AS the Copenhagen circus approaches its climax, there is still no guarantee that by the end of this week there will be in place a comprehensive international agreement that will help to change the face of the planet by the middle of the 21st century.
That, effectively, is the challenge: to reduce pollution – particularly carbon dioxide emissions – so drastically that the consequences of decades, even centuries, of neglect can begin to be mitigated in the short run and reversed over a longer period of time.
The monumental scale of the problem can hardly serve as an excuse for inaction, not least in the face of evidence that conditions have demonstrably deteriorated over the past couple of decades, after the gravity of the issues at hand began to be grasped, yet those in the position to do the most took the easy way out of mouthing a few platitudes when the occasion so demanded, without actually doing anything.
The Rio environmental summit of 1992 therefore led to nothing much at all. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol was watered down so that Bill Clinton could bring himself to give it his nod. But it proved worthless as far as the world’s biggest polluter was concerned, because the US never signed the agreement. That in turn offered a pathway to acolytes such as Australia, which resisted doing so until the government of John Howard was, at long last, electorally overthrown 10 years after Kyoto.
The new prime minister in Canberra, Kevin Rudd, promptly signed the Kyoto Protocol, but his government formulated an emissions trading scheme that came pretty close to being meaningless – and, despite that, the main opposition Liberal Party (which, notwithstanding its deceptive nomenclature, is the equivalent of conservative parties elsewhere in the West) felt obliged to dump its leader, who backed a mildly modified version of Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation.
The new leader of the Liberal Party, Tony Abbott, is reluctant to concede that there is any such thing as manmade climate change. Unfortunately, he’s not alone, either in Australia or on a global scale.
Some of the scepticism about anthropogenic climate change is based on the notion that if meteorologists can be notoriously inaccurate about tomorrow’s weather, how could anyone have a reasonable idea about what the world’s climate will be in a decade or five?
Generally speaking, scepticism is a desirable attribute – not least as a counterbalance to religious zeal. And it is not hard to see how the outpourings of some activists opposed to climate change could be interpreted as bordering on fanaticism.
The unmitigated doom-and-gloom scenario inevitably prompts some to see it as an overreaction. The planet’s history, after all, is replete with examples of climate change, some of it fairly drastic. One of the explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs, for instance, holds that they perished in the face of an ice age – for which no one considers the lifestyle of Tyrannosaurus Rex to have been responsible.
What’s more, ecological activists frequently cite drastic events such as cyclones, hurricanes and droughts as evidence of climate change, whereas it is patently obvious that these phenomena have been witnessed for centuries, since long before Milton’s “dark satanic mills” served as the engines of the Industrial Revolution.
Much of that might indeed be indisputable, but it does not explain the frequency and intensity of drastic events in recent years – the combination of drought and floods, for instance, within a limited area, let alone the projected rise in global temperatures over the next 90 years.
The riposte to sceptics generally comprises of the admonition: hey, what if your scepticism is misplaced? Even if there’s a 50 percent, or smaller, chance that the prognostications of disaster are misplaced, doesn’t it make sense to take action that, at worst, won’t do any harm? How can it possibly be counterproductive to reduce pollution, for instance, so that we can all breathe easy.
Opposition to irrefutable arguments such as this comes chiefly from those who pretend to be sceptics but are actually denialists: in other words, those who accept, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that human activities have nothing to do with climate change, and that the whole hullabaloo is an ideologically based conspiracy aimed at a redistribution of wealth.
A prime example of the idiocy associated with such ideas is offered by Charles Krauthammer (any full-blooded Nazi would have been proud of that surname, but I’m not making it up), who noted in his column in The Washington Post last week that whereas the Reagan-Thatcher combine thwarted the campaign for a New International Economic Order (“Opec,” he bizarrely complains, “was pulling off the greatest wealth transfer from rich to poor in history”), a raid on Western pots of gold is again the prime motive behind “essentially taxing hardworking citizens of the democracies to fill the treasuries of Third World kleptocracies”.
That there are kleptocracies in the Third World cannot seriously be doubted. But the governments and treasuries of the so-called democracies in the West also leave a great deal to be desired – not least when it comes to determining who shall pay for their extravagance.
At Copenhagen, most developing counties are demanding compensation for suffering the consequences of what they played a minuscule role in achieving. It takes an extraordinary degree of bloodymindedness to disagree with that conclusion, particularly in the case of nations that literally face the threat of drowning in the foreseeable future. The demand for reparations from those that have contributed the least to global warming unquestionably desrves to be heeded.
Notwithstanding his dangerously mistaken tack on Afghanistan, Barack Obama is no Charles Krauthammer. Nor is Gordon Brown, Kevin Rudd, Angela Merkel or, for that matter, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Not a great deal of faith can be reposed in any of them. But at Copenhagen, they have the opportunity to prove the likes of me and George Monbiot wrong. Let them do so.