Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Climate talks in Durban

Have you been watching the latest David Attenborough series, Frozen Planet? One of the features of the programmes is the discussion of what happens to the wildlife as the ice cover recedes, at both poles. In the new Radio Times (out today, for next week's programmes) Attenborough writes 'a powerful message to the world leaders as they meet in Durban to discuss climate change'.

Accompanied by two of the stunning photographs we have come to expect from this series, he tells us that:

- the north polar ice is thinning from above and from below, and breaking up sooner and for longer each year
- the lack of ice inhibits the polar bears' hunting, so that a mother gives birth when she is in poor condition herself, raising the likelihood that her cubs won't survive
- the loss of south polar ice has been good for the king penguins of St Andrew's bay, South Georgia (they have more beach habitat, which suits them); but disastrous for Adélie penguins on the southern part of the antarctic peninsula (they rely on ice-loving krill for food)
- the loss of ice reduces the reflectivity of the planet, bouncing less of the sun's energy back into space, allowing more heat to warm the climate
- the melting water from the ice caps raises the sea level and affects the circulation of the ocean currents, changing weather patterns all over the world
- the antarctic Wilkins ice shelf (that used to be the size of Jamaica) started to break up in 2008; by the time of filming Frozen Planet it was just a litter of floating icebergs. A likely next break-up is one of the ice-shelves that acts as a 'plug', holding back the huge glaciers esting on the continental land itself . . . once one of these plugs melts, immense quantities of ice will start to flow into the sea, causing major sea-level rises all over the world . . . and half the world's population lives in coastal areas vulnerable to flooding in such a scenario.

For many years, climate campaigners have been urging Attenborough to speak out because he has the 'ear' and the trust of a huge public. But precisely because of that trust, he was reluctant to speak for a long time - he had to be certain, to get past any doubts about the science. He was wary of abusing trust he had. But Frozen Planet is now his platform from which to speak. In the seven episodes he has charted the ice, the oceans, the wildlife, the plants, the people . . . and the rapid changes now ocurring, faster than almost anyone had predicted.

So, in these circumstances, what can we expect from the Durban talks? Not a lot, if news reporting is to be believed. In the middle of last month, John Ashton (the Foreign Office's special representative for climate change), wrote in The Guardian that there is 'no plan B':
The lesson the world is learning the hard way from the financial crisis is that there is only one boat and we are all in it. To stay afloat, we need rules tough enough to stop systemic risks becoming systemic collapses. This lesson is as true for the environment as it is for the economy. A key battle in the campaign to build an effective system of global rules will shortly take place in Durban, where the UN climate negotiations reopen at the end of this month. The International Energy Agency [IEA] has set the scene, with the timely warning in its new World Energy Outlook that we are way off track to avoid dangerous climate change, and that the window for effective action is closing fast.

There really is no plan B for the climate. A voluntary framework will not be enough to keep us within the 2C limit of manageable climate change. Unmanageable climate change will precipitate systemic collapses, including of our food and water security. Success or failure will depend on governments convincing investors that they are determined to enact the policies necessary to drive private capital towards a low-carbon future. In the boardroom a voluntary pledge from a government sounds rather like "maybe".
The IEA report that Ashton refers to is significant - the IEA is a respected organisation, known for its caution and its careful assessment of long-term trends. The point being made in this report is that the infrastructure we are building now will lock us into those fuel consumption patterns for decades to come. Power stations built now will be emitting CO2 for a long time. So, to be building climate-changing power sources at this time is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing. Our infrastructure plans need to be way ahead, not lagging behind, in terms of limiting carbon emissions.

It should be encouraging that Ashton, on behalf of the UK coalition government, wrote (later in the same article):
Success or failure will depend on governments convincing investors that they are determined to enact the policies necessary to drive private capital towards a low-carbon future. In the boardroom a voluntary pledge from a government sounds rather like 'maybe'. That's why in the UK we have set legally binding carbon budgets through the Climate Change Act.
And similarly, it should be encouraging that Chris Huhne, the government's Energy Secretary, claims that a
'new global climate change treaty is not a luxury'. However, a recent Freedom of Information request has revealed that the UK coalition government is actively supporting the Canadian government to try to head off unfavourable treatment of the oil extracted from the tar sands there. The proposal is that this oil should carry a higher carbon 'tariff' because of the pollution created by its extraction and refinement. This would make it unattractive to other countries not wanting to import such a carbon burden into their own economies. This obviously impacts on the economics of extracting the oil

Nasa scientist James Hansen says if the oil sands were exploited as projected it would be "game over for the climate"

The prognostications for the Durban talks have not been good - reports of major players wanting a 'voluntary' arrangement, of postponing doing anything until 2020, and so on. National politics constrain international action - we all know that Obama can't deliver a ratification of any treaty because the Republican-controlled House of Representatives won't agree. And if the rich industrialised countries won't restrain their emissions, the rest of the world won't offer to restrain its pace of economic growth. And governments around the world, in these times of economic difficulty, see clearly that their electorates don't put climate change at the top of their lists of concerns . . . or indeed anywhere on their lists of concerns. Governments know they won't get re-elected by significantly increasing the costs of petrol, diesel, gas, electricity . . . and hence the costs of all goods manufactured or transported using fossil fuels.
The one glimmer of new positive action has been that developing countries are working together to highlight their situation. John Vidal reported that:
Diplomats from some developing countries may "occupy" the UN climate negotiations that begin on Monday in Durban by staging sit-ins and boycotts over the lack of urgency in the talks.
The move follows a call by the former president of Costa Rica for vulnerable countries to refuse to leave the talks until "substantial" progress has been made.
José María Figueres (Costa Rica) said:
We went to Copenhagen [in 2009] with the illusion we could reach an equitable agreement. We went to Cancún [in 2009] where we saw slight but not sufficient progress. Frustration is now deep and building. Now we hear that we will need more conferences. Sometime we have to get serious. We should be going to Durban with the firm conviction that we do not come back until we have made substantial advances.
The Alliance of Small Island States, which represents some of the countries most at risk from global warming, has called any moves to delay a new treaty "reckless and irresponsible".

James Hansen (mentioned above) was the person who first said that the ice caps would respond quickly to global warming, and he was right. His stark message in his most recent book may be summed up as this: the situation is worse than we are being told, your governments are lying through their teeth, nothing is being done, you can’t compromise with nature and the laws of physics; consequently, civil resistance may soon be the only way forward – it is up to you. It was published before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, and the outcomes of that event gave us nothing with which to challenge his message.

It was echoed, following the 2010 Cancún Climate Summit, by Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican activist and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca, Mexico. He writes:
In the efforts to protect our planet from ourselves, the high level talks at Cancún were our last chance … and they failed. But we can learn from this sad episode: we must stop asking governments and international organisations for solutions that they don’t want to – and can’t – implement . . . All governments, even the most majestic, are composed of ordinary mortals, trapped in bureaucratic labyrinths and fighting vested interests that tie their hands, heads and wills . . . We must look . . . to the people, and what we can do ourselves . . . The time has come to change the system, not the planet. That depends on us, not on those who gain status and income from the system.
 There are many things we can do before we get to the point of civil disobedience, but the recent wave of 'Occupy' movements around the world show that there are significant numbers of people willing to take that step. We can all take action on our own carbon emissions. We can all set a good example to others. And we all need to take steps in relation to both local and national politics to help ensure that climate and environmental campaigns remain in the forefront of people's and politicians minds.


  1. Pam

    That's a great analysis. We need to do more to connect our local action with the global politics.


  2. Tonight (7 December) was the final episode in Attenborough's 'Frozen Planet' series. It was called 'Thin Ice' and documented the huge and rapid loss of ice at both poles. Showing the High Arctic free of sea ice, and the oil rigs in place, Attenborough pointed out that this catastrophic (for the whole planet) loss of ice is providing opportunities for oil prospectors to extract even more oil... and burning it will cause even more warming. And in today's Guardian, in its TV review article, it's reported that this final episode is not being shown in the USA. The series there will end with episode six, about the people living and working at the poles. 'Sickening' is the word used about this in The Guardian - I agree.