Emeritus Robert Manne
First published on The Guardian on 22 July 2013.
The nations of the earth are doing very little to avert an impending, entirely foreseeable catastrophe. There are many reasons why – some obvious, others less so.
Twenty five years ago, scientists with an interest in the climate were moving towards a consensual understanding, that primarily through the burning of fossil fuels human beings were responsible for potentially catastrophic global warming. At present, at least 97% of climate scientists have reached that conclusion.
Through voluntary international cooperation, the Montreal Protocol of 1992 went a long way to solving the problem of the hole in the ozone layer. Using it as their model for the solution to the even more daunting problem of global warming, in 1997 most nations of the earth signed the Kyoto Protocol. It was eventually ratified by almost all advanced economies being asked to commit to greenhouse gas emission targets.
The one exception was the United States. And yet, since Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions have risen very steeply. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—280 parts per million before the industrial revolution—is now 400 parts per million. The conference which was supposed to find a replacement for Kyoto—Copenhagen in 2009—was a comprehensive failure. There is at present no reason to suppose that the next major international conference on which hopes now rest—Paris in 2015—will succeed.
Virtually no one any longer believes that temperature will be able to be contained to the internationally recognised tipping point of two degrees Celsius above temperature levels at the time of the industrial revolution. Many climate scientists fear a temperature rise of four or five degrees Celsius by century’s end.
We know that if we continue to use fossil fuels as our primary energy source, the conditions of life on the earth for our own species and for others will be damaged perhaps beyond repair. And yet, eyes wide shut the nations of the earth are doing very little to avert the impending, entirely foreseeable catastrophe.
There are many reasons why, some obvious, others less so.
In the way it has evolved, the post-war international “system” of nations is entirely unfitted to the kind of broad-ranging international cooperation now required. Nations participate in the international system predominantly to safeguard and advance their self-interest – the so-called "national interest". Only when they think the national interest is served will they form alliances or involve themselves in broader schemes of international cooperation.
The United Nations is powerless to compel cooperation. Even in military alliances, national sovereignty is preserved. Very occasionally, as with the Montreal Protocol, international cooperation to solve an environmental problem through economic self-denial is successful. But such action is always merely on the margins of an economy and in no way even a possible threat to the pursuit of national interest.
International action against global warming needs to be different. The action required involves a series of domestic economic revolutions—transferring the source of energy from fossil fuels to clean alternatives in a relatively short time. This necessarily involves some sacrifice of national self-interest in the short and the medium term. Immediate, radical cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are expressions not of national interest as commonly understood but rather of national altruism.
Progress in combating climate change requires acts of good global citizenship. Only a handful of advanced economies—Germany, Denmark, Norway most notably—have acted thus. Robyn Eckersley is doing important work in this area, examining the different national climate change rhetorics of a series of critical nations, beginning with her comparison between Norway’s self-conception as a “good nation” and Australia’s “realist” belief in the futility of any action if isolated to a few states.
Unfortunately, Australia’s view is presently far more characteristic than Norway’s. Unreciprocated acts of greenhouse gas emission reduction are easily characterisable as foolish. This is especially so where there is no meaningful action by the two largest economies of the world—the United States and China.
Here, humanity is cursed by history. The Middle Kingdom has felt humiliated by a century and a half of weakness since the mid-nineteenth century. It has only escaped from this humiliation over the past quarter century. To put it mildly, the Chinese state is in no mood to imperil its recent emergence as a great economic power on which both its legitimacy and self-conception now relies. China has a centralised and authoritarian political system that would allow it to cut greenhouse gas emissions radically if it had the will to do so. It also has an economic system still sufficiently centralised to allow it to invest heavily in clean energy industries for both domestic and export purposes, as it is doing.
China has recently announced a pilot emissions trading scheme and that it will consider placing a cap on its emissions in its next Five Year Plan. Yet China will for a long-time remain heavily dependent for its energy needs on coal of which it has vast reserves. Because of coal and because it has become the global manufacturing workshop, in recent times China has become the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. In a stark choice between economic self-interest and national altruism, with China the pursuit of narrow national interest will almost certainly prevail.
For a different reason, the same can be said of its rival, the United States. Ever since its foundation, the United States has seen itself as a chosen or exceptional nation. American exceptionalism is now a threat to both the earth and to the future of humankind. No nation is more important in the struggle against global warming than the United States.
However, because of its self-conception, no nation is less likely than the US to subordinate itself to the international community or less likely to agree to trim its independent decision-making in cooperation with other nations. Interestingly, over the threat which led to the Montreal Protocol, as Richard Benedick in his Ozone Diplomacy has shown, America led Europe essentially because its citizens took the threat of skin cancer very seriously. When however it came to consideration of the only promising global warming international agreement thus far, the Kyoto Protocol, the roles were reversed with the United States Senate, effectively deciding against ratification in a vote of 95 to 0.
At present, either a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax, both of which require Congressional legislation, are unthinkable. Confronted by a wall-to-wall denialist Republican Party and a largely indifferent public, during the entire 2012 presidential election campaign Obama did not so much as mention climate change. This is one of the most tragic facts of contemporary times. Even though President Obama “gets” the climate change crisis, his important proposed actions foreshadowed recently in a major speech at Georgetown University will of necessity be restricted to executive action and working with the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nor is it only the two economic super-powers which are systematically resistant to the kind of subordination of national self-interest necessary for concerted and radical action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. As the problem of global warming is an historical product of the early industrial nations, it is almost impossible to convince the largest newly emerging and fast growing economies—like India or Brazil or South Africa—that their overriding obligation is to act in the interests of the earth and not in the immediate, short-term interests of their own people.
Of course, they have a strong argument. Historically, the largest emissions come from the fossil fuel burnings of the developed world. What right have they now to demand that developing countries exercise greenhouse gas emissions restraints in their struggles to reach levels of prosperity approximating those of the already developed economies? Unfortunately, however, the atmosphere of the earth is indifferent to arguments of historical or social justice.
Similarly, it has been, and will continue to prove, impossible to convince the fossil fuel-reliant economies—like Russia and the oil producing nations of the Middle East—to sacrifice supposed national economic self-interest in favour of the future wellbeing of human and other species. No Australian should be in any doubt on this point. Because of our vast coal reserves, we are not only one of the largest per capita carbon dioxide emitters but also one of the most important greenhouse gas exporters in the world. And yet in Australia, the question of the development of the coal industry is un-discussable among the major political parties, with the exception of the Greens. At a time when the earth is facing a climate crisis, Australia is involved in a grotesque scramble to open up vast new coal developments especially in the Hunter Valley and the Galilee Basin in Queensland.
The Australian example points to the ways in which the democratic parliamentary political systems determine the failure of the advanced economies of the West to rise to the challenge of global warming. Based upon three or four year electoral cycles and upon either two party or multi-party competition, such political systems are peculiarly unfitted for the long-term decisions to revolutionise their energy sources and the national sacrifices that are now required.
As everyone knows, the electoral cycles are systemically biased towards political and policy short-termism. The fierce party-political competition reduces the capacity for the creation of bi-partisanship or multi-party agreement on an issue as contentious and costly as a revolution in the source of energy, while increasing the likelihood of opportunistic populism. Let one example, again taken from Australia, suffice. At the next election, both Labor and the Coalition feel compelled to offer “working Australians” the retention of the compensation payments for a carbon tax which both sides of politics feel compelled to promise to “terminate”!
There are also other formidable roadblocks to change. In Western democratic nation states with powerful fossil fuel industries—like the United States, Canada and Australia—there are few legal impediments to the use of money for lobbying and for buying interest in the political parties so as to influence electoral outcomes.
For all these reasons, the domestic political systems of the nation states potentially of greatest importance in the struggle against global warming–that is the advanced Western democracies—tend to paralyse the possibility of necessary emergency action. The advanced democracies are well equipped for large-scale emergency action only in one kind of situation: the real or supposed threat of an enemy.
Global warming poses a far greater emergency than, say, Islamist terrorism. Yet because it is a long-term threat with no galvanising event equivalent to Pearl Harbour or 9/11, a Micawber-like policy of infinite delay in the hope that some solution will eventually just turn up, has proved attractive to politicians and the citizens of the Western democracies.
Even in many of the democracies which formally accept the reality of the problem, the most usual solution to the acknowledged emergency has been pathetically inadequate greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in the short-term and heroic pledges over the long term which later generations of political leaders are somehow expected to fulfil. (The countries of north-west Europe are the only possible exception here.)
Australia is once more a good example of the general tendency. The Labor Government is committed to a 5% reduction by 2020 and an 80% target by 2050. According to the logic of politics, delay makes sense. According to the logic of climate science, delay gravely compounds the difficulty we will eventually face. In the struggle between these logics, politics prevails. There is at present no reason not to believe that as the heroic long-term targets move closer to the present they will also begin to recede.
In the countries of the Anglosphere—the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom—one response to the looming catastrophe of global warming has been the emergence of a movement of opinion where the consensual position of the relevant scientists, that group on whose authority all contemporary societies routinely rely, has been comprehensively denied.
Denialism is a complex phenomenon. In part, as the pioneer student of this phenomenon, Ross Gelbspan, has demonstrated, it is a straightforward expression of the material interests that are threatened—the fossil fuel corporations and their business allies. In part it is an expression of the Left-Right culture wars that have been fought with great ferocity since the end of the Cold War in which environmentalism has been a major front. Here the locus classicus is Naomi Orestes’ and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. In part it is a consequence, as the journalism of the Guardian’s George Monbiot has revealed, of the rise of neo-liberalism since about 1980 with its worship of the magic of the market and its ideological unwillingness to acknowledge that climate change represents, in the words of Nicholas Stern, the greatest instance of market failure in the history of humankind.
In part, as Riley Dunlap and others in their article “Cool Dudes” have shown, it represents the stubborn refusal of ageing white conservative males to recognise that man’s effort to master nature has in this instance produced an unpredicted, unpredictable and unintended impending catastrophe. Most importantly and disturbingly, as Clive Hamilton has best demonstrated in his seminal work, Requiem for a Species, it expresses the psychological unwillingness of the character type produced within the consumer society to recognise the necessity for material sacrifice and even the existence of limits.
Psychologists have long recognised the phenomenon of denial in the individual. More sociological work is now needed to outline the dynamics of patterns of denial that are society-wide. In tandem with political scientists such work will need to investigate the explicitly denialist movements that have gained hold of opinion in the Anglosphere during the past few years.
Perhaps even more challenging however will be the investigation of the far more common and dangerous pattern, to which almost none of us is immune: namely denialism in everyday life, or the ways in which so many citizens, knowing what they do, manage somehow to live their lives in parallel universes, on one level of existence accepting intellectually that the threat of catastrophic global warming exists, and on another finding ways of living and thinking, calmly and comfortably, as if nothing of great moment was happening that was placing the future of humankind and of other species in gravest peril. For those interested in this question, I would recommend Karie Mari Norgaard’s delicate phenomenological study of a small Norwegian community, Living in Denial.
The failure of the climate change catastrophe to ignite widescale or radical Left-wing political resistance, even on the scale of global Occupy Wall Street movement, is genuinely surprising.
In part this reflects the contemporary weakness of the revolutionary anti-capitalist Left, which has been greatly wounded by the mistake it made in associating the Soviet Union and the Communist movement, during the course of “the short twentieth century”, with human liberation. In part it reflects the long-term nature of the global warming crisis where the danger is looming but never quite pressing or imminent. In part too the challenge of the global warming crisis represents something the Left has never before faced—an injustice perpetrated not by one class or race or gender or majority on another but of one generation—ours—on all the generations of both humans and other species yet unborn.
The radical Left is used to fighting for justice for those presently living on the basis of class or race or gender or membership of a threatened minority. It has no experience of calling upon their own generation to wage a struggle for justice and to undergo sacrifices not for the present but for future generations. Fighting for the lives of generations not yet born is both a historically novel situation and one more distant and abstract than the great emancipatory struggles of the past.
It has only been very recently that the global climate change movement has generated a fruitful political tactic, largely through the work of US activist, Bill McKibben and his global political movement, 350.org, whose genesis is outlined in his new book, Oil and Honey. This movement has three prongs: the identification of the problem through the trope of the climate budget—the discrepancy between the known fossil fuel resources on the books of these corporations and the climate scientists’ estimates of the giga-tonnage that can be burned if we are to remain within a 2oC temperature increase; the targeting of what is described as the “rogue-industry” enemy—the fossil fuel corporations; and a clear political strategy modelled on the anti-apartheid struggle—a global-wide, consciousness-raising divestment movement: aimed at encouraging institutions like universities, churches and pension funds to withdraw their moneys from the major multinational fossil fuel corporations.
The main hope since the collapse of the Copenhagen conference rests now not with the chimera of some comprehensive, binding international agreement but with three ultimately interconnected possibilities. First, the negotiation of bilateral agreements between what used to be called in the twentieth century the super powers—the United States and China; and/or multilateral agreements between what in the nineteenth century used to be called the great powers: the United States, China, the European Union, Japan and maybe Russia and India. Second, and in parallel, a benign domino effect building on the example of Germany, Denmark and Norway—of dramatic, altruistic actions taken by individual nations in the interest of good international citizenship. Third, and as a prod, the growth across the globe of mass support for the new non-violent climate action political movements of the kind pioneered by Bill McKibben’s 350.org.
Despite the daunting difficulty of the present situation, the emergence of this world-wide left-conservative strategy—exemplified in Australia by the struggle of Greenpeace and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition against all new coal development—is one source of hope. It is worth recalling that there was once a time when the struggle against slavery or racism or sexual oppression also seemed hopeless.
No one can however underestimate the magnitude of the challenge. In world history a fundamental turning point was the so-called industrial revolution that began in the United Kingdom in the late eighteenth century and that has expanded since that time to Europe, North America, Japan, East Asia and more recently to China and India. The industrial revolution has brought to ordinary people material living standards undreamt of in the entire previous history of humankind. It began with—some economic historians, like EA Wrigley and Kenneth Pomeranz, would say was in large part caused by—the extensive exploitation of fossil fuels; first the coal that drove the steam engine and later that provided electricity, and then the oil which became fundamental to industrial age transportation. An ever increasing part of humanity has prospered materially within what has been called the new “fossil fuel civilization”.
A quarter of a century ago we learnt that one fundamental source of that prosperity—the burning the fossil fuels buried under the earth’s surface for hundreds of millions of years—was threatening to devastate the stable climate in which human civilization had flourished during the Holocene over the past ten thousand years. A rapid, global-wide, consciously engineered transition from a fossil fuel to a clean energy civilization would involve one of the largest transformations in the history of humankind. The question was posed. Could humankind very rapidly wean itself from the source of energy on which its astonishing material wellbeing had for two centuries been based? We do not yet know what the answer to that question will be.