The last people you should trust to save the world are the whiners and bureaucrats gathered in Durban.
It was the latest in a long series of last chances to save the planet. Like a convention of superheroes, 14,500 politicians, civil servants, journalists and campaigners from development and environmental NGOs descended on Durban, South Africa, for the seventeenth Committee of Parties (COP) meetings under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their agreement, if they could reach one, would save the remaining 6,999,985,500 of us from certain doom.
Just as with past COP meetings, despite the broad consensus on the need to save the planet and having all the best scientists available to them, the superheroes failed. Once again, it was not climate-change deniers and secret PR campaigns funded by Big Oil companies that caused the failure. Instead, it was the incoherence and conflicting agendas of those who wanted an agreement that made reaching one impossible. The business of cutting CO2 emissions to save the planet turns out to be more complex than simply agreeing that it’s a good idea to do so.
For instance, among the things considered by the world’s most important people who assembled in Durban were the propositions that the ‘rights of mother Earth’ should be recognised; that international courts be established to ‘ensure respect for the intrinsic laws of nature’ and ‘to ensure harmony between humanity and nature and that their [sic] will be no commodification of the functions of nature’. With the stench of such nebulous eco-bullshit wafting around the negotiations, it’s no surprise that the fortnight-long session had to be extended in order desperately to find some areas of agreement.
Apart from the more obvious eco-waffle, however, the biggest problem for hopes of a climate agreement are the many contested alarmist interpretations of ‘the science’. The climate issue long ago ceased to be a purely technical matter and has instead become an encompassing story that explains global inequality, poverty, natural disasters, war, migration, and even the problems with capitalism. In other words, climate change has become the issue on to which any other issue or agenda can be pegged. Exhausted political ambitions are smuggled on to the international agenda under the cover of ‘science’. As a result, arguments in favour of a strong, binding agreement have sought moral capital and urgency by claiming that failure to find it will bring catastrophe on the least fortunate in the world. And so the search for victims to parade at COP17 began.
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‘Cape Verde minister appeals for EU support not to sign their death warrants’, tweeted Mark Lynas, author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, and climate adviser to President Nasheed of the Maldives. In the entrance to the building housing the negotiations, delegates held an ‘occupation’, in which the mostly white crowd held signs saying ‘Don’t Kill Africa’, ‘Stand With Africa’, and chanted the Greenpeace slogan ‘listen to the people, not the polluters’.
The irony of demands for ‘democracy’ coming from almost 6,000 NGO representatives - nearly half the total number of attendees - would be lost on them. But nobody could have been more oblivious to it than activist Abigail Borah, who interrupted US climate negotiator Todd Stern’s presentation. ‘I’m scared for my future’, she shouted across the meeting room at a pitch that matched the shrill moral tone. ‘You must set aside partisan politics and let science dictate decisions’, she demanded. ‘The United States’ government does not speak on my behalf’, she whined to a journalist.
Borah and a number of other activists were ejected from the negotiations. For so long, NGOs have campaigned for governments of the world to take such meetings seriously, to ignore the wishes of their electorates, to create a legally binding agreement. Yet here they were, making a mockery of what they had lobbied for and had been given access to. They were there, in huge numbers, but were complaining that the process doesn’t represent them.
As I’ve argued previously on spiked, there is a bizarre relationship between NGOs, national governments and supranational political organisations. In these sterile, post-political times, governments - especially in the West - have sought from supranational organisations and NGOs the mandate they once took from the electorate, to represent instead the problems the world apparently faces. People are represented in this form of politics only to the extent that their victimhood serves some purpose. Organisations such as the EU and UN, being far removed from ordinary life, recruit organisations from civil society - those which care about animals, trees, starving babies and climate change - to arm their projects with moral purpose and legitimacy.
This is the real dynamic driving the UNFCCC process. Supranational political organisations have sought legitimacy from NGOs, which have in turn cast the world’s problems as environmental problems. According to them, our profligate ways here in the West cause rains and crops to fail in Africa. This subordination of the development agenda to the climate agenda, however, has turned development NGOs against development. The expectation is that a strong, legally binding climate agreement will end poverty, but this was simply not a view shared by all parties.
Emerging economies such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China (the so-called BASIC group) angled to keep themselves out of any new commitments. The more industrialised countries had yet to shoulder their historic responsibility for causing climate change, and failed to meet their targets under the Kyoto Protocol, the previous agreement. So why should these newly industrialised countries sign up to anything? The development cat was out of the climate-change bag: to agree to reduce emissions is to agree severely to impede development. The anti-development and legalistic logic of environmental alarmism was the very thing that separated its most zealous adherents from its putative beneficiaries.
By the end of the two weeks, the failure of COP meetings to produce an agreement looked imminent. The process, which had been riven through by disagreement, was extended by 36 hours. This undignified ending of international negotiations looked like an heroic gesture: exhausted officials and environmental activists trying desperately to prevent the Armageddon that looms over us. But in reality, it was an operation designed merely to salvage the credibility of the process and those involved in it. An agreement for the sake of an agreement was found: an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, and a ‘roadmap’ to an agreement. What were allegedly the most important decisions to be made about the future of the world ended up being made on the hoof, at the last minute, by sleep-deprived representatives of governments, harangued by an army of environmental activists, in a debating chamber that represents nobody except bureaucrats and NGOs. Outside the negotiations, reality bites. Barely 24 hours later, the Canadian environment minister, Peter Kent, announced: ‘We are invoking Canada’s legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto.’
The process of finding a global ‘deal’ on climate change is beset by the incoherence of its objectives. Is it about ‘respecting Mother Nature’, ‘saving the planet’ or ‘ending poverty’? Nobody at the meeting, which conflated so many issues, could claim that it was about climate change. Moreover, the desire for an agreement backed by legal force looks much more like a desire for the force itself than a desire to ‘save the planet’. If the planet really does need saving, then the processes that will save it will be technological, not technocratic.
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.