Sunday, December 09, 2012

Why Doha failed, and what to do about it

The blame for the failure at Doha to deliver a significant breakthrough to save the future world from devastating consequences of climate change once again lies with the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry and the failure of politicians to act responsibly, in line with the scientific evidence.

In America in particular, but also in Britain, this industry is allowed to lobby and fund politicians and political parties, and in return they are expected to deliver political decisions in their favour. This is a far cry from responsible, participative democracy that citizens expect and need.

The website documents the amount of money spent by oil and gas companies lobbying American politicians and financing their election campaigns. The top five companies spent the huge total of $42,470,000 on lobbying in 2012. They are: Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, Chevron and BP.

20 oil companies donated a massive $25,429,233 in political contributions during the last American election. The majority of it went to the Republicans, but enough went to the Democrats to secure the required response, given the make-up of Congress.

The result in Doha reveals what they got in exchange for this cash. For them, it represents a bargain.

For Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy, Union of Concerned Scientists, COP18 wasn't an environmental conference. It was "a trade fair" on behalf of the oil and gas industry which was there to protect its short-term profits.

Hence, the local paper's headline at the weekend: "Qatar is victory for the climate". This is sheer Orwellian spin, as in 1984's Ministry of Peace being actually responsible for war.

Qatar was widely criticised during the talks for failing to set clear targets for reducing its own emissions. Instead it argues that its liquefied natural gas exports mean it is helping other nations move away from using more polluting coal. This is like saying heroin dealing is okay because it's not as addictive as crack cocaine.

The fact that coal-dependent Poland is to host next year's talks means the takeover of the UN negotiation process by the fossil fuel industry is complete.

So if we can expect nothing of these talks, what can we do? Environmentalists and activists must realise that instead change has to come at a local and regional level.

I am just reading an excellent book, The Leaderless Revolution, by Carne Ross, a former diplomat who was Britain's Foreign Office representative at the United Nations in the run-up to the Iraq war.

His analysis of these types of international negotiations is spot on, and it comes from real life experience.

Entrenched positions and irresponsible decisions are the direct result of decision-makers being both far removed from the impact of their actions and being completely unaccountable for their decisions.

He quotes research showing that even when people with dramatically opposed opinions in a given community come together to make a decision affecting all of them, they will reach a reasonable and appropriate solution only if they know that they have genuine responsibility for the result.

That is to say, if the consequences of their decision affects them or others close to them directly.

Time and again, Ross cites examples where his own reports to ministers resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians in countries that he had never visited, and he himself was completely unaccountable for these deaths, just as they were.

He talks of his undying shame that he took such decisions so lightly. It took him a long time to come to his senses and realise that none of his reports for Whitehall, or the policies adopted by politicians based on his and many similar reports, went anywhere near to solving the problems that they were intended to address, such as making the world a safer place.

In fact, they had the exact opposite effect.

Politicians, he says, are incapable of doing the right thing because they cannot comprehend and arbitrate the forces that we assume, and which they persuade us, they are able to deal with.

Reality is too complex, they are preoccupied with many other concerns, including whether they will win the next election, and their hands are often tied.

An argument in a community today in Britain, over whether a windfarm should be sited nearby, frequently results in acrimonious and polarised debate, because the members of the community are not themselves responsible for the windfarm, or indeed for any form of energy supply to their community.

If they had to decide how to provide all the heat and power their community needed, if they had secured the finance themselves, if they had decided or been given a set of conditions, such as that whatever generation plant they chose should be as low carbon as possible, and if they could manage the plant afterwards, and received the rewards of their investment themselves, then the likelihood is that they would reach a reasonable solution.

In the debate, they would be prepared to listen to each other's point of view and take them into account in the process.

But communities are rarely given that responsibility.

Ross says that as a result we ourselves must take such responsibility, as, for example, citizens are doing with the Isle of Wight's Ecoisland project.

We give political power away at our peril, and when we do there is no guarantee it will result in a better situation than the one we can make on our own.

This would be true Localism, but far from what David Cameron intended when he made it a plank of his election manifesto.

His form of localism was a hollow promise. No politician will ever, in reality, give power away to the people. Why on earth would they ask you to vote for them if so?

Instead, they make promises that they know we want to believe, like “Yes we can” and ‘the greenest government ever”, and we do vote for them.

We are always let down.

Ross decries internet activism also, saying that the technology it uses is too easily appropriated by commerce and politicians.

Instead, he proposes, simply, talking to others in your community, and moving on from there.

It’s where the power revolution has to start. After Doha, it’s the only place to start.

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