Two weeks in December will not solve the problem of climate change, and only a new focus on mobilising popular pressure for mitigation will bring the solutions required. Only when public engagement on the issue is stronger will diplomats feel an overriding need to sign a deal, abandoning some incremental nationalist advantage in order to deliver the long-term gain for present and future generations.Before getting into the complexities of Copenhagen conference itself it is worth just laying out the most important reasons why something we must try to stop, or mitigate, climate change. Rising carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will increasingly lead to more extreme weather conditions, rising average temperatures in many places and a rise in sea levels. To paraphrase – not scaremonger – the IPCC (the scientific panel that the UN brings together) says that the developed world must reduce emissions by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 in order to prevent climate change from starting to ‘runaway’ making it difficult to prevent 6 or 8 degree temperature increases. I am not quoting the latest report or television programme that has come to the press’ attention but instead quote what has been researched across the leading universities over the past 30 years and concluded by multiple international conferences of the top scientists in the field.

Rising sea levels will cause levels of forced migration not previously witnessed and large increases in the costs of maintaining weather- or sea-vulnerable infrastructure. Rising average temperatures will lead to desertification, again causing forced migration and will also combine with changes in weather systems to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers, causing yet more forced migration. Runaway climate change will devastate agriculture and it won’t just be the farmers who lose out. Increases in food prices could devastate the urban poor and middle classes will be squeezed by rising food prices (agriculture), insurance and taxes (from change in sea levels), and migration that could strain economic and social status quos. One reason that climate change has only punched into the fringes of political discourse is because of a perception that it is a problem primarily for those living in another country. I hope that I have showed why this is incorrect. It is true that relative to the developing world, Britain is better placed to survive runaway climate change, but poorer and middle class people will be nevertheless be massively affected.

It is disappointing that 30 years or so after the scientific underpinning of climate change was produced, that I still feel the need to explain what climate change is. The often valid updates about the nature and the possible consequences of climate change that is ongoing within the scientific community has led – thanks to poor media communication of an admittedly highly complex process –  to a situation where great swathes of the population remember an often insignificant aspect of climate change, maybe the possibility of growing a orange or tomato in Britain, but can’t associate it with threatened water supply or any of the other hugely damaging effects that I mentioned above.

Climate change has been categorised as an environmental problem, primarily because it started as a problem that disturbed only people who have a not-widely-held view that the earth and its ecosystems have intrinsic value. But as I have just spelled out it is in fact an environmental problem that causes human problems. States across the world haven’t survived by protecting their lands; they have survived by preventing their urban poor from going hungry. It is difficult to see how states will be able to manage with the kind of climate change that is set to occur if emissions are not reduced quickly. You can want to stop climate change even if all you want to protect is economic growth. There is a great deal of – and much of it worthwhile – political discourse about a fundamental shift from measuring societal success by GDP to measuring it by more complex measures which take into account natural capital (the value of) and wellbeing in particular. But we don’t need to wait for some major ideological shift. Even if we work in the metrics of GDP and economic prosperity and with the most institutionalised of experts there is an overwhelming case for tackling climate change. The Stern Review mentioned earlier – compiled by the former Chief Economist and Senior Vice-President of the World Bank Baron Nick Stern of Brentford – and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – led by the Managing Director in the Global Markets division of Deutsche Bank Pavan Sukhdev – are two reports that put the case for tackling climate change in the language of GDP and the bottom line.

So that’s (briefly) why climate change is important. Now I turn to Copenhagen itself. Climate change as I have explained is caused by the stock of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless we bring down the growing flow of these emissions the stock will cause more and more climate change. It is a classic case of collective action problem because individuals cannot solve by acting independently. One person’s actions cannot stop the march of this problem. No family or state can individually opt out of climate change or buy their own little patch of atmosphere. The UNFCCC (the UN body that set up Kyoto) seeks to bring all countries together to act to regulate against the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kyoto protocol, a framework for measuring international greenhouse gases with only optional commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, will expire in 2012. Only a handful of the 34 developed countries that set themselves targets (which excluded the fastest-growing source of emissions – aviation) have met them. The framework says that negotiations for post-2012 should be framed around the premise that developed countries must commit to legally binding national mitigation (emissions reductions) targets, finance adaptation (measure to help countries survive with climate change) and mitigation measures in developing countries and to provide developing countries with technology for adaptation and mitigation.

The current pessimism around the negotiations has focused on the US, whose administration’s commitment to a 4% reduction (based on 1990 levels) by 2020 is well short of the 25 – 40% recommended by the IPCC. Agreement around a target near to the IPCC recommendation would certainly shift some private sector expectations. But, judging by the last process, it wouldn’t ensure the investment in domestic mitigation and the financing of developing country mitigation and adaptation required. There is no global order or institution committed to that can enforce any targets. Bottom up approaches of international competition around low-carbon industry (see AccountAbility’s forthcoming low-carbon competitiveness index), small-scale (when compared to the hundreds of billions of annual financing being talked about (and demanded by NGOs)) collaborative initiatives in key areas and hypothecated import taxes where revenues directly fund low-carbon development in the exporting country are all possible options for an alternative approach.

As someone who is not involved in the negotiations – neither as a diplomat or a lobbyer – I feel that I can drop the kind of game-playing bargaining with which diplomats and lobbyers are engaging in order to say the following. What matters is the total amount of greenhouse gas emitted over the crucial next 10 or so years. A few years might allow the UNFCCC and US expectations for emissions reductions might lead to increased commitment to the radical and, crucially, binding targets needed. A hyped up target that might not be radical enough and that falls by the wayside when institutional design isn’t good enough to police the target, might be a poor outcome for the climate. (The science has shifted over the past few years to reflect the likelihood of runaway climate change, and the UNFCCC dialogue and certainly the US Senate policy aren’t necessarily anchored in the latest science).

However, you could argue that even a few years down the line, when IPCC and US policy better reflects what science compels us to do, what will hold countries back from a global deal is not any doubt amongst political elites that a global deal is needed, nor ambition, nor agreement around institutional. What would hold it back would be the diplomatic mindset; namely that negotiating international agreements requires hard-bargaining with each country holding out in order to get the best possible global deal for the minimum national commitment. Diplomats get to the position they are in because they drive a hard bargain. Unfortunately it will take (at least) a generation to change the composition of civil servants all around the world.  I argue that only when public engagement on the issue is stronger will diplomats feel an overriding need to sign a deal, abandoning some incremental nationalist advantage in order to deliver the long-term gain for present and future generations.

The green movement operates with a sort of schizophrenia. On the one hand it represents the interests of the majority of the world’s population – those people who will not be able to insulate themselves from the rising tides, higher food prices, death of environmentally-dependent industries and the forced migration. It is, I argue, egalitarian in its goals. On the other hand the green movement happily uses elitist means to achieve its political outcomes. In some ways green movement has been keen to securitise the policy-area, keen for politicians to sneak policies past the electorate so long as they benefit the environment, much in the same way that typical security policies like anti-terrorist law are not open to public debate because egalitarian – voting, debating – political process are sacrificed for the all-important national interest. In environmental politics, commitment to democratic process is trumped by urgency to protect the planet. I feel this is a mistake – and that the monumental shifts required in the long-term to build a low-carbon future require the lobbying from the public. Clearly a long-term strategy must be implemented as well as short-term one, but green engagement with unions and developing country migrants – examples of two key interested constituents to be mobilised – has so far been limited.

How simple a conclusion I have reached; it is only when politicians and diplomats feel public pressure on the issue that they will act on it.

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