Friday, March 13, 2015

Ciphers or Saviors?

Earlier this week Guardian columnist George Monbiot railed against the clan of UN climate negotiators, describing them as "hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives" in pursuit of "radical new deckchair design" for our global Titanic. I want to return to his argument, which merits attention. But first I want to introduce the US deckchair-arranger, arguably the most powerful of these global attendants, and a man of whom David Corn was asking, just 6 years ago in Mother Jones, "Can this man save our planet?"

His name is Todd Stern, and he certainly seems to be trying. Mr. Stern spent 5 years as a policy advisor in the Clinton administration, and was the US's chief negotiator in Kyoto in 1997. As a fellow at the Center for American Progress he continued to follow and write about the evolution of climate policy, and in 2009 he returned to Hillary Clinton's State Department as special envoy for climate change. He has gone on record to insist that fossil fuels will "obviously" have to be left in the ground and written off as assets, and more recently he warned that the whole UN process is at risk of breaking down without some perceived success at the Paris conference. This is a man who takes his job seriously and has engaged with the climate problem since before most of us knew there was one.

On the other hand, it is fair to ask whether Stern and the US position he has shaped and promoted is adequate to the dimensions of the problem. Monbiot is not alone in asking whether the gradualist approach of the UN process is too timid, too slow, and even dangerous in promoting false optimism. Activists including Bill McKibben of join Monbiot in pointing to "leave it in the ground" as a starting point, not a consequence. They would work backward from a "budget" of carbon emissions beyond which the goal of 2 degrees C is considered unreachable. 80% of that 'budget' of fossil fuels is already burned, so the rest would have to be carefully allocated, with some (unspecified) strict control on further exploitation or consumption. Such an approach would be aggressive, even coercive, but its proponents insist that any less stringent method inevitably takes us beyond the tolerable level of carbon, and puts the earth in almost certain peril of temperatures well above the 2C level. Indeed many climate researchers already believe 2C is a fanciful hope at this point, and reliable studies suggest that even with the eventual restraints of the UN process, we are headed for temperature increases of 4-6 C, or 11 degrees Fahrenheit--levels at which our species survival would be in serious doubt.

Like his boss, the President, Stern strongly advocates for a low-carbon, growth-based future--and yet Obama's "all of the above" energy policy is completely at odds with Stern's call to "leave it in the ground."  Stern has remarked that "the holy grail ... is for non-fossil energy to become a better business proposition, all-in, than fossil fuels," but that approach would seem to leave our fate in the hands of global businesses, whose indifference to and outright subversion of the climate debate is notorious.

So are we sailing toward Paris with Captain Stern and his UN crew, blithely enjoying the icebergs while they last? Or might we arrive at a scene of unprecedented international cooperation? Are dedicated public officials like Todd Stern offering false hope, as commentators like Monbiot would suggest? Or are they proceeding in the only feasible way to reach some achievable resolution? The question is hugely complex, and induces passionate and contradictory answers. It is a question I will be probing in future posts as if our lives depended on it.

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