Friday, October 23, 2009

Copenhagen and Climate Change: hope and hopelessness

Tomorrow, in at least 177 countries, over 4,600 political actions (many of them involving hundreds or thousands of people) will be taken under a single banner. The banner? A number, three hundred and fifty, referring to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (and equivalents) in the atmosphere. This is the level many leading climate scientists (including the head of the IPCC) now say is required to minimise the likelihood of passing various climate tipping points that trigger positive feedback mechanisms virtually ensuring further destructive changes. The challenge? We're currently at about 390 ppm. Even the most rigorous goal for the Copenhagen negotiations stands at 450 ppm, on the assumption that this gives us a better than even chance of limiting average warming to 2ºC, widely quoted as a threshold beyond which the dangers multiply. But even an average warming of 2ºC will have enormous effects on many aspects of climate, not least precipitation patterns (and so agricultural yields) in some of the world's most food-stressed areas. To avoid this, the 350 campaign brings together a huge number of organisations, individuals, congregations and parties from nearly every country, calling for global leaders who will soon meet in Copenhagen (see clock in sidebar) to reach an agreement that is strong, equitable and grounded in the latest science. Today's Sydney Morning Herald includes this opinion piece by Archbishop Desmond Tutu explaining his support for the campaign.
H/T Matt Moffitt and Geoff Broughton for this link.

Personally (provided we are both over a cold that has been dogging us recently), Jessica and I will be going to one of the Edinburgh events tomorrow in order to add our voices and bodies in support of keeping this issue high on the agenda. You can find an event near you here.

However, political support for a strong deal seems to be waning. New polling shows that only 57% of Americans believe the climate is warming (compared to 77% in 2007) and only 36% accept that the human actions are primarily to blame. In Australia, 68% saw climate change as a threat to Australia's vital interests back in 2006, by last year that was still 66%, but is now only 52%.

With national leaders concerned about national interests, every country is out to minimise its costs, particularly since the primary dangers are decades away, well beyond the term of any of those responsible for current negotiations. Different approaches to sharing the burden are also evident between countries that have historically contributed most to emissions and those whose emissions are currently rising fastest.

And there is worse news. Even if leaders manage to agree in Copenhagen to limiting emissions to 450ppm, reaching some kind of compromise between developing and developed nations, then even the most optimistic assumptions about a best case scenario put the chances of actually sticking to anything like that as almost impossible. Clive Hamilton, one of Australia's best known public intellectuals and Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, a joint centre of the Australian National University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Melbourne, in a lecture delivered earlier this week, summarises the situation like this:

It is clear that limiting warming to 2ºC is beyond us; the question now is whether we can limit warming to 4ºC [to see what a 4ºC change might look like, see here, or here]. The conclusion that, even if we act promptly and resolutely, the world is on a path to reach 650 ppm and associated warming of 4°C is almost too frightening to accept. Yet that is the reluctant conclusion of the world’s leading climate scientists. Even with the most optimistic set of assumptions—the ending of deforestation, a halving of emissions associated with food production, global emissions peaking in 2020 and then falling by 3 per cent a year for a few decades—we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change.

- Clive Hamilton, "Is it too late to prevent catastrophic climate change?"

The whole article is worth reading. In it, Hamilton argues that things are worse than we thought. Whereas until recently most policy makers assumed that we could limit change to less than 2ºC and that the effects of that change were "worrying but manageable", new research into the likely negative effects of even 2ºC warming and into the extreme (political, economic and social) difficulty of staying below the 450ppm barrier makes even the most aggressive suggestions currently on the table seem at once both beyond our reach and too little in any case.

So why bother at all? Why campaign for a basically impossible target? Why make the (sometimes painful) lifestyle, legislative and policy changes required to reduce our carbon footprint? If all our efforts will be too little, too late, why not "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die"? A longer answer will probably take much of my thesis to articulate. An excellent 11-page answer by Andrew Cameron in his 2007 report to Sydney Anglican Synod on behalf of the Social Issues Executive can be found here.

But the short answer for an already over-lengthy blog post is found in the context of that famous quote ("eat, drink and be merry") in 1 Corinthians 15, namely the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body. The resurrection of Jesus is a promise and foretaste of the general resurrection of the dead: for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. The distinctively Christian hope of resurrection includes the belief that God has not given up on creation, nor on humanity, and that even our stupid self-destruction cannot ultimately thwart divine love. If God has not given up, neither can we. Our actions may or may not make a difference. Our society may or may not survive in anything like its present form, but living well, with humility and repentance as responsible members of the community of life, is enough.


Matheson said...

Did you see this very recent news about Clive Hamilton?,25197,26249173-601,00.html

byron smith said...

No, I hadn't seen that. Bit of a shame, since I think he's more important as a public intellectual (when Australia has so few of them!) than anything he might do as a (failed) politician. And despite being well-known as a left-wing thinker, aligning himself with a particular party may end up alienating more people from what he says, which is often very significant.

Still, it will be interesting to see how he goes.

Matheson said...

Yes, I agree. And he had just taken up a Professorship of Public Ethics at CAPPE and a chair at Charles Sturt. Potential there for interesting developments in his work.

I wonder whether his move may have something to do with his view that the Labor Party has become irrelevant (since class politics no longer relates to the true problems of late capitalism). And perhaps he sees the Greens becoming a major political force in Australia over the next few years (as in, say, Germany). And with both Bob Brown and Clive Hamilton at the top it does begin to look like a broader church.

Still, as you say, maybe it would be better if he lost the Higgins by-election. Who knows?

byron smith said...

Does he really stand a chance? The ALP are not even putting forward a candidate.

Matheson said...

Yeah, I have no idea. I'm no Joey Lucas. I don't think Costello won with a big margin in the seat at the last election. And without the ALP standing a candidate, perhaps they figured they had a shot?

spike said...

Thanks Byron for one of the most helpful posts that I've read on climate change and a Christian response which holds together the idea of recreation without resorting to fatalism. The most worrying response I've seen from quite a few Christians is "God's got it in hand, so why worry". Jesus said not to worry, but that shouldn't imply inaction.

byron smith said...

Spike - thanks. That is precisely the kind of reaction that I am hoping to argue against in my thesis (God will rescue us, so why bother thinking, let alone acting?). On the other side, I think there is something to say to the desperate activist who says "no time for thinking!".

byron smith said...

Dr Seuss goes to Copenhagen. Brilliant.

byron smith said...

Dark Optimism: Heroes and villains in Copenhagen and beyond. One of the better summaries of Copenhagen I've come across.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Interview with Christiana Figueres on the UN negotiation process. I have a lot of respect for this woman.