pointing me to various erroneous destinations. One elevator operator, once I finally got pointed in the right direction (ECOSOC is on the 2nd floor) told me that this could not be right, as I was not allowed to get off on that floor. Only delegates were. So he let me off on the 3rd floor, I found the chamber, entered the upstairs balcony, and then walked down the aisle stairs to the main floor. (I stepped over a high security velvet rope to do this). And there, in the main chamber, Katherine Richardson was already into her presentation.