the insufficiencies of our climate policies

Daniel Tanuro, the climate and social activist, remarked in a speech he gave at the International Climate Forum in 2008:

We have to shift the relationship of social forces. A powerful global grassroots mobilization, not lobbying, is the most effective way to struggle against climate change. Governments do nothing, or nearly nothing. The Kyoto Protocol is peanuts and even its commitments won’t be respected. More important: the proposals for a new international treaty are totally insufficient.

Let me quote a few figures. The 20% European Union reduction objective for 2020 is below even the IPCC recommendations discussed in Bali. For 2050, most political leaders talk about a 50% reduction, even though the IPCC recommendations range from 50 to 85%. According to James Hansen’s studies on the threshold for the ice-caps disintegration, even a 85% cap could be to low, but the governments refuse to take this warning into account.

What does it mean? It simply means that governments in rich countries are completely ignoring the precautionary principle. Why? Because Climate Change will mainly hit poor people, especially in poor countries. And because governments are linked to the rich, to business lobbies, especially the oil, car, petrochemical and coal lobbies. Here we see the real “inconvenient truth.”

I feel he really captures a problem that pits the dominant structures of power against a need for change: a story that is commonly told. However, we continue to witness the failure of governments or corporations to take significant strides toward changing actions to reduce climate changing GHGs. Furthermore, the existing policies are not only insufficient, they are unfair. They shift the burden of change on those with fewer resources, and reproduce the already dominant relations of power.  Its unfair in terms of the global relations of power, but also within our own “first world” existence.  The burden for change is shifted on individuals, who can consume more “responsibly”, for example, or change personal behaviors to reduce waste.  But these individualistic tendencies cannot meet the stringent demands of our goals. They represent merely inches of progress in our mile deep, and getting deeper, hole.  We need structural changes.  As Tanuro notes,

Structural changes are necessary in the building, energy and transportation sectors. Because they’re not profitable, public investment is needed in public services. This raises the same question as in developing countries: who will pay?

There is a parallel between North and South: in our view, the common but differentiated responsibility principle should apply in the North, too. Big business should pay the major part of the bill. If that doesn’t happen, there is a serious risk that some peoples’ groups and sectors will oppose environmental policies in name of keeping prices down.

So the question of policy becomes how do we make big businesses pay? I’m not sure about the second part of this quote, but it makes sense if we are basing our politics around an effort for redistribution.  It also makes sense if we are trying to (re)municipalize these industries, to put the public back in ownership of energy, water, and transit services.  I fully support this change, and as I have been reading more and more about US energy policy, deregulation, and the failures of energy markets, I feel we need to seriously consider these alternatives. But how do we get there? Is it grassroots political movements, like the one Tanuro is speaking to above? Do we want reform to occur within already existing political economic structures or do we want radically different social, political and economic organization? Would creating cooperative ownership of utilities, for example, challenge the capitalist system and its many failures, as Gar Alperoitz and Richard Wolff suggest?

And furthermore, as we think about the latest climate talks that occurred in Warsaw, lets consider how open to transformative changes our governments really are:

Conflicts between rich nations, led by the United States and European Union, and developing nations, led by China, India and Brazil, had stalled progress and threatened to scuttle the conference altogether. Negotiations ended a full day later than originally planned, and delegates, who had gone days with little sleep, were nodding exhaustedly in their seats well before the end of the day on Saturday.

The language grew heated at times by diplomatic standards, with Mr. Stern on Saturday reminding China that it had agreed two years ago that climate action would be “applicable to all parties,” and expressing surprise “that China would be assuming no commitments under the future agreement.” Lead negotiators eventually worked out compromise language — changing the word “commitments” to “contributions” — for 2015 to allow some wiggle room.

The deal Saturday came less than a year before a “climate summit” of leaders called by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for September in New York, where world leaders will be asked to show progress on cutting emissions in the full glare of the United States and the world news media.

Despite relief that a Copenhagen-type failure was averted, treaty members remain far from any serious, concerted action to cut emissions. And developing nations complained that promises of financial help remain unmet.

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