What will drive action on climate change if negotiations can’t?

February 8, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been mulling over the extraordinary shift in public mood since the Copenhagen summit. Copenhagen de BoerThe devastating combination of a failed summit, the Democrats’ loss of the supermajority in the Senate and a string of climategates surrounding the University of East Anglia and IPCC risk a mood-swing in public sentiment from a ‘now is the time’ historic moment to ‘we’re all doomed and there’s nothing we can do’ resignation. (The Guardian’s investigation of the UEA emails is riveting – it should be compulsory reading for anyone doing research for advocacy).

So where next? Here’s a hypothesis to chew on: Copenhagen represents the failure of a ‘peacetime’, politics-driven strategy on climate change. It is time to look at other change models, namely shock-driven and/or technology driven.

Shock-driven change
Changes of the magnitude required to combat climate change normally require a major shock – typically war or economic crisis. Thus women won the vote in the UK after World War 1; the US got the New Deal after the Great Depression; the UN and Bretton Woods system was born out of World War 2; Ethiopia overthrew the repressive Derg government after the great famine of 1984.

It may thus require a system-wide trauma like the sudden onset of peak oil, or a climate shock one or more orders of magnitude greater than Hurricane Katrina, and affecting some/all of the major emitters, before a genuine shift to a low carbon economic model, with agreed limits on emissions under a fair, ambitious and binding global deal, becomes achievable.

Implications for campaigners: This does not mean that popular mobilisation, or elite advocacy are redundant. There is more to life (and climate change) than the UNFCCC. We should engage with those parts of the UN-led climate change apparatus that are producing real impacts (good and bad) on poor people and the climate, particularly climate finance in the near term. We should be working with the different bits of private sector that are either allies or foes on tackling climate change.

Public awareness work could include both specific work on the damage/threat of climate change, and broader ‘attitudes and beliefs’ work trying to raise the importance of a well-being framework, rather than a consumerist one (see previous post on Prosperity Without Growth).

On the UN negotiations, it means recognizing that change is discontinuous, and preparing for the window of opportunity created by a relevant shock. That means developing policies and the public awareness, much as the suffragettes did before World War I, or Keynes before and during the Great Depression. The point is to have both the political climate and ‘off the shelf’ policy prescriptions ready and widely disseminated before such a shock occurs.

But that does not require a major engagement with the UNFCCC process as the best way to deliver short-term change (at least until a shock hits). Engagement with the negotiations would then be guided by the longer term aims (policy development and public awareness), rather than the intricacies of the negotiating process.

It also means that campaigners have to be prepared to recognize, agree on and act on the opportunity represented by a shock. Especially the large NGOs tend to be more comfortable in their ‘planners’ world’ of strategic plans, agreed objectives etc, and much less agile and able to respond to events. That has to change.

Technology-driven change
In their recent piece ‘The End of Magical Climate Thinking’, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute argue persuasively that ‘it’s the technology stupid’. Contrary to Al Gore’s assertions, they argue that current technology is not sufficient to produce a world of painless win-win shifts to a low carbon economy, and that is the underlying reason for paralysis in the negotiations. Within the Obama administration, Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, who ‘gets’ the technology issue, has been marginalised by negotiators like Carole Browner and Lisa Jackson.

The amounts of money currently dedicated to green R&D fall far short of the levels needed. According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger, Chu has already set out the main challenges in remarks to the New York Times:

‘How do we convert sunlight into energy much more efficiently than solar panels do today? What combination of chemicals can store more energy in batteries that are smaller and lighter? How can we manufacture a next generation of self-contained nuclear reactors that are safer, smaller, and cheaper than the large ones of the 1950s and 1960s? And how can we engineer new biological organisms to serve as a cheap fuel alternative to oil? Solving global warming’s technology challenges will require not a single Apollo program or Manhattan Project, but many.’

Early geoengineer

Early geoengineer

Then of course there are the various forms of geo-engineering. These are routinely dismissed as Dr Strangelove fantasies, but if politics and economics continue to fail us, they may in the end be our only hope. A useful starting point for considering these options is a recognition that, like it or not, we humans have already dabbled in geo-engineering in a big (if unconscious) way: see human-induced climate change.

Implications for campaigners: Campaigners are traditionally schizophrenic on new technologies. Not without reason, we love some (renewables, internet) and are deeply hostile to others (GM, nuclear). A focus on technological solutions will require a shift in mindset and instincts to a much more pro-science position, but without abandoning the substantial basis for our previous science-scepticism, namely issues of control and impact on poor and vulnerable people.

Campaigning for a green tech revolution would involve:

1. Direct lobby on government budgets, either for bilateral projects (Apollo, Manhattan) or international collaborations (CERN, large hadron collider)

2. Scrutiny of emerging technologies on issues of control (eg intellectual property rights) and poverty impact (eg expulsion of small farmers by biofuels, gender impact of different technologies)

3. Monitoring and advocacy work on unintended consequences, which are always a likely result of new technologies (eg destruction of markets for commodity producers whose products have been replaced).

Nordhaus and Shellenberger pour scorn on the negotiation-focused activists, and portray their science-first thesis as entirely different, but Oxfam climate change guru Antonio Hill is not so sure – last word to him:

‘On the tech investment idea, I agree that the shift in the change model allows for a different focus / emphasis, but still feel that it doesn’t fundamentally change the power dynamics or alter the key obstacles. The “Magical Thinking” piece itself illustrates this powerfully: while Obama proposed and Chu fought for $15bn in clean energy R&D, the bill approved by the House (and yet to be passed in the Senate) includes a meaningless (less than a third of current levels) $1.1bn per year (while handing £32bn to coal and power utilities).  In other words, the same “political will” that N & S ridicule in their piece is the same political will needed to finance serious R&D investments. And are the two things mutually exclusive options? Even once you’ve got the kit, doesn’t it still need regulation of some sort to drive faster technology switching than price alone (once sunk capital is taken in to account) will incentivise?

N & S say, “International agreements to share the burden and the benefits of developing better and cheaper low-carbon energy technologies will represent the central focus of international climate negotiations.”  Maybe I’m missing something, but I thought that’s what the negotiations are about (plus add-in adaptation costs of course!)? And, in any case, the key principles underpinning fair shares would be the same whether we’re carving-up emissions space or tech investment shares… To think that somehow the obstacles and pitfalls of existing negotiations over how to sharing the burden will change just because we re-name the burden does seem magical indeed!’

February 8, 2010
Duncan Green