Johann Hari: The truths Copenhagen ignored

The politicians have chosen low taxes and oil money today over survival tomorrow

Share
Related Topics

So that's it. The world's worst polluters – the people who are drastically altering the climate – gathered here in Copenhagen to announce they were going to carry on cooking, in defiance of all the scientific warnings.

They didn't seal the deal; they sealed the coffin for the world's low-lying islands, its glaciers, its North Pole, and millions of lives.

Those of us who watched this conference with open eyes aren't surprised. Every day, practical, intelligent solutions that would cut our emissions of warming gases have been offered by scientists, developing countries and protesters – and they have been systematically vetoed by the governments of North America and Europe.

It's worth recounting a few of the ideas that were summarily dismissed – because when the world finally resolves to find a real solution, we will have to revive them.

Discarded Idea One: The International Environmental Court. Any cuts that leaders claim they would like as a result of Copenhagen will be purely voluntary. If a government decides not to follow them, nothing will happen, except a mild blush, and disastrous warming. Canada signed up to cut its emissions at Kyoto, and then increased them by 26 per cent – and there were no consequences. Copenhagen could unleash a hundred Canadas.

The brave, articulate Bolivian delegates – who have seen their glaciers melt at a terrifying pace – objected. They said if countries are serious about reducing emissions, their cuts need to be policed by an International Environmental Court that has the power to punish people. This is hardly impractical. When our leaders and their corporate lobbies really care about an issue – say, on trade – they pool their sovereignty this way in a second. The World Trade Organisation fines and sanctions nations severely if (say) they don't follow strict copyright laws. Is a safe climate less important than a trademark?

Discarded Idea Two: Leave the fossil fuels in the ground. At meetings here, an extraordinary piece of hypocrisy has been pointed out by the new international chair of Friends of the Earth, Nnimmo Bassey, and the environmental writer George Monbiot. The governments of the world say they want drastically to cut their use of fossil fuels, yet at the same time they are enthusiastically digging up any fossil fuels they can find, and hunting for more. They are holding a fire extinguisher in one hand and a flame-thrower in the other.

Only one of these instincts can prevail. A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature showed that we can use only – at an absolute maximum – 60 per cent of all the oil, coal and gas we have already discovered if we are going to stay the right side of catastrophic runaway warming. So the first step in any rational climate deal would be an immediate moratorium on searching for more fossil fuels, and fair plans for how to decide which of the existing stock we will leave unused. As Bassey put it: "Keep the coal in the hole. Keep the oil in the soil. Keep the tar sand in the land." This option wasn't even discussed by our leaders.

Discarded Idea Three: Climate debt. The rich world has been responsible for 70 per cent of the warming gases in the atmosphere – yet 70 per cent of the effects are being felt in the developing world. Holland can build vast dykes to prevent its land flooding; Bangladesh can only drown. There is a cruel inverse relationship between cause and effect: the polluter doesn't pay.

So we have racked up a climate debt. We broke it; they paid. At this summit, for the first time, the poor countries rose in disgust. Their chief negotiator pointed out that the compensation offered "won't even pay for the coffins". The cliché that environmentalism is a rich person's ideology just gasped its final CO2-rich breath. As Naomi Klein put it: "At this summit, the pole of environmentalism has moved south."

When we are dividing up who has the right to emit the few remaining warming gases that the atmosphere can absorb, we need to realise that we are badly overdrawn. We have used up our share of warming gases, and then some. Yet the US and EU have dismissed the idea of climate debt out of hand. How can we get a lasting deal that every country agrees to if we ignore this basic principle of justice? Why should the poorest restrain themselves when the rich refuse to?

A deal based on these real ideas would actually cool the atmosphere. The alternatives championed at Copenhagen by the rich world – carbon offsetting, carbon trading, carbon capture – won't. They are a global placebo. The critics who say the real solutions are "unrealistic" don't seem to realise that their alternative is more implausible still: civilisation continuing merrily on a planet whose natural processes are rapidly breaking down.

Throughout the negotiations here, the world's low-lying island states have clung to the real ideas as a life raft, because they are the only way to save their countries from a swelling sea. It has been extraordinary to watch their representatives – quiet, sombre people with sad eyes – as they were forced to plead for their own existence. They tried persuasion and hard science and lyrical hymns of love for their lands, and all were ignored.

These discarded ideas – and dozens more like them – show once again that man-made global warming can be stopped. The intellectual blueprints exist just as surely as the technological blueprints. There would be sacrifices, yes – but they are considerably less than the sacrifices made by our grandparents in their greatest fight.

We will have to pay higher taxes and fly less to make the leap to a renewably powered world – but we will still be able to live an abundant life where we are warm and free and well fed. The only real losers will be the fossil fuel corporations and the petro-dictatorships.

But our politicians have not chosen this sane path. No: they have chosen inertia and low taxes and oil money today over survival tomorrow. The true face of our current system – and of Copenhagen – can be seen in the life-saving ideas it has so casually tossed into the bin.

'You can watch Johann explaining some of the appalling loopholes being smuggled into the Copenhagen treaty here

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions