Green Matters: Climate change double-think of the world's politicians - new script needed?

By Email author - Wed, 12 Oct 2011 11:55:00 GMT
Climate change double-think of the world's politicians

Industrial pollution via Shutterstock

George Orwell would love it. When it comes to the 'double-think' that politicians all too-often fall into, those tasked with running the climate policy circus have excelled themselves of late. The European Union is trumpeting the rise in its planet-warming emissions in 2010 as a great win for the environment. The 'greenest UK government ever' is putting its carbon-cutting pledge to one side, in case it undermined 'economic competitiveness'. And the US is preparing to send negotiators to the climate change conference in Durban next month, with the words of its chief envoy, Jonathan Pershing, ringing in their ears. "We do not want to launch negotiations on an agreement we would not be able to join."

Of course, seeing politicians dancing a crooked jig of words, that seem to have everything and nothing to say simultaneously, is not new. Even in George Orwell's time, the real-world antics of political behavior often outshone the 'black is white' logical gymnastics he described in '1984'. But this new 'black is green' chant is scary - because it is blowing a confusing smog over a planetary emergency. While the politicians misdirect the public around the problem of global warming, the moment for taking meaningful action seems to be slipping away.

But these three recent examples of double-think do more than just highlight the knots, into which the political class has twisted itself over climate change. They also cast a revealing light, on what is really holding back action. And on what really needs to be done to tackle global warming - if the green smoke wafted by 'double-thinking' politicians is blown clear.

Others doing EU's dirty work?: The EU likes to paint itself as the good-guy of the international climate scene. Which is why its 'Draft Progress Report on implementing Kyoto' is brimming with green promise. After all, since signing up to the Kyoto agreement back in 1997, the EU has made wonderful progress in hitting - even overreaching - the legally-binding cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions. The target was for a 20% cut in those by 2020, compared to 1990 - and by 2010, a whopping 15.5% cut is already in the bag. Excellent news, you'd think. Except that the report glosses over the fact that 2010 actually saw 2.4% rise in emissions, Europe-wide, as the EU economies recovered from the dark recessionary days of 2009.

European Union

European Union via Shutterstock

While that may seem fair enough - surely we need an extra fizz of CO2 to get those economic fires burning again, don't we? - that's not quite what the EU have been claiming. They believe that they have gone a long way towards 'decoupling' CO2 emissions from economic growth. That should mean that those revving economic engines will sputter out less greenhouse gas, even when the economy is growing. But that plainly didn't happen in 2010. And the much-hailed 15.5% emissions-slashing over the last 2 decades? Not so much a 'decoupling', as an exporting of CO2 emissions, is found when you dig a little deeper.

That's because the EU's CO2 emissions, as counted under Kyoto, are only those that are pumped out of EU member states' smokestacks. Kyoto doesn't look at the impact of international trade flows. But the last two decades have seen a major shift in where the stuff that Europeans consume is made. Rather than being churned out on EU soil, many goods and raw materials now head out to Chinese factories, before steaming back as shrink-wrapped consumer goodies. China's growing CO2 emissions are in part servicing the EU, which has outsourced its manufacturing. That means the much-vaunted 'decoupling' process is something of a carbon-accounting illusion - one the EU press releases are quick to hide.

The warning shots fired by the UK's Chancellor, George Osbourne, over the bows of the Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change - the watchdog of the country's Carbon Budget - again illustrates how international trade worries trump green concerns time and again. Mr Osbourne's remarks - that the UK's industries should not be saddled with an uncompetitive burden - may have been labeled as 'schizophrenic' by the committee. But it also reveals the green-wash of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance to be very easy to rub off. While some in the UK's coalition government continue to see the path the carbon-emission reduction as paved with green jobs, it seems that in the Treasury,  the jobs (or should that be profits) of existing polluting industries come first.

Talking in circles, round 17: If the UK government seems to be failing to 'walk the walk', when it comes to climate, the US government doesn't even seem to be wanting to 'talk the talk'. The 17th international climate summit, held next month in the South African city of Durban, is looking like the last-chance saloon for global action on climate change. The Kyoto Treaty, for all its faults, did wring some real emissions cuts from its signatories. But that 14-year old treaty runs out next year. Durban is the final opportunity to get something hobbled together to replace it - but all hopes of legally-binding replacement treaty, signed up to globally, effectively vanished in Cancun last year.

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrators with 'Occupy Wall Street' march in Downtown Manhattan in New York

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) demonstrators via Shutterstock

And just as the Kyoto Treaty was holed below the water-line, without the US actively engaging in it, so many see the lack of engagement from the US in the run-up to Durban as extremely dangerous. As the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US says and does is pivotal. It shoulders the burden of causing much of the climate change already around us - and change that is yet to come. But it also has the economic and moral authority to show the way forward, for both developed and developing nations. However, the titanic economic tussle with China looms distortingly large in all US considerations - including climate. The replacement to Kyoto must treat the US and China on the same footing, says Pershing - something the Chinese baulk at.

Which brings us back to the common thread - that real action on climate change is being held back by a petty and self-interested focus on economic concerns. The forces of globalization, which were supposed to unite the world into one thriving global village, have instead turned international trade into economic warfare. No one nation will act without all the others acting too. And no politician wants to be seen to be holding back their country's economy for the wish-washy 'environment'. It seems that a blind faith in economic growth has not only cursed us with a greenhouse planet - that same faith is shackling us, stopping moves to nudge open the hothouse windows.

A system so powerful that it can change the planet - but so short-sighted that it can't even prevent its self-immolation - a truly Orwellian nightmare. But not everyone is reading from this worn-out script. Even at the heart of American economic power - in New York's Wall Street - new voices are stirring. Wall Street is being taken back by those wounded in its economic wars. Many are questioning where all this economic madness is taking us. Maybe we're still able to put this turgid and hidebound novel down - and start writing a fresh new story ourselves.

Green Matters is an Earth Times Blog; The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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Topics: Climate