Tongues as sounding brass

20 January 2010

At Copenhagen, countries pledged to submit their carbon-cutting plans by the end of this month. Few have done so, says Michael Northcott

COPENHAGEN’s most famous philo­sopher, Søren Kierkegaard, argued in his Works of Love that Christianity is the world’s greatest philosophy because it makes of love the supreme duty, the “royal law” of the philosopher king Jesus Christ.

No other philosophy — pagan or rationalist — marries love and law, and so turns desire into duty, in this way. By so doing, Christianity secures love as humanity’s end; for “only when it is a duty to love, only then is love eternally secured against every change.”

There was little love lost between the nations at the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations’ Framework Con­ven­tion on Climate Change in Copen­hagen last month. The meet­ing was marred by chaotic organ­isation and excessive security. It was also over­shadowed by the early at­tempts of a group of developed nations — in­clud­ing Britain, Den­mark, and the United States — to scupper the Kyoto Protocol.

A new “Copenhagen” text was put about in the first week of the con­ference, which undid the principle of climate justice built into Kyoto and resisted by the US, that those who have grown rich on pollution should be the first to act to reduce it.

The new text argued for equal re­sponsibility for pollution-reduction by developed and developing nations, and entirely neglected the historic responsibility of the devel­oped na­tions — particularly in the past 50 years — for the signi­ficant growth in carbon emissions which will fuel global warming for the next 50.

The conference was also over­shadowed by the unwillingness of the world’s largest greenhouse-gas pol­luter — the US — to offer more than a derisory four-per-cent cut in its 1990 greenhouse-gas emissions levels by 2020.

During the conference proceed­ings, and afterwards in the global media, however, it was China and not the US which was widely blamed for the failure even to ap­proach an agree­ment, or a modi­fication of the previous Kyoto Proto­col, throughout the two weeks of public and behind-the-scenes nego­tiations.

The conference ended in some­thing close to meltdown of the formal proceedings. Having failed to neg­otiate an agreed text in the plenary, the final meeting on Friday reluct­antly agreed to “take note” of the so-called “Copenhagen Accord”, which was a hastily written mem­orandum of agreement between China, the US, and a few other developing nations.

The conference ended in some­thing close to meltdown of the formal proceedings. Having failed to neg­otiate an agreed text in the plenary, the final meeting on Friday reluct­antly agreed to “take note” of the so-called “Copenhagen Accord”, which was a hastily written mem­orandum of agreement between China, the US, and a few other developing nations.

THE CASE against the Kyoto Proto­col, long argued in the US, is that it represented international interfer­ence in the affairs of sovereign nations, and in particular in their ability to maintain fossil-fuel-led economic growth. So strong was the US govern­ment’s hostility to legal restraints on fossil-fuel use that Al Gore persuaded the Europeans at Kyoto to abandon their original target of 30-per-cent cuts on 1990 greenhouse-gas emis­sions levels by 2012, and instead sub­stitute an average of five-per-cent cuts.

Furthermore, Mr Gore insisted that even this derisory target should be tradable through the dubious and fraud-beset market system of pollu­tion permits and offsets known as carbon-emissions trading.

Consequently, as John Ashton, the British Government’s climate-change ambassador, argued before Copen­hagen, the Kyoto Protocol made no impact on the Mauna Loa data-set of greenhouse gases present in the at­mo­sphere since 1990. On the con­trary, emissions actually grew faster after the signing of the accord than they had before.

Having scuppered the Kyoto Protocol, on the basis that only a weak treaty would be ratified by the House of Congress, Clinton/Gore never took the Protocol to Capitol Hill for rati­fication. President George W. Bush was more open in his refusal of the Protocol, and an­nounced that not only would he not ask Congress to ratify it, but that instead he would negotiate a different climate-change treaty with developing and some developed nations.

This intent led to discussions on carbon-emissions trading and tech­nology transfer between the US, Australia, China, and some small develop­ing nations. So long as Mr Bush was in the White House, though, the Europeans stood firmly behind the Kyoto Protocol, despite its flaws.

But after the election of Barack Obama as President, the Bush posi­tion suddenly acquired an advocate whom the Europeans found it harder to resist. It was only the threats from the Africans and the small island states to walk out of the conference that prevented the formal abandon­ment of the Protocol at Copenhagen.

None the less, the conference ended with the US, now joined by China, formally opposing any attempt in international law to place restraints on individual-country greenhouse-gas emissions. So, in effect, what happened at Copen­hagen was that the official negoti­ating position of the world’s most powerful superpower — the US — became also the official nego­­tiating position of the world’s second most powerful superpower — China.

BUT, of course, most of the world’s big media outlets are owned by American, or pro-American, cor­pora­tions. So the media — and a number of Western politicians, including Ed Miliband — widely spun the débâcle of Copenhagen as the fault not of the Americans but of the Chinese.

James Hansen, the redoubtable NASA scientist who for years stood up to efforts by George Bush and Dick Cheney to scupper global-warming science and prevent US scientists from speaking about climate change, argues that, in the end, the breakdown of an effective treaty process at Copenhagen may be an opportunity in disguise.

Given that the Kyoto Protocol relied so extensively on the nefarious market mathematics of carbon-emissions trading that it has made no impact on real-world emissions, Dr Hansen suggests the world is now presented with the opportunity to create a new treaty that would genu­inely commit nations to serious greenhouse-gas reductions, without any trading let-out clauses.

Others argue that the Copenhagen Accord is better than the Kyoto Protocol, since it commits China and India to action alongside the devel­oped nations. These are emerg­ing as global polluters on a scale with Ger­many and the US in terms of national carbon output. But the accord con­tains no numbers. Instead, it suggests nations will submit their greenhouse-gas reduc­tion targets by the end of January 2010, something that, so far, very few nations have actually done.

IN THE WORLD outside Copen­hagen, the fossil-fuel- and forest-hungry corporations carried on their business unhindered. On the Tues­day of the first week of the confer­ence, the award of the first post-war oil contracts were announced in Iraq.

On the Thursday of the same week, in Papua New Guinea, two young men, protesting at the de­struc­tion of virgin rainforest by a Malay­sian logging com­pany, were shot in the legs by police officers and then released as an example to the local population to stop opposition to the com­pany’s destruction of their en­viron­ment.

The US remains the world’s largest importer of tropical timber and oil. And hence US foreign policy remains tied to oil and war. The US maintains more than 800 military bases around the world, and has an annual war budget of more than $1 trillion. From health care to pollution to the ongoing “war on terror”, President Obama’s political decisions have favoured the interests of North American corporations — including private military contrac­tors, oil companies, and health-insurance companies — over those of American citizens, let alone the biosphere.

The North American refusal of law and treaty in respect of climate change is consistent with a particular strain in American self-belief in its own “manifest destiny”. North Americans continue to believe that they are in charge of world history, and that their leading place in modern history is even divinely ordained.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the artists and writers of North America are increasingly offering a vision of a future dominated by a technological and warlike power, whose hubris has led to the destruc­tion of most life on earth (including most North Americans) by the middle of the present century.

And yet even this strain of human­ist apocalyptic — to be seen in novels such as Cormac Mc­Carthy’s The Road or Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood — seems only to under­line the con­tinuing demise of a life-affirming politics in North America.

All the more, then, it is incumbent on Christians after Copenhagen to affirm that their calling is love and not war. Marrying duty to love is the great moral project that Christ set before us. The Christian hope is that doing what is right — reducing fossil-fuel use for the sake of the distant neigh­bour in space and time, whose life is threat­ened by human-induced drought or flood — is not only duty but also love.

Living in love, and not in fear, is genuinely a better, more hopeful, and happier way to live. Kierkegaard is right: the example and teachings of Jesus Christ represented a spiritual revolution. But he was equally right that Christendom — and its cor­porate and political progeny — betrayed the duty that is love.

In that sense, the outcome of Copenhagen was entirely consistent with the Danish philosopher’s pro­phetic reading of the history of Christianity. So people of faith need all the more to heed his call to make that spiritual leap of faith, and live differently, hopefully, and lovingly.

The Revd Dr Michael Northcott is Professor of Ethics in the University of Edinburgh.

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