Friday, December 21, 2007

Dark Thought on Climate Change

Been reading the coverage of the conference on climate change in Bali, Indonesia, and am struck by the fact that no one is questioning a basic assumption on which the entire international effort on global warming is predicated: that the problem can be fixed by cutting the emission of greenhouse gases. That is somewhat like accepting Gas-ex as appropriate treatment for intestinal cancer. For greenhouse gases, along with a host of other problems, including industrial pollution which now contaminates every part of the planet's surface, the mass poverty of over three billion people, and the highest level of military expenditure in history, are only symptomatic of the core problem: the nature of modern civilization. Unless we change the way we live -- and that means more than adopting "green technology" -- it seems to me there is no way of avoiding general disaster.

The reason why such a large issue has not been raised at the United Nations is that the place is run by diplomats, and as a breed, they are reluctant to do anything that might require breaking with precedent. Outside the UN, those best equipped to make the case are Western leaders and intellectuals, the very people most invested in presenting modern civilization -- their civilization -- as an unprecedented success. To change to a position that it has, in fact, brought the world to a dead end, will require the entire historical narrative of the West to be rewritten, not an easy prospect to face. Non-Westerners trying to make the case face almost unsurmountable obstacles of mistrust and hostility, for we still live in a world of unreconstructed loyalties to race and national culture. But for all that, the issue must be faced honestly.

There was little honesty at the Bali conference. In a situation where the common interest far outweighed the usual international divisions, governments squabbled like four-year olds over all kinds of petty issues. As a result, the "roadmap" the conference agreed upon envisages nothing more than a two-year program of talks to conclude in 2009 with agreement -- it is hoped -- on new targets for (undefined) "deep cuts" in the emission of greenhouse gases. There was little other meaningful action. The conference urged the creation of a new UN fund to help poor countries cope with problems associated with global warming; it recommended pilot projects aimed at finding how best to incorporate forestry into a future emissions-control deal; and it recognized that poor countries will need money to pay for green technologies (without suggesting who might provide it).

Nothing was said about how poor countries were to fit into the overall emissions control effort, and with good reason: there is no way that the three billion people now living in wretched poverty will be able to "develop"to any reasonable level of comfort without skyrocketing emission levels. That unspoken quandary, which the UN has steadfastly ignored for over two decades, is a dangerous one. For if the concept of "development" is not radically changed, the only viable alternative to planetary ecocide is genocide directed at the poor.

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