12 june 2009

Blame games on climate change

Nick Mabey and Malini Mehra,, Friday 12 June 2009

If nations can rise above past conflicts, why can't they work together at the climate change talks in Bonn?

This year was meant to be the year of climate change. Yet UN negotiations in Bonn this week towards a global climate agreement in Copenhagen (COP15) in December are stalling amid a flurry of weak commitments and recriminations. This combined with economic anxiety about pledging assistance to poorer countries is threatening to bring progress to a halt. If COP15 is to succeed, climate negotiators will have to learn lessons from the world of peacemaking and raise their game accordingly.

At present, climate negotiations are a parody of trade talks, with countries jockeying for advantage, and demanding the most from others while taking the least action possible themselves. The debate over "historical responsibility" has clouded focus and undermined the fragile trust between countries that climate change is a common problem that all must commit to solving.

Business as usual will not deliver the cuts needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Neither will politics as usual. Negotiators do not seem to realise that the Earth's climate system is not interested in their clever ploys or claims of action. It is only interested in the amount of greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere. The cry that it is "not fair" to ask China and India to limit their emissions makes no difference to the atmosphere. Every country will need to act radically if we are to avoid devastating impacts. This means that global emissions must drop by 60-80% from current levels by mid-century. If we fail to act, the poorest people in the poorest countries will be the first and the hardest hit.

So how do we address the issue of historical responsibility? Rich countries are responsible for over half of historical climate change and far more on a per capita basis. It is also true that most of the growth in future emissions will come from rapidly industrialising countries like China and India. Many different approaches have been proposed to divide up the remaining "carbon space" with sophisticated equity-based formulas.

Unsurprisingly, each one seems to advantage the particular country that proposes it. So India wants per capita emissions because it has a growing population. China wants credit for reducing its population and being the workshop of the world. Australia wants credit for being hot. Russia wants credit for being cold. The US argues it is too rich to cut emissions; the Africans that they are too poor. The list goes on.

Whatever the merits of each country's argument, the truth is that none of these approaches will be agreed as a basis for action at Copenhagen. However, argument over the past could fatally derail negotiations and deprive everyone of a stable future.

We need to step away from this blame game cul-de-sac and learn from the wisdom of successful post-conflict peace processes. Just look at what Northern Ireland, South Africa and Rwanda have to teach us. Here politicians and populations have made hard decisions to focus on building a better future, not by ignoring the past, but by acknowledging and managing it in an open way. Compared to the real level of pain, distrust and grievance in these societies, the often tactical outrage displayed in climate talks seems like play-acting. Sitting down with representatives of groups that have raped, tortured and murdered your loved ones is profoundly hard. It takes maturity, but one finds that people all around the world do it to avoid harm in the future. Compared to this, blaming British coal miners 100 years ago for today's sea-level rise in India seems a forced and meaningless abstraction.

If people who have suffered the immediate horrors of war can find it within themselves to rise above the past, and construct a better future surely we can achieve the same level of maturity in climate politics? Perhaps it is because the impacts of recent conflict are so raw that people are prepared to go to extreme lengths to make peace. The hard-won lessons from these harrowing experiences need to be learned by climate negotiators. If we lack the maturity to deal with climate change, the future is one of mutually assured destruction.

Moving away from the mad world of climate politics will require giving greater voice in international negotiations to the actual victims of climate change rather than their often remote representatives. Perhaps we should invite Desmond Tutu to host a climate change truth and reconciliation commission at Copenhagen? Perhaps this is what is needed to focus minds a little more. The climate can wait – but we cannot.

Nick Mabey is CEO of E3G (third generation environmentalism)

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