Sunday, December 4, 2011

King Cnut and the Rising Tide

Storm surges have left parts of Denmark under water this week

I know it no longer gets as much media attention as it used to but global warming has been back in the news again lately with the COP17 meeting in Durban. Of course, you could be forgiven for not noticing it as it hasn't received as much press coverage partly because of lowered expectations that anything can be achieved by world leaders but also because the anti global warming talking heads have convinced enough people that it's a non-issue cooked up by greedy scientists and megalomaniac one world order socialists.

So it's all the more ironic that almost two years to the day after the Copenhagen talks ended Mother Nature has served a reminder of just who runs the show. A few days ago a powerful storm swept down from the North Atlantic, passing over Denmark as it continued south. The resultant storm surge saw sea levels rise quite dramatically around the coastlines and a number of areas were flooded, including Copenhagen's picturesque Nyhavn tourist area. Not since King Cnut has anybody seen anything quite like it before and, strangely, even though the storm was over several days ago sea levels remain high. I took the picture at the top of this post on a walk to my nearby beach this morning and you can see the rocks that act as sea defences are still, well, defenceless (and yes, that's an oil fired power station and incineration plant in the background).

Rising sea levels are of particular concern here because it is a pretty flat low country. Where I live is one metre above sea level, so even if the more modest predictions come true then where I am currently typing this blog will be part of the Baltic Sea before too long. Of course, readers of the Spectator would rubbish this claim, if they'd taken any notice of this week's cover story which claimed sea rises are, yes, a scam.

And there lies the dark irony because it was at the COP15 talks here two years ago that the world learned that political leaders are particularly useless when it comes to acting for the common good of securing (and acting upon) a deal to phase out hydrocarbons. A powerful binary has been created that says we can either save the planet or save the economy. Of course, even my six-year-old daughter could point out that the economy is part of the planet and not the other way around, but politicians and business leaders insist that this isn't so and we need to 'fix the economy' before we can 'fix the environment'. We are told this relentlessly. Just in the last week, by way of example, we have had in the news:

  • UK chancellor George Osborne telling us that protecting the environment places a 'ridiculous' cost on businesses.
  • A plan to apply a small tax on airplane departures will apparently damage the economy.
  • US Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich mocking President Obama for delaying the Canada to Texas oil pipeline, implying he was a flake for heeding environmental concerns above economic ones.

So, if you believe all this, we can either have an economy with jobs or we can have a habitable planet. Relatively few question the assumption that we can have a third option - an economy without growth that could provide for us reasonably well without distorting the biosphere. But that's not up for discussion at present because all politicians can talk about is this magic thing called 'growth'.

We all know what growth is, of course, but most people don't realise that it has only been the aim of economic policy-makers since the end of the last world war. Before then we were quite happily going along without any explicit attempt to fuel it. But with the de-hitching of the money supply from anything of value (e.g. gold) and letting financiers write their own rules, we've seen an explosion of fractional reserve banking and consumers being led by the nose into unsustainable high-debt lifestyles. Why has this happened?

Italian Peak Oil writer Ugo Bardi has a pretty good answer. In his recent essay 'Why is Economic Growth so Popular?' he points out that with a ready abundance of cheap energy at hand the path of least resistance is always to exploit non-renewable resources in the short term at the expense of the long term. If the economy hits a sticky patch on its upward trajectory the political pressure is there to offer stimulus packages to the most exploitative and short-termist industrialists in order to get the ball rolling again, whatever environmental damage it causes.

And that's part of the reason any top-down conferences on what to do about the predicament of global warming will always end in failure. National governments, who for the most part are elected by individual voters, can only ever retain their power by maintaining their unholy pact with the voters, who by and large demand a higher standard of living. I can't personally think of any election won on the promise of 'less jobs and a lower income for all!'

I was there at the COP15 two years ago and witnessed the wheels coming off first hand. I had convinced the publisher of the newspaper where I worked that we should print a daily newspaper covering the conference. He refused at first, but when it got closer and he became aware of what a big deal it was he smelled money in the air and agreed to let me go ahead with it – provided I was 'neutral' in my editorial tone (of course I wasn't, but his English skills were not too hot and so …). We were just a small newspaper normally, run from an office in an ex-slaughterhouse in the red light district area of the city. Our audience was normally comprised of disgruntled expats, multinational employees on hardship postings out in the wilds of Jutland and the pampered diplomatic classes, whose functions we were expected to attend and photograph. All in all it was not dissimilar to the fictional Rome newspaper in Tom Rachman's excellent book The Imperfectionists. So it was quite a change to suddenly find ourselves at the centre of the then biggest media event on the planet.

It was a surreal couple of weeks. The city suddenly became more multicultural than it had ever been, with huge numbers of protesters from all over the world, including in their numbers plenty of indigenous folks from far mountain kingdoms and perpetually shivering tropical islanders in their thin polyester suits. Our normally placid office became a round the clock hive of activity with swarms of journalists and distributors traipsing in and out. We worked feverishly, sending the final proofs to the printers close to midnight and picking up 20,000 copies way before dawn broke so that the army of distributors on bikes could get them out to every corner of the city.

We interviewed everyone from Nobel Laureates and landless Amazonians to film makers and film stars (yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger was there, advising us that the only way out of the impasse was to give more power to big business). I got to meet and talk to some of my then environmental heroes, such as Bill McKibben and a pre-nuclear George Monbiot, and I'll never forget the phone call from the Israeli Embassy saying that Shimon Peres wanted to talk to us about his new electric car scheme. One day, introducing myself to a tired-looking man hunched over a laptop at the next desk whom I assumed to be a streetwalker feeding off our WiFi connection, I found out I was talking to the editor of Politico. “Are you always this busy?” he asked.

But all this is not just to walk down memory lane and air a few choice anecdotes. I remember the distinct mounting excitement among invited delegates that Obama was going to fly in at the end and strike a historic deal that would save us all from damnation. I wasn't so sure. The news leaking out of the conference centre was not good and the over zealous Danish police had spent two weeks cracking down hard on peaceful protesters, leading to a frustrated feeling of betrayal in the air. The night before the end of the conference we received a leaked email detailing a plan to railroad a deal through that favoured the big industrialised nations at the expense of the smaller ones. So, predictably enough, when Obama did finally arrive on his big blue plane there was simply no way the US and the Chinese were going to sign anything that remotely committed them to a binding deal. Obama was shunned by the Chinese, and the only thing that prevented him from looking a total fool was the Danish hosts' fig leaf of a treaty aka the Copenhagen Accord.

The conference had ended with a whimper and the clean up crews got straight to work erasing every trace of the fact that the city had been occupied by an unruly army of people whose cause for optimism had been crushed. Polar bear suits were retuned to rental shops to be dry cleaned and a wheelie bin outside our office was full of signs that said 'Stop Global Warming!'.

The two years since Copenhagen have lead many campaigners to despair. What is the point of protesting if you just end up in a 'free speech zone' kettled in by the police and ignored by the media? What hope, they ask, do we have if neither individuals nor government are prepared to act?

It's a good question and I'm not claiming to know the answer. Maybe we can hope that consumerism dies and is replaced by something more connected to the natural cycles of the Earth. Stranger things have happened in history – but even so, consumerism is a relatively recent phenomenon and, malevolent as it is, an end to consumerism won't mean an end to resource over-exploitation. Some believe that a return to a monastic way of life could be our saving grace, but my pessimistic side tells me that's not likely to happen any time soon.

But perhaps there's a silver lining in the dark cloud that is Peak Oil. The direst predictions of environmentalists such as James Hansen all assume that we will be accelerating our extraction and use of fossil fuels far into the future. Peak Oil tells us that we can't and won't. Indeed, the more one looks into the idea of the decline or collapse of industrial civilisation the more one can see that the forces which power our most rapacious technologies are running out of steam and running out of supporting resources. Furthermore, given that many energy sources, such as coal, have a high level of fossil fuel subsidy in the form of oil, could we soon see these becoming unproductive? Is that why China is importing so much coal right now?

Whatever, given what we know of the likely climate and energy situations we know that we will be hit hard. The question is, do we as individuals let ourselves be knocked down by it, or do we try to roll with the punch? The choice, unlike the fate of global climate deals, is up to us.

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