Looking at ourselves better, with increasing truth

Andrei Tarkovsky – in the classic SF movie Solaris – floats the thought that since we cannot know when we’re going to die, we are, at any given moment, immortal.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change surreally redraws the climate change message into a risk-management challenge, and one through which risks become opportunities. Two co-chairs of IPCC working groups write that:

Progress in reducing emissions is an important part of responding to climate change, but it is not the whole solution… Investments in managing those risks can be effective and affordable. Indeed, some of the most appealing responses are relatively inexpensive. Others, which require more resources, can be developed as investments that not only provide protection from climate change, but also advance competitiveness, development, and security.

Denial is a classic human fallibility, and it comes in many forms. As Nick Cohen notes many politicians cannot discuss how their countries could accept huge reductions in their living standards in order to tackle climate change – and oddly the British Chancellor does not want Britain to ‘punch above its weight’ on this occasion – because to concede its inevitability would demand a reckoning with a world they are loath to acknowledge exists.

Climate change deniers … If they admitted they were wrong on climate change, they might have to admit that they were wrong on everything else and their whole political identity would unravel.

The professional economist (blogger) (vox) fraternity also stalks around the main issue. They point to the market failures implicit in the business-as-uBeijing pollutionsual fossil-fuel subsidies – $520 billion in 2011 alone.  Cap and trade is discounted (so much then for REDD?) ; carbon taxes are OK to discourage further greenhouse gas emissions. But only after fossil fuel subsidies have been phased out and preferably when investments in green and basic energy technology have been made and new technologies realized, in effect when non fossil energy prices are less than fossil fuel prices.

But time is not on our side. Emissions are accelerating, and at the current rate the twenty-first century’s entire carbon budget will be used up by 2030.  China has recently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – not least because it makes much of the stuff we buy. But the issue is not about Country A or B; rather, it is more about global Company A, B, and C etc., and the response of governments (here and here). Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone nails two crucial points.

Given this hard math, we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization…According to the Carbon Tracker report, if Exxon burns its current reserves, it would use up more than seven percent of the available atmospheric space between us and the risk of two degrees. BP is just behind, followed by the Russian firm Gazprom, then Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell, each of which would fill between three and four percent. Taken together, just these six firms, of the 200 listed in the Carbon Tracker report, would use up more than a quarter of the remaining two-degree budget. Severstal, the Russian mining giant, leads the list of coal companies, followed by firms like BHP Billiton and Peabody. The numbers are simply staggering – this industry, and this industry alone, holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of our planet, and they’re planning to use it. So pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

If the global corporates are responsible for supplying the goods and services that we consume, then we are responsible for our own over-consumption that drives the global economy to the planet’s ecological limits. Although UK per capita carbon dioxide emissions have fallen from 10 to 8.5 tons since 1990, David McKay reckons this needs to come down to 1 ton per person by 2050 based on reaching global equal per-capita emissions.

To fix the basic problem emissions need to be cut at their source. It’s time to campaign for a 10-year time frame to reduce UK per capita emissions through the setting up of individual carbon budgets. Each year everyone gets an equal allowance and each year this is reduced (for an earlier post on carbon rationing). Every purchase has a carbon cost (similar to value-added tax). If you don’t use up your allowance for the year you can sell it back into the market; if you need more you will have to buy it in that market place. Extended and free public transport and comprehensive home insulation subsidies will offset a large part of the initial transition costs; energy-efficiency will be led by innovative market economies, and the result will be sustainable employment and growth. And the transfer of income from the rich to the poor will lead to a massive reduction in inequalities.

The experience of prolonged mass unemployment, poor social services and war provided a moral imperative for the Labour Party’s campaign and victory in 1945 on a programme of establishing the welfare state.  A similar campaign – to make the country fit for the twenty-first century – based on redressing social justice through reducing emissions could be a key platform for the General Election of 2015.

As Victor Havel wrote that it is essential to live within truth, and to be free. His humble greengrocer:

…has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system…He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade…and exposed the real, base foundations of power…He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal…everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety …

*Julian Barnes – an author that I grown up with (from reading Metroland as an undergraduate,  Flaubert’s Parrot as a postgraduate moonlighting in Paris, through A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and Nothing to Be Frightened Of) –  in his recent book Levels of Life, writes of ” … advances which allowed us to look at ourselves better, with increasing truth.”

UPDATE: The UK’s Infrastructure Bill received royal assent on 15 February 2015; the Act makes “provision about maximising economic recovery of petroleum in the United Kingdom”. This is the essential truth about the present Conservative Party leadership’s view on climate change.

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