Peace in our time?
Why international negotiations will never stop climate change and what can be done instead.
Like many historical quotations, Neville Chamberlain's famous comment after his Munich negotiations with Adolph Hitler is usually misremembered. It was actually Peace for our time. Regardless of the wording, the Munich Agreement will be remembered for centuries as a disastrous international negotiation that did nothing to head off World War II, which broke out about a year later.
The December 2007 negotiations in Bali to end the war against our planet's atmosphere are unlikely to be remembered in the same light (if they are remembered at all), but as the Economist pointed out recently, Bali was more about political theatre than serious greenhouse gas reductions. Expectations were set so low that it seemed a victory that there will be another meeting next year.
Some blame the inaction on the U.S. delegation, which certainly seemed to play the cartoon villain. But in fact there are more fundamental problems with the climate negotiation process that even many NGOs seem to have trouble accepting. Like the party magician who uses glib patter and colourful handkerchiefs to divert attention from the cards he slips from beneath his sleeve, the climate negotiations are largely an attempt to distract the global public with a sense of hope, and to disguise the hard fact that most governments are in reality doing little or nothing to reduce emissions.
Subsidised oil and coal companies continue to drill and dig unimpeded and radical changes to electricity and transportation systems remain the stuff of science fiction. The real story is that the wasteful energy consumption begun in the West is now spreading world wide, as the example of the new super-cheap Tato Nano car reveals.
Even Germany, often considered the world leader in greenhouse gas reductions, objects to measures disliked by its own car industry.
The truth is that changing the global energy system will be very hard and many specific measures, like more regulation and increasing energy prices, will be unpopular. Most governments, even undemocratic ones, don't want to be that unpopular. And so they fly large delegations to the climate negotiations each year and nod sagely at each alarming scientific report, but in reality, do little or nothing.
So what is to be done?
A lot can be learned from another very hard international campaign - the campaign to end tobacco smoking. The famous report "Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service" was published in the United States in 1964. It confirmed with massive scientific evidence previous statements from US Surgeon Generals in the late 1950s connecting smoking, lung cancer and other serious illnesses.
More than 40 years has passed since this report was published and millions of people have died horrible deaths from tobacco-related illnesses (including my own grandfather when I was ten years old, a terrible event I shall never forget). The tobacco industry has not been banned. As the World Health Organization reminds us, every eight seconds someone dies from tobacco use and the percentage of smokers continues to rise in the developing world.
As I said, the campaign is very hard.
Nevertheless, progress has been made in North America, and increasingly in the European Union. The population of adult smokers has declined to below 25% in some western countries. How has this been achieved?
The main tactic has been to undercut the popular support for smoking that made government action difficult or impossible.
In part, this has been done by education - but education was not enough. At least at the beginning, the campaign progressed restaurant by restaurant, workplace by workplace - creating small and then expanding smoke free areas. Eventually this led to almost complete smoking bans in public buildings in several western countries. As the area for smoking shrank, the willingness to criticise smokers and the social stigma they endured increased. Eventually it became politically possible to introduce some (weak) forms of public regulation like tobacco taxes, advertising bans and prominent health warnings.
Implications for climate campaigning
If, as I argue, there are parallels with the tobacco campaign, what are the implications for climate campaigners? I think there are three:
- Science does not drive the campaign. The scientific facts about the health impacts of tobacco have been known for over 50 years, and officially accepted by many governments for at least 40 years. And yet governments have done little to restrict tobacco use until recently, and even then, only in a few western countries. The IPCC reports have played a similar role in climate - the information they present is useful ammunition but will never in itself win the campaign.
- Dirty energy consumption must be made unpopular before governments take action. Even the limited success seen so far in the campaign against tobacco was only made possible by measures that made tobacco unpopular. This not only included education but local campaigns to restrict areas where smoking could occur and to empower non-smokers who were previously too polite or intimidated to take action. Similarly, climate campaigns must overtly work to create conflict by building expanding areas of climate-friendly energy consumption. Only by creating these clear choices will dirty energy consumption become unpopular.
- Large, local campaigns are essential for success. The initial successes in the tobacco campaign were won restaurant by restaurant and office by office. No matter what people tell pollsters, true support for clean energy is still found only among a minority. That minority must be identified, empowered, and encouraged to create clear boundaries and conflict between clean and dirty energy choices. The first real climate successes will be won wind turbine by solar panel, airport by SUV.
If I'm right, the climate negotiations are only useful as a source of publicity. The real action will take place more locally, and even local successes will take massive resources and effort. We must be prepared to fight a kind of ground war against dirty energy.
The Internet can play a crucial role in helping to mobilise people and involve them in real world campaigns, like the Stop Heathrow effort led by Greenpeace UK against Heathrow airport expansion. It can help to spread successful local initiatives in one location to every town and city. We're very lucky to have new tools like the Internet to organise this campaign. Perhaps we will not have to wait more than 40 years to see real action on climate ...
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