CPA Newsletter Oct 2021 - Climate Crisis Digest: Is This the Best We Can Do? Some reflections a month ahead of COP26

Peter Carter, IPCC expert reviewer and Director of the Climate Emergency Institute, in an interview with Nick Breeze at COP 25, Madrid, argued that the COP process was set up to fail.

A Very Brief Summary

His point was that, regardless of what the science is telling us, the political structure of the conferences means that states with a heavy economic dependence on fossil fuels have the power to veto the wishes of the majority.

Individually Determined Contributions (IDC’s) were part of the formula which had enabled the Paris COP to succeed politically.  But as Kevin Anderson, George Monbiot and others made clear, Paris was not a success in terms of the science – the formula leant heavily on unproven Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).  Barack Obama subsequently stressed the need for a ratchetting up of international commitments. Instead, we got Trump and an unwinding of US-Sino co-operation. 

It has become ever clearer from extreme weather around the world that the current 1.2 degrees of heating is already triggering climate chaos and that the Paris target of between 1.5 and 2 degrees is distinctly unsafe. Further, current policy is a recipe for a plainly catastrophic level around 2.9 degrees. Pledges from the USA and elsewhere since Biden’s election have improved the picture slightly, but we are still on a disaster course. So far, so familiar.

Photo Credit: Mike Baumeister (unsplash)

A Parallel

What Carter says about COP broadly mirrors the stranglehold which fossil-fuelled interests coupled with fossil-fuelled dependence have continued to exercise in nation states since the balloon went up in the 1980’s, despite growing protest, alarm calls and the dramatically falling prices of renewable energy.

Perhaps the most troubling factor is the lack of a unifying narrative, not just between the psycho-social positions of care and uncare (so ably described by Sally Weintrobe) but of a kind that could build common cause among those who are engaged with the climate and ecological emergencies. This incoherence can allow the real uncarers to ride a coach and horses through widely shared values of social justice and concern for the greater-than-human world. At root, the incoherence stems from a mindset which treats climate change as the problem rather than a symptom (a potentially fatal one) of a wider disconnect.

Underlying that lack of unity are some real dilemmas that are hard to resolve.  For instance, what could be called mainstream environmentalism fights shy (like almost everyone else) of spelling out what those in the rich world need to give up, for the sake of both justice and any hope of a stabilised Earth System. It wants to nudge and coax people into better habits (thereby influencing producers and their advertisers). Eat a bit less meat; fly a bit less; think about getting an EV; go for that home insulation; buy less stuff; resist the temptation to go for the latest iPhone.

These can be seen as moves in the right direction, but they are unsuited to a time of emergency. Woe betide, however, an alarming message like the need for some real sacrifices.

My emphasis on the individual citizen as consumer highlights another source of disagreement and confusion. I believe this is an unnecessary paradox. Yes, a handful of mega-corporations are responsible for most of the world’s emissions.  Michael Mann is probably right that pushing responsibility onto us as individuals is a sly trick to distract attention from the greatest sources of harm. But isn’t it also true that this argument threatens to rob us, collectively as individuals, of our agency?


The Population Minefield

If there was a heat and confusion prize, this subject would be a contender.  How can any effort at a comprehensive limiting of growth ignore it? Justice demands that women’s right to education and control over their own fertility is the route to population control, also that the issue should never be divorced from the huge discrepancies in consumption and emissions between rich and poor countries.  Afghanistan is a reminder that any illusions of Western hegemony are fading.  And there has been much foot-dragging in the West over the proposition that, as the greatest cumulative consumers and emitters, Westerners’ responsibility for change exceeds that of more populous countries. In the meantime, although global population growth has slowed since the 1960’s it is still running at over 1% per annum – around 80 million, well over the population of the UK.  Meanwhile, agricultural land, fresh water and Nature are under mounting pressure. 


Renewable Energy

One of the ugliest recent clashes in our own proverbial back yard was over the Michael Moore-Jeff Gibbs film Planet of the Humans, a hatchet job on renewable energy released for Earth Day 2020. Branded “dangerous, destructive and misleading” by some environmentalists and scientists, it was refuted in a clear and dignified way by Bill McKibben, one of the film’s targets. Its inaccuracies obscured what could and probably should have been a really important message: that renewables are not a magical answer to humankind’s profligate energy use and that we cannot simply continue business as usual, substituting wind and solar for fossil fuels.

Richard Heinberg, founder of the Post-Carbon Institute and one of the inspirations behind the Transition movement, makes a reasoned case for some of the points behind the film.

The psychological take on this and the earlier controversies mentioned is that we need to be aware of “sacred cows” and “solutions” to the existential threats arising from the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene epoch which has come in its wake.

So what of COP 26?

None of us can predict the outcome with certainty, any more than we can predict tipping points in the climate system.  Neither past form nor the COP structure inspire great confidence. But the Earth’s mood music has got louder, as have the voices of dismay and protest.  The way forward is strewn with obstacles.  Much of the leadership on offer is unconvincing. But have we reached a point where things have got bad enough to create a situation where leaders might surprise us? We’ll soon know. 

 Written by Adrian Tait - founding member of Climate Psychology Alliance.

Thank you to Adrian for stepping in at the last minute to write this when a plan for the October Digest fell through. (Wendy Hollway, editor).

Lead image Photo Credit: Chris Le Boutillier (unsplash)

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