Over the last few years there has been a massive shift in attitudes over the question of climate change.
Up until recently many ordinary people were uncertain as to whether global warming was happening at all, let alone what the causes were of any changes in the climate. For millions, such doubt has now disappeared in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and the increasingly apparent reality of a changing climate. Hundreds of thousands of people will be protesting this Saturday as part of a global day of action on the issue.
Talks are currently taking place in Bali, Indonesia, to try to agree to update 1997’s Kyoto protocol, the last international treaty that aimed to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Few countries will engage in these talks with the discredited position of disputing the science. But what is being fought over, both at Bali and domestically, is who bears the biggest responsibility for causing climate change and what we should do to solve the problem.
The latest line of argument coming from the US and the richer countries in the world is that the greatest threat comes from the developing countries of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico.
George Bush’s administration – which has yet to fully acknowledge that human activity is causing global warming – is nevertheless quick to claim that it cannot sign up to an international agreement on emissions reductions if developing counties are not subject to the same agreements.
The hypocrisy of such claims is not lost on many in the developing world. Despite lurid headlines depicting China in particular as the biggest threat to the world’s climate, the truth is that it is the world’s richest countries that have by far the highest emissions per head of population.
Carbon dioxide emissions per head in 2004 stood at 20.6 tonnes in the US and 9.8 tonnes in Britain. For China the figure drops to 5.4 tonnes, and for India it is a mere 0.9 tonnes. Yet it is the poorest areas of the world – and the poorest people in those areas – that will suffer most from climate change.
Blaming the poorest
The richest countries will haggle at Bali and desperately try to avoid any answers that challenge the neoliberal model of economic organisation. We should be prepared for yet more propaganda that blames the poorest nations and the poorest people for problems caused by profit-hungry big business.
Gordon Brown likes to present the British government as a global leader in reducing emissions. The Climate Bill now passing through parliament will legally compel the government to cut emissions by 60 percent by 2050. But there are substantial problems with this legislation.
The target falls well short of what is required to avoid temperature rises over 2 degrees Celsius, which scientists regard as producing dangerous climate change. Most scientists call for cuts of 80 to 90 percent. The bill’s 60 percent target is a consequence of successful lobbying of the government by big business.
Similarly the omission of aviation and shipping emissions from the targets – and Brown’s very public backing of airport expansion – make a mockery of serious targets to reduce emissions. Brown’s statement that “Britain’s prosperity depends on airport expansion” indicates which groups had the ear of government when drawing up the bill.
The other limitations of the bill lie in promoting solutions based on either taxing individual behaviour, or on market based solutions such as carbon offsetting and trading. Similar strategies are likely to dominate any outcome at Bali.
The problem with these approaches was exposed this week in a report that outlined how the “Clean Development Mechanism” – the carbon credit system through which Kyoto cuts were to be achieved – has led to companies selling fake carbon credits to governments. The mechanism designed to reduce emissions is facilitating an increase in emissions.
Activists need to force their governments to take on emissions reductions in line with scientific requirements, rather than the interests of big business. We also need to challenge solutions based on adapting “free market” models that have failed in all other areas of our public life.