Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Dangerous denial

If all the people of the world had the same living style as the average American, the holocaust would have already visited us.

by C E Karunakaran

Frontline (Volume 24 Issue 04 (February 24 2007)

India's National Magazine, from the publishers of The Hindu

"I'll tell you one thing I'm not going to do is, I'm not going to let the United States carry the burden for cleaning up the world's air, like the Kyoto Treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty." So said the then presidential hopeful, George W Bush, in October 2000, to Al Gore, in a televised debate. Al Gore could have responded, "I am sure you would be happy to let the United States carry the responsibility for polluting the world's air the most". He did not, being the other presidential hopeful.

After all, Al Gore, who only three years earlier represented the US in the Kyoto discussions and had authored a book on global warming, could not have been unaware of what Andrew Kerr of the World Wide Fund for Nature pointed out: "The United States is responsible for almost half of the increase in world carbon dioxide in the past decade. That increase is greater than the increase in China, India, Africa and the whole of Latin America."

Nor could he have been unaware that with a little over four per cent of the world's population, the US was responsible for 35 per cent of the total historic emissions of carbon dioxide - the principal driver of global warming - in the post-industrial era. Or about the fact that the average American was then emitting seven times as much carbon dioxide as the average Chinese and twenty times as much as the average Indian. But then, he refrained from pointing this out in the debate, or for that matter any time after that, including in his latest movie An Inconvenient Truth - a commendable effort that has initiated more public debate in the US on the seriousness of the climate change issue than probably any other single trigger before it.

To describe climate change as serious is now generally accepted to be an understatement - catastrophic is more like it. It is variously described as the ultimate weapon of mass destruction and a threat worse than terrorism or nuclear war. To understand why it is so, one should look at some basic facts. Global warming is caused primarily by the very foundation on which modern civilisation is built - the burning of coal, oil and gas. So much so, a real solution to the problem would include lifestyle changes, something that goes against the grain of the consumer culture and the socio-economic system built on it. Our earth has not seen anything like this build-up of carbon dioxide for over half a million years. If this continues, by the end of the century the earth will be hotter than at any other time in the last two million years.

It is already too late to avoid major consequences because of the inertia of the ecosystem - even if no more carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases are emitted by humankind from tomorrow, the earth will continue to warm up for some decades, the sea will continue to rise for some centuries and the ice sheets will continue to adjust for thousands of years. The world is already facing up to increasing sea intrusions, floods, storms, droughts, heat waves, disease transmissions and environmental refugees. The percentage of the world's population affected by weather disasters has doubled between 1975 and 2001 and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that climate change of the last thirty years already claims 150,000 lives annually.

The coming years - resulting from what has already been done, not to speak of further emissions - will be worse, even catastrophic in some instances. An insurance specialist estimates that insurance losses due to extreme weather events are increasing by ten per cent a year against the world economic growth of three per cent, and that even by 2010 insurance companies could be charging annual rates of twelve per cent, forcing many to drop out.

There is the additional threat of runaway warming because of warming crossing some threshold and triggering positive feedback - such as frozen peat bogs thawing and releasing huge quantities of methane, which is twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide in causing global warming.

The magnitude of the impending crisis is best expressed in the words of Dr James Hansen, the highly regarded director of the NASA Institute for Space Studies, that we are "near a tipping point, a point of no return, beyond which the built-in momentum and feedbacks will carry us to levels of climate change with staggering consequences for humanity and all of the residents of this planet". He also points out: "The earth's history suggests that with warming of two to three degrees Celsius the new equilibrium sea level will include not only most of the ice from Greenland and West Antarctica, but a portion of East Antarctica, raising sea level of the order of 25 metres (80 feet)".

How far can we go?

If the damage is so threatening and the risk so foreboding, how does one assess the future of this planet and where does one draw the line and say, this far we can pollute our atmosphere and somehow manage its consequences - keeping fingers crossed about positive feedbacks - but beyond this would be unacceptable chaos? Does the developing situation provide a window and a plausible time frame for humankind to mend its ways and step back before this line?

Scientists, activists and policymakers have been grappling with this issue and have now come to a broad understanding of where this line is to be drawn, taking into account all relevant factors. This consensual Lakshman Rekha is a two degrees Celsius warming over and above the pre-industrial global average temperature. Of this, the earth has already reached the 0.8 degrees Celsius mark and is currently warming up by 0.2 degrees Celsius a decade. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body entrusted by the nations of the world to guide them on the science of climate change, forecasts that by the end of this century the probable temperature rise will be in the range of 1.8 to 4.0 degrees Celsius if we go along business as usual.

It cannot, obviously, be business as usual. Far from it. In fact, far even from the Kyoto Protocol - agreed to in 1997 but coming into force only in 2005 with the US opting out - which asked the industrial North to bring down its emissions from its 1990 levels by 5.2 per cent before 2012; the developing South was exempted. One scenario, which holds a risk of 9 to 26 per cent of crossing the two degrees Celsius mark, demands that the total man-made emissions should start declining from 2010 and reach one quarter of the starting level within thirty years and keep declining further - a mind-boggling challenge. Other, less demanding, scenarios have a higher risk of crossing the Lakshman Rekha. It is unfortunate that even major environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are falling into the trap of advocating the less demanding scenarios on the grounds that more than that would not be politically acceptable. "How much reality can you take?" George Monbiot asks them in his book Heat.

Reality takes time to sink in, but it is happening. Comments such as "in the years to come this issue will dwarf all the others combined. It will become the only issue" and "forty years from now George Bush will not be remembered for Iraq, but will be remembered in near apocalyptic terms. He'll be the denier-in-chief who failed to acknowledge, much less confront, the coming ecological catastrophe" are no longer considered outlandish.

Many would wonder what makes the denier-in-chief such a denier in the face of such tremendous challenge from the environment; in the face of a scientific consensus so wide that a review of all - more than 900 - peer-reviewed articles on climate change published over a ten-year period ending 2003 did not throw up a single one that contradicted the IPCC position on human-induced global warming. Such a denier that he would go to the extent of pressuring scientists of federal agencies to fudge climate science in their reports.

The long and short answer to the question is corporate profits. It was to be expected in this neoliberal world that in the months before the Kyoto conference, an industry association of the fossil industry would spend $13 million on a series of television advertisements to alarm the American public about an economic collapse if emission commitments were taken on, and a representative of this association, present at Kyoto as part of a huge industry lobby, would say with satisfaction: "We think we have raised enough questions among the American public to prevent any numbers, targets or timetables to achieve reductions in gas emissions being agreed here ... What we are doing, and we think successfully, is buying time for our industries by holding up these talks". It was to be expected that they would contribute far more to the election kitty of Bush and Dick Cheney than to any presidential campaign until then. It is to be expected that buying time - and buying politicians and pliable scientists - is still on their agenda, climate-friendly posturing notwithstanding.

It is in this overall context of the urgent need for phase-shift action - and of the forces ranged against it - that one should assess how multinational and multidimensional action to contain climate change can move forward and be effective. Even one intransigent nation - as the US is now - can spoil the show for everybody. But, first, the question whether it is technically, socially and economically feasible to achieve a drastic reduction in energy use in such a short time needs to be addressed. The consensus is that it is. The efficient use of energy, renewable energy, hybrid and hydrogen cars, revised taxes and incentives, lifestyle changes such as more use of public transport, and many other measures are possible if there is a will. The much-quoted Stern Review, prepared for the United Kingdom government by the former chief economist of the World Bank, makes the point that it would cost much less to lessen climate change than to live with it.

This is self-evident, but the real question is who is to bear this cost of lessening as well as living with climate change. The atmosphere can take only so much more pollution by greenhouse gases if the warming is not to cross the two-degree mark, and this scarce space is being filled up sixty per cent of the time by the industrialised countries, which hold less than twenty per cent of the world's population. Those countries would like to see the grandfathering approach, by which, if one had polluted the most in the past - such as occupying eighty per cent of the space so far - one gets the largest share of the dumping ground.

There is only one small problem. Industrial countries have reached their level of development riding on low-cost fossil fuels, while developing countries need to do the same to reduce their poverty levels and cannot afford the higher cost climate-friendly technologies in the short to medium term. Their economic growth rates, and therefore their emissions growth, are also of a higher order compared with industrial countries. Grandfathering does not suit them.

It is this dichotomy between luxury emissions and survival emissions that led to the principle of 'common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities', which was agreed to by the nations of the world - the US included - in the historic 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first collective step the nations of the world took to deal with this issue.

There is then the responsibility approach. In other words, the polluter pays. After all, the average American consumed and emitted 43 times as much carbon as the average Indian during the ninety years after 1900. There is also the capability approach, by which those who are more capable of handling mitigation and adaptation take on the larger share of the burden. Then there is the global commons approach - the atmosphere, the dumping ground of carbon dioxide - is a common resource that belongs to all citizens of the world. A free ride on it is possible only if it has unlimited capacity, which is certainly not the case. Most countries have laws that recognise equal rights to common pool resources.

Carbon debt

One can look at the dimensions of this principle of equal rights to global commons through a simple exercise of allocating the atmospheric dumping space equally among the 6.5 billion people on the earth and saying to each one: here is your box, you are allowed to park your emissions there for the rest of the century. This is because the world will run out of its available carbon emission budget for this century - under the precautionary scenario of not exceeding two degrees Celsius warming - in just a quarter of the time under normal circumstances. So, if such boxes are allocated, the average American will run out of his box in much less than ten years and will have no option but to pile into those of everybody else around.

There is no international policeman yet to guard anyone's box. If there is one, the average Chinese might say, "Don't come anywhere near my box, its size is too small for my future need of development, as I am growing very fast" and the Bangladeshi might say, "At my current level of emission, I will take quite a few centuries to fill up my box. So, why don't I rent part of my box to you and use the money for my development?"

Countries like India and China are finding that at the rate at which they are growing - at three times the growth rate of developed nations - and the rate at which their atmospheric space is getting poached by larger emitters, there is just not enough space for them to reach their development goals even if a per capita allocation is made now and some rent collection is made possible. If only the boxes had been allotted in the 1950s - when human-induced emission build-up was even measured - and were well guarded, the world would be a very different place today, even in terms of societal structures.

The Asians, the Africans and the Latin Americans are, therefore, entitled to ask the G-8 nations to pay back the carbon debt owed to them because of occupying the global commons disproportionately. An assessment made by Christian Aid in 1999 pointed out that the debt owed on this count by the rich nations to the highly indebted poor countries is of the order of three times the conventional debt the latter owe the former, and the rich countries continue to incur a debt of $13 trillion a year to the poorer nations.

Such considerations of equity in sharing global commons are nowhere in the picture in serious negotiations between countries under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change even as several environmentalists have been campaigning actively for equity in broader terms. India's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) was among the earliest to flag the issue by pointing out the inequity in per capita emissions.

The most visible campaign is by the UK-based Global Commons Institute on the concept of contraction and convergence, by which the international community first agrees to a single per capita allowance to converge on and the time for convergence. The North countries will have to contract their emissions and the South countries can increase their emissions and converge to that agreed level within the agreed time; thereafter, all countries together will reduce the per capita emissions uniformly to levels needed to avoid climate disaster.

There are two issues with this formula for equity. It does not take into account the atmospheric emission space already grabbed by the North and it does not provide adequate room for the essential development needs of the South. As was pointed out by Christian Aid at the recent 12th Conference of Parties in Nairobi, the South's rapid growth trajectory is such that its emissions alone will cross the line of total global emissions allowable under the precautionary two-degree scenario by the year 2020 even if the North's emissions suddenly become zero. In other words, the situation has reached such a stage - mainly because of the historic emissions and also because of the scandalous neglect of critical action by the Northern nations in the last decade or so - that the South has no room to manoeuvre now and has to choose between its development and saving the planet.

Emissions & development

EcoEquity, the campaigner for a realistic approach to devising a climate framework, considers the basket of equity principles relevant to mitigation-sharing to be equal rights to global commons, polluter pays, capacity-based burden-sharing and need-based resource-sharing. On the basis of these principles, it has developed the concept of Greenhouse Development Rights, by which the first priority of a Southern nation will be its development and all the mitigation action taken by it will be paid for by the North until the former reaches a certain level of development. The North will, of course, drastically cut down on its own emissions as also pay for the emission reductions all over the globe.

A point to note is that the current linkage between emissions and economic development needs to be broken as quickly as possible, for developing countries like India and China cannot hope to reach anywhere near the current levels of per capita North emissions before peaking in a couple of decades and getting on to the down slope. Investment in such a drastic shift to newer technologies is beyond the capacity of developing countries and can only be borne by the developed world.

This is but one possible framework. But the real question is, how is any framework to be agreed upon and implemented in a world where the largest polluter is still in a denial mode, other developed countries make cosmetic reductions and demand that developing countries start shouldering responsibility, and the developing countries steadfastly refuse to do so? The G-77 countries and China have a deep distrust of the progressive-sounding European Union and refuse to fall for any bait to take on emission commitments for fear that it will be a 'bait and switch' strategy - as pointed out by one analyst - to land them finally with grandfathered commitments.

It is dawning gradually on the Northern countries that anything less than equal rights to the atmosphere will not take the negotiations anywhere. There is a realisation that time is running out fast. According to one projection, if global emissions are peaked in 2010 and taken downward thereafter, a 2.6 per cent per annum reduction would help the world to keep within the two degrees Celsius warming limit. If, however, this peaking is delayed by ten years, the reduction will have to be by a drastic 6.7 per cent per annum to achieve the same result.

Some activists hope that this exigency will now drive all countries to move towards an acceptable solution, and practical wisdom suggests that it can only be an equity-based one to be endurable. It is this realisation that led the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution of the UK to recommend the contraction and convergence strategy in its report of 2000 and the government's Energy White Paper of 2003 to accept it implicitly in projecting future UK emissions.

The insurance industry is the earliest in the business community to recognise the seriousness of global warming and the most concerned to find a quick solution because it impacts its bottom line directly. Looking for a real-world solution that will truly work, The Chartered Insurance Institute of the UK had no hesitation in accepting per capita emission convergence.

But there is a more pressing concern, often ignored - the threat of social disruptions and warfare. Large sections of the global population will get displaced by the impact of climate change and will have to compete for resources. A 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon warned that nuclear arms will proliferate as people fight for resources as a result of global warming. "Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid". Pointing out that "disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life", it cautioned the Bush administration that climate change could "challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately".

India laid back

It is in this context that India's laid-back attitude in international negotiations - our emissions are small, our per capita emissions are very small and we cannot divert attention from other priorities - does not stand scrutiny any longer. If India thinks it should grab as much atmospheric space for as long as possible, it should remember that the advanced countries are grabbing much larger spaces at the same time, making future restrictions a fait accompli for one and all. Besides, the economy gets more and more entangled in path dependence - the more you invest in fossil technologies, the less viable it becomes to switch to a non-carbon path.

More importantly, its people stand to lose heavily if climate change gets out of hand. The fate of a-sixth of the world's population cannot be left in the hands of a few self-absorbed politicians of the West. It is high time the Government of India took on a proactive role in shaping the future order of greenhouse emissions and climate adaptations. It should, along with China, work to build a consensus among G-77 to put on the table a radically new approach to emissions sharing and adaptation as compared with Kyoto.

Some experts have already divided the Southern countries into four groups, ranging from newly industrialised to the least developing - with China in Group 2 (rapidly industrialising) and India in Group 3 (other industrialising) - to devise differential commitments and resources for them. There is nothing essentially wrong in this, though it would suit the North very well to see the G-77 split. It is in the interests of India and China to work out a formula that is seen as equitable by the poorest nations of the world and thus preserve the unity of the South in future parleys.

There is no escaping that any future parley should focus on not merely emissions reductions and sharing of reductions but very largely on just recompense for the damage already done to the atmosphere, which is now hurting the poor of the world through increased droughts and storms and vector diseases, and will unavoidably hurt them more in the future, and has compromised their future development as well by depriving them of their atmospheric space. In other words, pay back of carbon debt. This needs to be strongly established as a matter of right and not as charity or aid.

It follows that any fund set up for climate change adaptation should contribute directly to poverty reduction and development of the affected nations and not depend on complicated formulae to establish climate change-related damage or adaptation need. Development is the best instrument to build adaptation capability.

There is cynicism among some environmental activists of the North that any resource ploughed into the Southern countries as settlement of carbon debt will be largely gobbled up by the privileged groups of those countries - even as they have swallowed most of the benefits of globalisation - and will not reach the real poor of those countries who need it most and, more than that, who have earned the largest part of the carbon credit.

The cynicism is justified, even if it sounds paternalistic when linked to emission sharing among nations. The huge social divide that exists in India and several other countries is also a huge carbon divide. It is not very difficult to imagine how much of a carbon debt the urban upper middle class Indian who runs two cars and four air-conditioners owes to the rural working woman who treks for hours to fetch head-loads of shrub every day for the kitchen fire and whose daughter uses a flickering kerosene lamp to pore over her schoolwork. It is the latter who has saved, and continues to save, this planet and all of us from a worse disaster than we all face now. If all the people of the world had the same living style as the average American, the holocaust predicted for the distant future would have already visited us.

Is there a chance that she will one day stand up and demand her carbon debt? She will, one day. One must hope that the day comes soon, as only then there is hope for the climate change issue to be finally addressed. No government under the present world order can be expected to take the courageous step to foreground intergenerational as well as intra-generational equity - the only solution that will work - in addressing this complex issue unless it is forced to do so from below.

It is the ordinary people of different countries, collaborating with each other, who can ultimately bring about the social change needed to prevent effectively the environmental disaster that looms ahead, a problem caused by "the greatest market failure the world has seen", according to Sir Nicholas Stern, the author of the Stern Review, a problem sought to be tackled through the same market forces in this neoliberal world.

Civil society in the developing world has a key role to play in creating among the common man awareness of the magnitude, complexity and social dimensions of this crisis, in which the very future of humankind is at stake unless urgent action is taken.

C E Karunakaran is an activist with the Centre for Ecology and Rural Development, Puducherry.

Bill Totten


  • If you care to, please look at this link for a more clinical look at Contraction and Convergence: -

    Aubrey Meyer

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:50 AM, March 30, 2007  

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