Tuesday, 18 August 2009

August 2009 - What are we going to do at Copenhagen?

Oh, to be a member of the anti-vivisection movement. OK, so standing in the rain on a Saturday afternoon handing out pictures of tortured animals is no-one's idea of fun. But at least their purposes are well defined: they want an end to animal testing. And how would they know when they had succeeded? When animal testing was banned across the world.

By comparison, to be a climate change campaigner is to gradually accept that there is no single 'goal' towards which you are aiming, and that even if there was, you would have no real way of knowing that it has been achieved. Of course, there are any number of climate change campaigns with specific targets, and at Copenhagen, campaigners will push for the United Nations Delegates to agree to keep global temperatures to less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But in general, the green movement has a problem: its not obvious what we're campaigning for.

The upcoming Copenhagen negotiations make this all too clear. Thousands of campaigners will descend on the conference. I will probably be one of them. But when we are there, what will we do? At the rarefied level of international negotiations, we find not a global problem waiting to be solved but a jumbled projection of human problems rolled into one. Powerful commercial interests will lobby for exemptions from emissions reductions. Corrupt governments will seek to leverage more power from regulatory authority. Opportunistic investors will invent financial instruments to cash in on carbon markets. These are all problems that a global cap on greenhouse gas emissions will do nothing to alleviate. So what are we fighting for - an idealised level of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations? Preventing a 2 degree rise in global temperatures means nothing without an equitable mechanism for making this happen.

Are we for or against carbon trading? Is the scheme to reduced emissions from deforestation and degredation (REDD) a way of preserving the Amazon or a land-grab? Should the world be investing in high-tech infrastructure to adapt to inevitable climate change or throwing everything we've got into stopping any more from happening? These are questions that climate change campaigners have opinions on - the problem is, our opinions often differ.

In an eye-opening piece in the Guardian earlier this week, Andy Beckett asked why the political Left had not seized the opportunity presented to them by the global recession and the exposure of laissez-faire capitalism for the cut-throat casino that it is. The conclusion he reached was depressingly familiar: there simply isn't a coherent set of ideas that can wrestle power away from growth-based capitalism. Despite being exposed as a delusional sham, it remains - for all intents and purposes - the only game in town: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/aug/17/left-politics-capitalism-recession

Beckett pondered whether the increasing political focus on climate change and environmental sustainability would provide some structure for the Left's shapeless ideas. But if the Left are looking to the Green movement for an ideological framework, then they've come to the wrong place: as Mike Hulme powerfully demonstrates in his book Why We Disagree about Climate Change, this is a place for all of humanity's previous disputes and disagreements to be played out again and again.

The NGOs are starting to mobilise support for their Copenhagen campaigns - there will be no shortage of demands made, no lack of enthusiastic pressure for a 'strong' agreement to be reached. But its difficult to shake the feeling that the Copenhagen conference will be predominantly political theatre, played out on the world's biggest stage. While some crucial milestones are yet to be passed (the final position taken by the US, for example), COP15 may be significant not because key decisions are made there, but because they are formalised there. So what role for the activists on the outside? Will we simply be playing our role in the political theatre?

Whinging that climate change is a complex and multi-faceted problem is not going to make it go away. The activists that go to Copenhagen will do so with passion and conviction, and hope for a fair and sustainable future. But with only a few months to go until supposedly the world's most important meeting begins, there is a chorus of overlapping and sometimes contradictory voices where (ideally) a coherent position should be.

Do we know what we are campaigning for at Copenhagen?


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