Saturday, September 26, 2009

Can Copenhagen Deliver on its Promises?

We are already witnessing the beginnings of a barrage of saturated media coverage about climate change and the upcoming Copenhagen conference. By the time the COP15 Conference at Copenhagen arrives it might be the only item in the news all over the world and that is good. We need to take some meaningful measures that could get us to move in the right direction. Who knows, we might even avoid the apocalypse.
The failure to reach an agreement to adopt an effective and clear plan of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be a major setback to the environmental efforts to avert a catastrophic climate change, an increase in temperature greater than 2 degrees Celsius. Sea level will rise, major ocean currents would be disrupted, monsoons and hurricanes will increase both in their frequency and intensity, crop failures will become more common, desertification will increase; life as we know it will become disrupted. What is at stake is surely the greatest challenge that civilization has ever faced and a successful Copenhagen meeting is a must.
Yet if we are to act as dispassionate observers of this process we will have no choice but to note the major logical fallacy upon which Copenhagen is built. The issue is not whether the world can afford not to decrease its GHG emissions; it can not. The real issue though is whether Copenhagen can deliver us out of this self inflicted quagmire? How can it possibly do that when we even refuse to look into the root cause of this problem? Anthropogenic emissions are simply the product of human economic activity and no one is proposing that we limit economic growth. The position at Copenhagen is nothing else but an exercise in a combination of major logical fallacies such as “argumentum ad populum” combined with “argumentum ad baculum”; a false argument based on the appeal to the majority and to fear.
Let me explain. One of the major efforts that the nations, represented at Copenhagen, will confront is that of reducing car emissions. It is widely believed that the move to hybrid engines and electric plug-in vehicles, in addition to more efficient engines, will turn out to be a major contribution in achieving the sought reduction in carbon emissions. But would it? The world produced over 70 million new vehicles during 2007 but under the best estimates all the hybrids and electric plug-in will not amount to more than 2 million units a year by 2015. If these numbers hold then that is a miserly 2% of the new cars, not to mention that China and India alone are slated to replace the United States as the number one producers of vehicles in the world. Emissions from China and India, both of whom are neighbours of Bangladesh, will not be regulated. Climate change is the largest infringement on the sovereignty of Bangladesh and yet it goes on each day of the year without firing a bullet or creating a political standoff. Even if we are to assume, as unlikely as it might be, that by 2020 one fifth of the newly manufactured in the world each year would be powered by either a hybrid or an electric engine, what about all the raw materials that has to be mined and processed in order to build all of these cars not to mention all the tires, spare parts, accidents and highways that they will generate and require? Would supplying all of these resources by “developing” countries be without a carbon footprint?
A more efficient car is a welcome development but a more efficient car will be useless in reducing the human impact on the ecosystem unless we are to simultaneously build fewer cars and consequently fewer garages, less highways, less spare parts use less resources and conserve our natural capital.
It is not sufficient to set up a goal. We must set up a goal accompanied by a workable plan otherwise the goal would best be classified as a wish. Imagine ,if you will, that all the water bottling facilities in Fiji ; whose products are shipped to North America and the rest of the world; are to become totally powered by energy acquired through either thermal solar , photovoltaic or wind turbines, would that then make the consumption of such water environmentally friendly? You decide.
As you can see from the above the need to cut down on GHG’s and carbon emissions is not questioned. What is at stake is our ability, or rather inability, to accept that climate change is nothing more than a manifestation of a systemic failure and such failures demand a total redesign of the system. If we cannot understand this most basic of all facts then all our efforts, as well intentioned as they might be will be for naught.

A podcast of the above can be heard at:


Caroline Craig said...

Of all the conversations one can have on environmental issues, this one, to be completely honest, is the scariest. However, locked in helplessness is the last thing one should be in this situation. The things we talk about in every class are politically unpalatable. My biggest worry is that these conversations will continue to be had by the same people and never reach out. People are afraid to discuss things they do not know the answers to but it is only when we have our society questioning and thinking together that we can create change. I learn more by not just talking over issues with other environmentalists, but with architects, businessmen, and teachers. Frustration from not getting answers out of politicians is doubled when you realize they don't even have the answers. You'll be lucky if they ever even considered the questions.

I don't want to call it "hope," because it certainly has not reached that point yet, but there is something happening right now. It seems to me that talk of the instabilities of capitalism is getting more mainstream.
From the discussions being had in France to the way Thome York of Radiohead ended the Age of Stupid Premier last week(I can't find the quote but I know a student from the Pleasantville campus was there, too!).
Although this can be good news, I don't expect a change in the "system" because of this. More likely, they'll keep patching it up with solutions that will help us in the short run. It has occurred to me that the argument has gone back and forth over how much control a government should have, because people don't want to acknowledge that maybe we need to create a new economic system to get rid of these reoccurring problems. What that is, I don't know.

ghassan karam said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
I believe that it is our duty, as responsible citizens, not to back away from tough fights, to tell the truth as we see it and above all to act in a principled way.
This does not mean that we should not recognize the constraints imposed on us by "reality" but it means that we should as a result double our efforts to work towards a goal according to a plan that is designed to achieve the objective. And when it becomes clear that the crisis is systemic then we have to work towards a commensurate solution
by rejecting band aid proposals except as temporary means to stabilize the patient.
I hope that we will get the chance to continue this dialogue in the future.

Syed Mohsin said...

Producing more hybrid cars might be a solution to this climate change problem, but I think a better solution is,as said in the article, is to use fewer cars as possible. Getting people to do that: abandoning their cars may take a long time to achieve; but I think it can be done by making people more environmentally conscious of their ecological foot print and the impact an individual can have on the environment. I for one, have changed a lot ever since I have started doing my Env Stud degree. We just have to keep on getting the knowledge out there.

Jennifer Kozubek said...

there can be progress if the Copenhagen conference goes well. by this i mean that a plan must be the very least...environmentalists voices cannot be muted... most importantly the conference cannot be viewed as a one shot deal...getting the ball rolling is just the beginning and once a "real" plan is activated than perhaps Copenhagen will become the birthplace of a long awaited ecological movement that will spawn global recognition and reinforcement...

Rose Fava said...

I most definitly agree with the fact that we as Americans need to lower our emissions. However I feel as if the American people are set in their ways and will away exspect someone else to be doing the work. We also think of it as me doing what little I can isn't going to matter in the long run. We need to get people to realize that every little bit counts.

Jose Arredondo said...

It is no longer about how we can manipulate our current system to reduce our impact on nature. I believe it has reached the point that we must completely change our system to reduce our carbon footprint. Unfortunately, that is much easier said than done. I hate to say that it is going to take a bad situation to occur in order for the people in charge to realize how serious this problem really is. I don't know what more kind of evidence is needed. In the past week I can recall a few earthquakes and tsunamis in various parts of the world devastating entire communities. Until these occurrences hit home will be too late. Hopefully our political leaders of the many nations will realize the time is now to make the necessary change of the system.

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