Climate Change conference fails to convince
Western People 9.11.2021
There’s something wholly unconvincing about the Climate Change conference in Glasgow. Even though in excess of 200 countries are involved and an estimated 100,000 activists are cheering them on, there seems to be a want in it that all the speeches in the world can’t camouflage.
It could be just Boris, of course, a key player in the proceedings. He bounces up on the platform, stands confidently at the podium and, in his usual fashion, says very little beyond a few aspirational cliches, often in his characteristically scatter-gun style emphasizing all the wrong words.
It could be just Boris, anyway. As I write, he is pictured on today’s paper with 95-year-old, Sir David Attenborough, the climate activist. Attenborough, in his mask, is attentive and focused; Boris, mask-less as usual, has his eyes closed. It might be that he’s uttering a silent prayer or is in deep reflection on the issue at hand but in truth it’s fairly obvious that he’s taking a quick nap.
While Boris constantly assures the conference that the UK is legally committed to the Climate Control 2050 target of net zero emissions, many may wonder whether that commitment is any bit more binding in Boris’s eyes than the more recent legal commitment to protocol 16 of the Brexit Agreement. Or that he has decided that with 2050 still almost 30 years away, he will be well out of the hot seat by then.
But, more probably, deep down we suspect that when it comes to the big decision to take the unpopular (and expensive) course, usually while politicians may lead their people to the well, more often than not there’s a get out clause that means no one gets to drink the water.
Another way of putting it is that, at the end of the day, self-interest tends to trump ethics even in situations where the arguments for a moral course are so overwhelming – as with climate change and the nightmare scenario that’s unfolding before our eyes, with scientists now predicting that climate change could bring near unlivable conditions for 3 billion people.
And yet another way of putting it is that even when our eyes are on the higher ground, our voting patterns tend to be pragmatically selfish.
Over 50 years ago, when we debated whether we would enter the EEC, a group called Common Market Defence (CMD) campaigned for a No vote. Among its patrons were an impressive line-up of writers, artists, academics and intellectuals, including one Michael D. Higgins. In the words of Fintan O’Toole in his recent book, We Don’t Know Ourselves, ‘this intellectual and cultural angst turned out to be of almost no interest to the Irish people’.
In the event, 83% of the people voted Yes, on the basis that Ireland’s GDP per capita was less than two-thirds of the EEC average. When the chips were down, the fundamentals mattered – jobs, grants, productivity and its legacies. In a poll after the referendum, 82% of Irish people said that the most important aspect of the EEC was economic. Ireland, on the periphery of Europe and still exporting its young, believed it couldn’t afford the grand notions of Michael D and others.
In the climate change debate, there are a number of uncontestable givens. One, the entire human race faces a unique moral challenge. With climate change no one is safe and there is no easy fix. Two, at risk are not just those hovering below a watermark in the middle of the Pacific Ocean who, even with a marginal increase in temperature, will literally sink out of sight, but also the lives of future generations. (What the repercussions will be in terms of the displacement of people, the refugee fall-out and the world economy is beyond computation.) Three, a transfer of wealth to tackle climate change – estimated at $100 billion dollars – is confronted with a series of anomalies that makes it almost impossible to deliver a fair distribution. For example, some countries have huge underground reservoirs of fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – which they will be asked not to harvest in the interests of the sustainability of the planet – something that will be a bit more challenging than not being allowed to cut turf on our bog! Others have already harvested them and caused terrible damage in the process. Who pays? is a complicated question.
Even though we have our share of climate change deniers, the problem is obvious: forest fires in California; flooding in Germany and China; parts of the globe becoming uninhabitable because of the heat; the melting of the Arctic icecap; and so on. For those for whom science matters, there’s a consensus that climate change will not just gradually increase – a degree or two may be a matter of life and death – but, as a result of increases in carbon dioxide and methane, the climate may simply spiral out of control.
The news is not all pessimistic. Energy is being harvested from wind and tide. There is a gathering sense that the seriousness of the situation is at last beginning to dawn – though the problem may have to get worse before it gets better. Yes, we are as Boris says, ‘at a minute to midnight’, and time is running out. But there is a moral truth to be grasped that needs to trump our predilection for thinking just about ourselves.
I’m not sure that Boris is the right man to convince us that this is possible. As the Tablet concludes: ‘This may be an unfortunate time for Britain to have a prime minister the rest of the world does not trust or respect’.