In A Year Of Big Environmental Stories, COP17 Rises Above Them All

In a year of big environmental stories the outcome of the COP17 climate talks in Durban has got to be the biggest. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the resultant Fukushima nuclear disaster, the fight over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the entire Occupy movement are all huge. But COP17 still stands out for me above them all.

It's all put into even harsher relief with Canada pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol shortly afterwards, in time as easily measured in hours and not days. And then Russia supporting the Canadian position shortly thereafter.

Underneath it all someplace, maybe a couple layers down in the thinking, the two largest nations with bordering the Arctic circle, both significant producers of fossil fuels and both standing to directly benefit from an ice-free Arctic in terms of shipping, have got to be thinking that global warming actually is a good thing for them.

COP17 ensures that for Russia, Canada, and every other nation, reducing emissions sufficiently to hold average temperature rise below 2°C has a minutely thin chance of happening.

Recent rhetoric from US lead negotiator Todd Stern focuses on the successes of COP17 in regards to keeping the international climate negotiation process alive. Indeed that is the only real success to be found. In short, as many people have said, the process is saved but not people nor the planet. We should have been reducing emissions radically years ago, and now the international community, obstructed foremost by the US, Canada, and other big polluters (saving notably the EU), has put off solidifying into a legal agreement emission reductions until it is too late.

Emissions may well be reduced, through a combination of existing action to expand renewable energy and/or recession, before 2020, but the odds of it being enough to forestall climate change are not good at all. We continue to be moving full steam ahead to a world with 4°C+ temperature rise and all the massive ecological and social disruption that will come with it.

Bluntly, I don't see a way that when it comes to climate at least, we're pretty much screwed. Different places will feel the effects in differing degrees to be sure, with the poorest and some of the most densely populated feeling things most acutely, even while some places perhaps benefiting in small ways, but the long shot here is not catastrophe but avoiding it.

Prior to COP17 I wondered what the environmental movement should be concentrating on given this situation—the writing was on the wall that such an outcome was likely. And this continues to weigh upon me; I really think it needs to be the central deep question we all need to be considering right now. Not what do we do to stop climate change, but what do we need to do to come through the coming changes with civilization as we know it as intact as possible. Not so incidentally, much of this will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well.

To self-consciously use an example powered currently by fossil fuels: If civilization is a car heading full speed at a wall, there was a time in the not too distant past where we could have put on the breaks and stopped hitting the wall altogether. But after COP17 I don't think that is really a possibility. We're hitting the wall. The only question that remains is how quickly and strongly we can put on the breaks so that instead of totaling the car and killing most of the passengers inside, perhaps one person dies and three others can just limp out, injured.

Again, so what to do? Apart from not despairing or succumbing to fear, neither of which is a productive response, although both a perfectly reasonable reactions.

We must turn to communities, making them and ourselves more resilient, localized in decision-making, energy, food, and goods production as much as possible—which isn't to say isolated or to eliminate global trade by any means, just shift the balance away from the edges. As Jane Jacobs wrote when talking about economies in cities, those places with a greater variety of businesses, places that aren't overly dependent on any one industry or business, are more resilient, they have more options available to them at any given time. They are more creative and can better roll with the punches as it were. It applies to households, towns, nations, and civilization itself. Right now we are completely at the opposite of this in much of the developed world, concentrated only on knowledge-based business and services while shipping actual production elsewhere. It's a recipe for collapse.

At the same time we must strike, as the Occupy movement is starting to do, at the source of the problem: Economics. Replace growth-fetish capitalism with something that acknowledges ecological limits and includes environmental costs in the price of goods, that places the economy in the correct relation to people as the servant of people not the other way around, that puts money back in a place as a measurement of wealth not an end in itself (as Satish Kumar says eloquently in his latest editor's letter in Resurgence), that puts communities in genuine control of the economy and politics not corporations. State-run totalitarian communism is clearly not the answer, but neither is corporate-run free market capitalism.

In doing this more than ever as a movement and individuals we need to at least consider the real possibility that what we consider normal levels of resource consumption in developed nations in terms of energy use, travel, consumer goods, etc are not actually environmental sustainable, no matter how much we can improve the efficiency of producing them or replace polluting production for clean.

The notion, too often promoted by the green movement in the past few years, that we can actually just keep on keeping on with our current lifestyles as they are by just changing inputs, was and is not true on a global scale. Neither China nor the United States, nor anywhere else can consume resources like we have been. A well off nation in 100 years time may well look like a semi-prosperous developing nation does today. I'm not saying that that is assured, but we need to consider that future as a genuine possibility—brought about by the intersection of climate change, population growth and dwindling fossil fuels and unsustainable use of natural resources.

Also important to note, as John Michael Greer recently did over at The Archdruid Report in regards to peak oil but it applies to climate too, is that climate change isn't something that will happen dramatically at some point in the future, bringing civilization down all at once—though there well may be some dramatic disasters or shocking milestones that are passed. Rather it's happening all around us, as are the energy constraints summed up under 'peak oil'. We're seeing much of it in hindsight to be sure, but nevertheless it is all happening quicker that we think and the planet is transforming right now every day. Our perception is such that we can't notice it in real time, but it's there. And by 2050, when I am 77 years years old the world around me will be a less hospitable place that it is today, with hotter heat waves, warmer (if not entirely snow free) winters, lower crop yields and for many of the world's poorest more hunger, more extremes of weather, more likely social unrest.

Similarly, the efforts to build climate resilient community, reshape our economic system, and transition away from polluting industry and unsustainable resource consumption aren't something that will happen in sharply dramatic fashion either. It too won't happen all at once. It's happening all around us right now, too, and it also is most easily viewed in hindsight. We must keep pushing this forward, but remembering that it's not as though one day we will wake up with the system transformed overnight nor expect that it will be.

For both better and worse we're at a critical point of transformation, even if the transformation sometimes isn't easy to see as it's happening. And I have to say, that despite the difficult and often traumatic nature of transformation, we will come out the better for having gone through it.

In A Year Of Big Environmental Stories, COP17 Rises Above Them All
In terms of long-term transformative power, the result of the COP17 climate talks in Durban is far and away the biggest environmental story of the 2011.

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