Clock Running Out on Irreversible Climate Change – Part II

The coming negotiations over the successor to the Kyoto Protocol appear doomed as states express more concern about their narrow rights than the planet’s health. Bo Ekman, founder of Tällberg Forum, argues for developing fallback policies that global citizens must consider in the event of failure of the Copenhagen Process. Ekman fears that the “world will descend into eco-protectionism, where struggles over food, water, fuels, and biomass overshadow any principle of solidarity.” To avert disastrous climate change that would ensue, mankind must take steps that for many seem politically impossible. The seeming impossibility, however, does not change the fact that immediate global action is necessary to secure the world as we know it. Our environment is indifferent to human development and survival, and one cannot negotiate with nature. Humans must take full responsibility for both their development and survival – and decrease our environmental footprint far more than most governments or citizens are prepared to do. The demands of human civilization are colliding with our environment, and civilization must yield in order to preserve itself. – YaleGlobal

Clock Running Out on Irreversible Climate Change – Part II

To fight climate change, environmental necessity must trump political convenience
Bo Ekman
Friday, April 18, 2008
Shrinking planet: Walrus sits on a precarious perch as arctic ice sheets melt

and the scramble for energy grows all over the world (top); Chinese citizens queue

for diesel fuel (bottom)

STOCKHOLM: To all intents and purposes, the Kyoto Protocol is dead, and unless urgent actions are taken its successor, the Copenhagen process may turn out to be dead on arrival or comatose. Kyoto never delivered reductions of CO2 emissions, but still binds 174 nations until 2012. Meanwhile, global greenhouse gas emissions have steadily increased since the reference year of 1990.

New negotiations for “Kyoto 2” must produce nothing less than the Perfect Agreement, to be followed by Perfect Implementation. The clear and present danger is that the Copenhagen process will deliver a compromise between nations that will fall far short of this ambition.

Repeatedly events have shown failure of collective governance in dealing with political adventurism sheltered by the principle of sovereignty. The war in Iraq, the occupation of the West Bank or repression in Tibet, the horrific tragedy of Darfur or painful madness of Zimbabwe, the concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the global arsenal of 27,000 nuclear warheads, show that the international vehicles of today are no stronger nor more dependable than any time in the past. Trust levels are low within international systems; paranoia and citizen surveillance and nationalism are at a high. Thus the Copenhagen process takes place in an atmosphere of institutional distrust and competition. No nation wants to emerge as loser before their national audiences.

The loser will be nature; the biosphere with which none of us can strike a deal. Nature is represented at the negotiating table only through the analyses of the IPCC reports of 2007. No new reports are due until 2010, but science does not wait. However, while James Hansen of NASA now convincingly shows that humanity must reverse the atmospheric content of CO2 from today’s 385 parts per million (ppm) to 350 ppm – itself a Herculean task – nations and negotiators aim for targets of 450 to 500 ppm and the illusionary governance ability to limit the increase of temperature to a maximum of 2 degrees centigrade. This will prove as unfeasible as the stamping out of humans cheating one another.

Targets are defined according to what is judged as politically possible in the short term and economically desirable, rather than what is required to guarantee a stable ecosystem in the long-term. Current scientific knowledge starkly presents “350 ppm” as a boundary condition in Nature that humankind should not have transgressed. It marks the point beyond which we can no longer be sure to maintain the stability and predictability of nature. This stability was the most important prerequisite for the evolution of human civilization over the last 10 000 years. There are several more boundary conditions that we should avoid transgressing: limits to fresh water use, fishing, deforestation, toxic waste, land use and misuse of other biodiverse ecosystems such as wetlands. These limits must be defined, never to be surpassed.

Safely keeping human activity within nature’s boundary conditions does not necessarily mean limits to growth – humans have always been a flexible and creative species. But surpassing those boundaries will, with absolute certainty, result in economic and social decline. The biosphere is a complex, adaptive system evolving to support life. Civilization is a human-designed system whose purpose is to create secure economic, social and cultural value. This system is built upon the combination of technology, energy and ecosystem “services”, i.e., outputs of water, biomass, food, minerals and breathable air. These two systems – biosphere and civilization – are no longer synchronized at the global scale. They are, in fact, colliding.

Humankind is overextending earth’s annual biocapacity by 125 percent. Short-term consequences will increase prices for energy, food, water and resources for the ever-growing global population. Long-term consequences could be devastating to all forms of life on the planet. This is why we can accept nothing less than the Perfect Agreement from the Copenhagen process. We can only bind our future to an agreement that secures, with prudent margins for time eternal, the intricate internal balances and interactions of nature’s systems.

The world has extremely complex systems problems but we have no matching forms of governance to correct them. We need to move from soft to hard global governance, from “Global Compact” to “Global Contract.” The Copenhagen process could provide such an opportunity.

It must therefore be redefined, redesigned and rescheduled. Above all its targets must be stated with clarity and leaders of nations must morally and operationally rise to this occasion. The declarations on climate change spoken in the General Assembly on September 24, 2007, by hundreds of heads of states were badly matched by the discouraging performance at Bali.

The expected compromise of Copenhagen we call Plan A. Each nation’s fallback plan prioritising its own interests is a Plan B. If there’s no credible Plan A, the world will descend into eco-protectionism, where struggles over food, water, fuels, and biomass overshadow any principle of solidarity.

The Tällberg Foundation has taken the initiative to develop a Plan C, a shadow plan for Kyoto 2. We will suggest an idealized design of the Perfect Agreement, with mechanisms for Perfect Implementation. It will be based on the definition of those natural boundary conditions we must not transgress, and will guide the moral imperatives of a leadership acting in the interests of the whole.

Nature is neither a political nor an economic system. Nature is neither ideological nor religious. Nature is simply nature and Homo sapiens is a product of Nature. Brian Arthur, the brilliant Irish economist, observes in his forthcoming book on the theory of technology that technology brings hope but that trust can only be achieved through our conscious relationship with nature. Trust and hope must be fundamental ingredients in our vision of the future and the redesign of the Kyoto agreement.

The easy way out for many is the elusive promise of new technology, with the wisdom of market forces like cap-and-trade systems. We may remember that it was earlier generations of technologies and market mechanisms that created the current problems. Modern society put its hope in technology rather than trust in nature, fixated by the idea that if only new technologies yield a competitive financial Return on Investment (ROI) the market will fix the environmental mess.

The reality is that the financial markets never fix recurrent failures. The market did not fix apartheid, fascism or World War II. Politics did. Governance did. The yield of good politics is another kind of ROI, the Return on Insight. We own the necessary insight into the acute and massive ecosystems crises but not yet the responsible politics needed. Let’s invent them.

We need a new global deal that combines trust with hope. The patrolling and defense of nature’s boundary conditions is a political assignment. Its implementation will demand law-enforcement regimes that, by design, infringe on the sovereignty of nations and their monopolies of military and police force, and of natural resources. Political insight will not, however, be applied without a thundering tsunami of global, enlightened public opinion demanding solutions to the question “How on earth can we live together – we the humans, we with nature?”

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Bo Ekman is founder and chairman of the Tällberg Foundation, an organization dedicated to sustainable globalization and the creation of a secure relationship between man and nature.

© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization