Typhoons, Climate Negotiations and a Reality Check

– by Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch

The latest round of climate negotiations are opening just as we are hearing the stories and viewing images on the news coverage of the devastation wrought on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan (aka Yolanda).  Coincidentally, the last round of climate negotiations, COP 18 in Doha were similarly punctuated by a devastating typhoon, Bhopa (aka Pablo) that also struck the Philippines.

Climate scientists long warned we would experience more and more extreme weather events. Well, here it is, just as predicted. In the Philippines, thousands of lives have been lost. Bodies are floating in the streets — mothers, fathers, babies, children. Not just meaningless statistics from some far away unreal place, but real people: loved ones and friends whose lives have been smashed and obliterated, while the world around them — trees, land, coastlines, and the creatures that inhabit that part of the world — have been flattened, blown away and drowned.

Anyone with a modicum of empathy for other living beings must feel deeply troubled.

Last year, the lead negotiator from the Philippines, Yeb Sano broke into tears at the negotiations in Doha describing the damage inflicted by typhoon Bhopa, and today in Warsaw, as the death toll from Haiyan continues to mount, he announced that he would commence a voluntary fast “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.” A few weeks ago, the chair of the UNFCCC, Christina Figueres broke into tears bemoaning the failure to take steps to ensure future generations a livable planet.

So far, tears and emotional pleas appear incapable of breaking the gridlock that epitomizes the UN climate negotiations. That gridlock is to a large extent courtesy of the United States obstructionist strategies. In the early days of the negotiations our representatives demanded that market based approaches be made front and center, threatening to refuse participation otherwise. Then the U.S. refused to ratify the protocol in any case. Then our representatives insisted that we would do nothing whatsoever that could “harm the American way of life” (aka interfere with ruthless profit making economic growth). The subtext of that statement being “no matter what the consequences for other people’s lives elsewhere”). Then our president waltzed into Copenhagen and arrogantly undermined the hard work of an international consensus, ignoring protocol to ram through an American version of an “agreement.” The purpose apparently was to remove the fangs from any serious commitments and stir the smoldering embers of discontent and disunity that were already in place as nations around the world faced compromises they were already reluctant to accept.

And still, the United States meanwhile remains shamefully mired in Tea Party muck, barely able to even utter the words “climate change” in government circles much less do anything whatsoever about it.  Endless time and energy is dithered away debating whether or not climate change even exists! Obama made noises in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, newly empowered by his reelection.  But adding insult to injury, the solutions he offered up were largely a laundry list of false solutions: In line with his “all of the above” energy strategy he called for more offshore oil drilling and more hydrofracking. Not a word was spoken about halting the massive subsidies going into fossil fuels. With a nod to the coal industry, he advocated for “clean coal” based on carbon capture and storage mythology, and praised efforts to expand bioenergy in spite of ever mounting evidence of the harms. While environmentalists took some solace in the fact that he at least called for caps on some coal plant emissions, his goals were so weak as to be considered a token gesture. And even those pathetic limits are being challenged by Tea Party extremists and the coal industry.

The same kinds of false solutions are vying for attention under the UN negotiations, where corporations have been handed the reins. They do what corporations do, namely seek profits.  So the solutions on offer are largely centered on enhancing business opportunities (and avoiding real regulations that could hamper profit making).

What would we actually want from a UN agreement?  Binding targets, severe enough to actually make a difference would be great, if terribly and perhaps irretrievably late, but the problem as always is in the details of how to achieve those targets. The UN, like most governments, is falling deeper into the pockets of corporations who remain obsessed with markets as the tool of choice. Not surprising given that carbon markets have allowed polluting corporations to get off the hook and even to profit from trade in thin air. Following quite a few years of time wasted experimenting with those markets, it should be crystal clear by now that they will not deliver on reducing emissions. Perhaps some good old-fashioned regulation, with teeth? That seems almost a laughable suggestion in the U.S. where, unbelievably, there is a Supreme Court challenge, backed by the coal industry, aimed to block the EPA from regulating emissions from smokestacks.

Besides carbon markets, the other rallying call is for more renewable energy. That too is has great appeal to corporations, who envision carrying on business as usual while perhaps plugging in a few windmills. Even the environmental groups like to call for renewable energy ad nauseum. It sounds nice, but nobody has bothered to seriously debate what IS renewable.

Hence, a lion’s share of renewable energy is coming from bioenergy — converting more land, growing more crops and tree plantations, even cutting remaining diverse forests to burn for electricity.  The climate, biodiversity and human rights consequences are clearly not good, and no “solution” to global warming.  Besides, renewables currently supply only a tiny faction of global primary energy, according to the International Energy Agency — about 13 percent in total. But that is largely from bioenergy (10 percent), which includes traditional uses of wood (for cooking, etc.) which comprise about 7 percent. Wind and solar meanwhile contribute a mere 1 percent to total primary energy supply. It would seem dangerously unrealistic to pretend we will replace the remaining 87 percent of global energy supply with wind and solar, or some other renewable, in short enough order to effectively protect our climate. In the end there is no “magic” energy source that will enable us to carry on as we are with business as usual.  We will at some point have to recognize that the laws of nature are uncompromising an there is no alternative other than to focus hard on dramatically reducing human consumption of finite planetary resources. Doing so while simultaneously addressing the needs of millions living in extreme poverty without even their most basic needs met will be a massive challenge. But there really appears to be no other path to success.

That is, except perhaps in the minds of those who arrogantly believe they are in control of nature. Circling at the edges of the Typhoon Haiyan carnage are the climate geoengineers, eager for an opportunity to peddle their wares: Desperate measures are needed for desperate times, eh? If all else fails, we can just inject sulphate particles into the stratosphere. It might even be less expensive, some argue. Or if we are worried about the weather, we can just engineer the clouds to shine a bit brighter and prevent the next Haiyan from happening. Not only do those approaches seem guaranteed to make things worse, not better, but also we have to ask WHO will be in control.

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