Emission Cuts and Copenhagen Talks

All roads lead to Copenhagen this fortnight. World leaders, scientists, journalists, policy makers and stakeholders are converging in the Danish capital to chart out strategies to control climate change. Whether it is going to be an effective summit or another empty talking time is to be watched. From the current diplomatic war over climate change there is less one can read about the genuineness of the world leaders to sort out this complex matter. Every nation and its leader is keen on scoring popularity points rather than finding a long lasting solution to the climate change. George Manbiot writes in The Times of India on 6 December 2009 Climate change is humankind’s most pressing challenge; unless we can reduce the amount of global warming gases we release into the atmosphere, the heating they cause will melt the world’s glaciers, create both droughts and floods, drive many people from their homes as sea levels rise and threaten the world’s ability to feed itself. So why are so few people trying to stop it? We have left the task to governments and experts. Public protests demanding action have been small and muted. Because there is so little public engagement, the governments meeting in Copenhagen are proposing only a fraction of the cuts needed to prevent disaster. They bailed out the banks but seem prepared to let the world’s ecosystems collapse. Surely the world’s people should be hammering on their doors, insisting that they act? I think there are several reasons why this hasn’t happened. The first is a campaign of disinformation by the fossil fuel companies, whose investments will lose value if a strong climate deal is struck. For 20 years the energy industries have sponsored “experts” to tell the public that climate change either isn’t happening or is no big deal. Some corporations have paid astroturf groups — fake grassroots campaigns — to lobby against action on climate change. They have successfully sown doubt and confusion in people’s minds. Another reason is that the most common human response to any crisis is denial. Denial is a survival strategy: if we really came to terms with our own mortality, or with the evils of the world, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. The firmer the evidence of climate change has become, the more people have gone into denial; now in some countries nearly half the population insists that global warming is just a scare story, even though you can see the early impacts almost everywhere. But perhaps the most important reason is that the issue — and the terms used to describe it — are so complex and buried in jargon that many people simply switch off before they’ve understood its importance. When someone tells you that “unless we reduce Kyoto basket greenhouse gas emissions to maintain atmospheric concentrations below 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent, anthropogenic warming will initiate biospheric feedbacks”, you could be forgiven for staring at them blankly. That sentence describes a critically important global issue. But it’s hardly a catchy slogan, is it? Both the science and the policies needed to deal with manmade climate change are inherently complex. As soon as you get beyond the simple story — that the planet is warming up because we’re burning fossil fuels and destroying natural carbon stores — you start to get bogged down in mind-numbing detail. The fact that some scientists seem to be incapable of speaking any human language doesn’t help, but even when they do talk clearly it’s often hard to grasp. I believe there is a real democratic problem here, that is not confined to climate change. As we know ever more about the world, as experts become ever more specialized and governments rely ever more heavily on experts, it becomes harder for ordinary citizens to engage with the issues that affect their lives. In Shakespeare’s day, one person could attain the entire sum of human knowledge. You probably could have got it onto a couple of CDs. Today even the specialists can’t keep up with their own field of knowledge. Arthur C Clarke said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. He might have added that any sufficiently advanced expertise is indistinguishable from gobbledegook. We are shut out, by sheer complexity, from the important issues that affect our lives and so can play an ever less meaningful role in their resolution. This allows governments and other powerful players to hide behind jargon. As issues become more complex it becomes easier to bamboozle us. What can be done about it? I believe that all experts whose work might have an impact on public policy have a duty to speak and write as clearly as possible. I believe that governments have a duty to keep their citizens informed as well as they can, spelling out complex issues in terms that most people can grasp. I believe the media has a special responsibility for investigating and explaining complex stories as objectively as possible. But not everyone who informs us has our best interests at heart. Where climate change is concerned, some of those who communicate most clearly — the PR companies hired by fossil fuel companies — seek to mislead us. Citizens also have a duty: to be as well-informed as possible, so that they can make sensible democratic choices. But we have to accept that this will become ever more difficult as life becomes more complex. George Monbiot is the UK-based author of the bestselling books, ‘Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning’ and ‘ The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order


1 Comment

  1. Avi said,

    +00002009-12-07T13:51:39+00:00312009bUTCMon, 07 Dec 2009 13:51:39 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p12

    The Indian government has finally taken some steps towards tackling climate change. We now need to put pressure on developed nations. Let’s get out of our comfort zones and take action.

    12 December is the global day of action. I am gonna be there. Please join the movement. It’s the revolution of our era.


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