Week 14: 11 December 2011
Senior Climate Advisor at Greenpeace UK
Don't let a serious crisis go to waste
Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland
Thanks for taking the time to read a letter (even if it’s on your computer, phone, or tablet). It’s a rare privilege in the days of shrinking attention spans and media convergence. Lots of people write annual Christmas letters – some are better than others, but let’s hope this one doesn’t make it into Simon Hoggart’s annual digest of self-satisfied correspondents.
December traditionally ushers in a season with concentric rings of ritual. There’s the astronomical: the solstice. Then of course, there’s the religious: Christmas – the Christian appropriation of the solstice; the inevitably commercial – Christmas shopping; and now the political – 20 years and running of the annual United Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathering to discuss yet again what can be done to avoid the worst ravages of climate change.
Perhaps this year will mark the addition of another annual political ritual here in the UK: the transformation of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement (a relatively new presence in the political and cultural calendar) which is slowly but surely morphing into a painful bout of irresistible economic scab picking, revealing layers of discomfort that we really should leave be, but, for better or worse, just can’t leave alone. There is a growing numbing realisation that we’re looking down a long dark financial tunnel – seemingly one without a light at the end, or at least so far away as to be nearly invisible.
And what, if anything, does this particular darkness reveal? For one thing, it tells me that we’re in the middle of series ongoing transformations – from a period of relative stability in the post war years (well, if you live in Europe or North America that is), where the prevalent myth was one of a rising tide floating all boats, all-onquering global markets and the “end of history”. And the rise of climate change awareness and activism – from the Second World Climate Conference in 1989 and the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 - coinciding with the high point of this world view. Elaborate documents, with ambitious goals, expressed in impenetrable language guided aspirations and led to the creation of a global industry of climate diplomacy that has continued to rumble and stumble on for the last 20 years.
What does all this have to do with a new country in search of citizens? Well, in one way, in the world’s developed economies, some basic perceptions of citizenship began to change at around the same time. Democracy had won the cold war – and democracy meant free markets. Perhaps as a result, politics became a lot more like a retail experience and as everybody became a customer, every citizen became a consumer. We now consume education, we consume health care, we definitely consume cars, electronics, houses, lifestyle accessories, holidays, you name it. We consume – and suggested (insisted?) that other countries become like us, so they could consume too. The essence of political and economic success was to become like us.
Coinciding with the end of history was also what appeared to be an end of scarcity as well. Resource efficiency – getting more output from less stuff fuelled the illusion of limitless growth. And the old-fashioned “limits to growth” greenies of the 1970s were replaced by the Green consumers of the 1990s. We could even buy our way to positive environmental outcomes. But the illusion of “no limits” was short lived. Last year Goldman Sachs announced (so you know it must be true) that the short era of resource efficiency had come to an end and we were again facing up not to the end of history, but increasingly to the “end of stuff” – water, grain, copper, rare earths, even land. And strangely enough, the politics of scarcity aren’t remotely like the end of history. Rather it’s the politics of history as the same damn thing over and over again.
And 20 years of climate diplomacy reflected this cycle. Doing something about the climate was a good idea as long as it didn’t cost too much – or at least if it didn’t cost “us” too much or at least too much more than our competitors. And it didn’t matter who “we” were – the Europeans, the Americans or even the Chinese. Basically everybody (well everybody who believed that it was a problem) wanted to solve the problem, but only once they got rich enough to solve it without feeling too much pain.
But since 2008 (and the near collapse of the global banking sector and with it the rest of the global economy) it has now become clear that nobody is likely to become rich enough to solve the problem without someone noticing. Even the dramatic sagging of parts of the global economy has done almost nothing to slow the growth of carbon emissions or the accelerating depletion of resources – which brings us back to December 2011 and an important question for the citizens of Nowhereisland.
In times of impending economic doom (or at least the perception of doom) what is the future of politics as a retail experience? If all the parties/institution/governments are offering austerity, the same unattractive product - you can't really exercise consumer choice. When the going gets tough, the tough will no longer be able to go shopping. On the other hand, the citizens of Nowhereisland will have a real opportunity to begin to use again those atrophied muscles of moral, ethical and genuinely political principles.
Walt Kelly – a great American of the 20th century – was a cartoonist, satirist and all round inspiring character, who courageously, democratically and generally lampooned the foolish of all political leanings. I think his Pogo cartoons should be required reading for all citizens of Nowhereisland. He famously [mis]quoted an American Admiral in the war of 1812 in the foreword of his 1953 collection The Pogo Papers:
"Traces of nobility, gentleness and courage persist in all people. Do what we will to stamp out the trend. So, too, do those characteristics which are ugly…There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us."
Citizens of Nowhereisland, we have almost nothing to lose – no GDP, next to no territory, not much beyond the idea of citizenship reclaimed from the hucksters and charlatans who sold us retail politics. Looking after the Island and fellow citizens is easier when it’s not just the right thing to do, but is actually the only thing to do. In other words, you never want a serious crisis go to waste – which means we have quite a lot of material with which to work. It’s time to get to work.
Here are couple of thoughts to leave you with: there is a telling mismatch between the necessary action to respond to climate change and the ambition that we dare express for individual action. Convincing people to ‘do their bit’ – to drive less and walk and cycle more, to eat locally grown vegetables, to give up flights and take domestic holidays, to change their light bulbs to efficient “eco-bulbs”, even to insulate their homes or change their boilers – are all admirable, and in many cases, significant acts. The danger is that we allow the blame to be put wholly on ourselves, and forget the need to call for fundamental change from those that pull the strings.
Climate change is linked to nearly every human activity - industry, agriculture, deforestation, the increasing use of cars, trucks and planes. Personal individual choices, while worthy (and often worthy of admiration) aren’t likely to slow, stop or reverse the global damage. The big technical challenges of climate change exist at the level of infrastructure – power stations, roads and airports. Which is why focusing on the local environmental impacts of the whole Nowhereisland project is tempting for the skeptically - or even cynically - inclined. Going to the Arctic, removing a quantity of newly exposed rock and bringing it back to the UK represents a prodigious commitment to personal action to highlight the challenges and yes, the threats of a changing climate. But just as individual action to combat climate change is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge - and requires systemic change as a response - the local environmental impact of the Nowhereisland project is dwarfed by the impact of global climate change on the Arctic - (if you want a comprehensive - if challenging - read on the climate impacts on the Arctic, this website is the place to start: http://www.realclimate.org/ - and dig into the index). In fact, the environmental impact of Nowhereisland is overwhelmed by that of the Olympics, both globally and locally; it's not a meaningful measure of the significance of the project - or a meaningful metric for evaluating, much less judging it.
Charlie Kronick is Senior Climate Advisor at Greenpeace UK. He has worked in the fields of environment and development as an activist, campaigner, thinker and writer for over 20 years. He has focussed for much of the last decade on energy and climate change related issues; and recently on the risks to capital markets from investment in high carbon infrastructure; other areas of work have included the international trade in hazardous waste, transport and road building, sustainable agriculture and the environmental and social impacts of corporate globalisation. He trained as a historian and historical bibliographer/rare book librarian.