Monday, March 31, 2008

More Climate Change Boondogle

Government negotiators who met in Thailand on 31 March to begin talking about how best to continue efforts at controlling global warming should have waited a day; it would have been appropriate to begin their session on April Fool's Day.

As I've noted before (see post of 2-20-08), it is ludicrous to imagine that cutting the emission of greenhouse gases is effective action to protect the world from environmental disaster. Greenhouse gas emissions are only a symptom of disease, not the disease itself. To treat it separately and ignore the underlying malaise is a complete waste of time. The disease in this case is the web of concepts, expectations and activities which constitute what we refer to as "industrial civilization." It's driving force, the virus, if you will, is the giant commercial corporation, guided purely by its own need for profit, no matter how deadly the impact of its activities on human societies and Nature.

Nothing illustrates the prevailing schizophrenia that separates environmental and economic concerns as the national shoving match set in motion by the prospect that under the melting Arctic ice cap lie one quarter of the world's undiscovered oil and gas resources (according to the United States Geological Survey). Russia initially claimed more than half the Arctic Sea, asserting that an undersea projection of its continental shelf brought the North Pole itself within its territory. The claim has been disputed by other Arctic nations, including the United States. (As David Letterman interpreted it: "President Bush was very angry about this. He said the North Pole belongs to Santa.) Canada is spending millions to develop the little used port of Churchill, hoping that the melting ice will bring new shipping routes, fisheries and development. "It's the positive side of global warming, if there is a positive side," Ron Lemieux, the transportation minister of Manitoba, told The New York Times in 2005.

It's not just in the Arctic that environmental and economic trends are in direct opposition. In India, the giant conglomerate Tata, which has just bought the luxury car brand Jaguar, earlier unveiled its $2500 "people's car," the Nano. If even a fraction of India's billion-plus population takes to driving the Nano, we can kiss all emissions targets goodbye. The Chinese are already on the road to mass car-ownership, as participants in the forthcoming Olympics will discover as they gasp in Beijing's sooty air.

At the Bangkok meeting, where representatives from 163 countries will launch a 21-month process to conclude a climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the India-China problem is manifested as a division between developed and developing countries. Developing countries argue that they cannot be held to their much lower emission levels, that there has to be greater equity in trashing the environment. Developed countries, with the United States pilloried as bad boy for speaking frankly, want to continue their current wasteful economic patterns while doffing their hats at the environment.

Everyone is aware that the effort to set targets will be difficult, but the professional optimists who run UN negotiations are upbeat. "With the 2009 deadline, we have just one and half years in which to complete negotiations on what will probably be the most complex international agreement that history has ever seen," Yvo de Boer, the UN official overseeing the talks, told the International Herald Tribune: "and I'm confident that it can be done." Caught in their karmic positions, no one seems to be paying attention to the overall futility of the project: as long as we have a world economy entirely obedient to corporate balance sheets, controlling emissions will do nothing to ameliorate the human assault on the environment.

The current patterns of world trade were established at a time when wind-driven ships were the main means of transportation. The transition to coal and then to oil-powered ships happened without the environmental cost of those resources being factored into the price of traded goods. Today they are still not part of the accounting; if they were, no one in his right mind would think it sensible to produce cheap plastic toys in China and ship them across the oceans so that Walmart could turn a profit.

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