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What is the Problem? Questions from Copenhagen

12/17/09

If you want to provide a solution to something, you need to clearly define a problem.  In Copenhagen, tens of thousands of accredited world citizens have come to solve the ‘climate change problem.’  We have one day of COP-15 left, but politicians and delegates are still hung up on the answer.  The answer, of course, requires a question.  After 10 days in Copenhagen, I’m not sure if I know what the question is.

How can we reduce global warming to a level that scientists tell us will prevent severe changes to our entire ecosystem?  This is a question that could be described as ‘at the heart of it all.’  The needed level of reduction—as prescribed by scientists—is 350 ppm.  We are currently at 386ppm and show no signs of turning back.  How do we reverse the trend?  This is a scientific, industrial, and sociological question.  It is not, however, the only question present in Copenhagen.

How do we ensure economic growth and competitiveness in a carbon reduced economy?  I hear this one from the developed nations.  Representatives from the world’s richest economies want to know how they can ensure that their country will still be among the richest when the world is forced to make inevitable changes.  The answer to this question is usually through slow measures and complex financial mechanisms.  I find it funny that ‘progressive’ leaders from the developed/over-consuming/rich/Western world readily cite the scientific consensus on climate change to support plans that do not go nearly as far as the aforementioned science calls for.

How can I build my economy without the ease of dirty fossil fuels?  Here is the question lurking in the minds of China and India.  These countries have a desire to develop like the West, but they are now being told they must do it cleanly.  How is this going to be possible?  Under current agreements (Kyoto), the already-developed world will help pay for cleaner industrial methods; the plan is called the CDM.  It sounds brilliant, but China and India have clearly not been satisfied.

Here is where things get interesting…

How do I adapt to climate change—which I have not caused—and still overcome the hurdles of carbonless development?  Ah, yes…the question posed by all of the world’s least developed countries.  The CDM won’t work for them.  Their economies are too small.  Developed countries won’t see a high enough rate of return and can’t get as high a level of joint investment as they can in emerging economies such as China or India.

How do I survive?  Tuvalu, Maldives, the Marshall Islands.  To them, it’s not even about ‘also developing.’  It’s about making sure there is ground to live on.  Maldives has come up with a couple answers to this question in recent history.  Its previous government tried to build concrete walls around the capital island.  Now, the current president is buying land in other countries for refugees.

Do you see the problem?  There are 192 countries at the UNFCCC COP-15 and it seems that there are 192 questions that need to be answered.  From my observations, a lack of cooperation prevents any of the questions from getting answered.  This is not occurring just between the Annex-I and Annex-II countries as they are defined now.

After the African states walked out of COP-15 negotiations last Monday, Nnimmo Bassey (a famous environmental leader from Nigeria—see previous post for commentary and links) explained his frustration to me.  Some of his specific words were similar to those that I had heard from Ms Fatou Gaye (a leader from The Gambia who used to chair the JI Supervisory Committee) earlier in the week.  He told me that CDM’s were “crap.”  Yet the mechanism is cherished by China and India who are a part of the G77&China, which stood behind Africa when they walked out!

Even if the disparate questions amongst leaders could be reconciled, would it be enough?  I haven’t even gotten to the questions posed by activists and NGOs.  Why is it that 20% of the world controls 80% of the wealth?  Can our current relationship with the environment be continued?  How far will mitigating climate change go towards alleviating social injustice?

Do all of these different questions have to create separate factions?  Personally, I don’t think so.  It is theoretically possible to create a fair and ambitious agreement that addresses all of these questions.  Poverty, the environment, security, nutrition, peace:  they are all interconnected.  There is a lack of trust, however, that is still holding progress back.  This is a big treaty with a lot of parts; it aims to help a lot of people.  Not every part has to pertain to every participant, so there needs to be trust that each section is well though out and is a worthwhile piece of the puzzle.  Trust, care, patience, and responsibility have to be first cultivated at the personal level.  It has to come from the world leaders, from the delegates, from the observers, from the press, from the people on the streets, and from the people back home–wherever home may be.  If individuals show that the ideals of the climate change movement are worth believing in, then it is possible for change to come.

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