15 March 2012

Will we fry?

Ian Fry is the International Environment Officer for the Government of Tuvalu and he’s represented Tuvalu at climate change meetings from Kyoto to Durban. He doesn’t seem a happy man but he does seem both realistic and resilient. You’d need to be, given the state of climate change negotiations and the fact that the (increasingly unlikely) 2degC common target for temperature rise will swamp Tuvalu.

I seem to have got back on the Australia Institute’s Politics in the Pub mailing list, so I got an invitation to hear Ian Fry talk and respond to a few questions. We are variously told that the recent Durban conference was a failure and a success, so I was interested in his view. As I understand it, there’s an agreement to make some form of agreement – legally binding or otherwise – by 2015 for implementation by 2020, and this agreement includes all parties. That’s claimed as a success by some but it seems to have put action on the backburner and it’s obvious plenty of uncertainly remains. This is disappointing given that the Rio Conference back in 1992 agreed that climate change was real, that humans were causing it, that carbon is best controlled by pricing and that the rich countries should act first. We have successfully backpedalled since then. But it is a difficult problem. It requires massive changes over a relatively short period before the problem is popularly evident, it’s only been understood recently, it threatens vested interests and is not urgent enough to interest many of the public, it’s complex and interdisciplinary and messages are difficult. But it’s also cheaper to deal with if we go early. Ian presented the USA as key: the centrally influential developed country that seems unable to act on climate change. Without commitment by the wealthy world that is mostly the origin of the problem to date, we can understand that developing countries don’t want to act. He saw American politics and democracy as in dire straits and cited the $5billion cost for the last election and the Citizen’s United decision that ended limits on corporate donations as evidence. This is a “grim view” and a “salutary note for Australia”, with our increasingly presidential styles and the effectiveness of political advertising in influencing elections and political decision-making, viz. mining tax, and I guess I should also mention Workchoices. In the meantime, Australia acts in diplomatic lock-step with the USA on climate change. On the positive side, there’s action even in the USA, eg, California has just commenced an emissions trading scheme and the Keystone XL pipeline was blocked by Obama. But Canada has withdrawn from Kyoto and Russia and Japan are threatening to, carbon pricing in Europe is struggling and “intransigent right wing gangs” continue to confuse public opinion while the scientific reports keep coming: CSIRO and UNCTAD reports were mentioned. Is the UN process failing? Maybe, but what else is there? One audience member suggested dealing at city level, given that the top 100 cities produce most of the carbon. That was interesting. Another mentioned that Native Americans suggested dealing directly with companies. (I’m always wary of claims for superior indigenous wisdom). Ian noted that Native Americans have constitutional privileges over land. I wondered if this is not just relegating democracy to the dustbin and accepting corporate control – a black-as-white version of Communism’s power of workplace democracy? Another suggested bypassing politics and dealing with people directly, but that seemed more like just education than people-power. In the meantime, Australia is now mining $400m tons of coal annually, and this will rise to 1billion in 20 years.

It’s not a rosy picture. I feel for our children, and in the meantime for Ian Fry and Tuvalu and its Environmental department of 4 people up against the might of corporate wealth and influence. It’s a brave, if doomed, battle: for Tuvalu and maybe for all of us.

No comments: