As countries negotiate a climate change treaty in Durban, South Africa, North American media and politicans appear to have little interest in the problem.


Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Durban, South Africa, the 17th UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP17, that’s where most of the countries of the world are getting together again to negotiate some kind of climate change treaty. Well, the last time this took place in Copenhagen, it was front page news day after day. Now, barely a front page anywhere. And, in fact, the whole climate change debate seems to be off most of the media and political radar. Why is that? And what are likely to be the consequences of that? Now joining us from Washington is Daphne Wysham. Daphne is a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington. Thanks for joining us again, Daphne.

DAPHNE WYSHAM, FELLOW, INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Paul.

JAY: So, first of all, what do you make of how little attention this conference is getting? Two, three years ago, we were apocalyptic about where things were heading in terms of climate change. Now President Obama doesn’t mention the words.

WYSHAM: You know, it’s a very discouraging moment, because actually things have gotten very serious in terms of the climate science. We know that we are in the worst-case scenario, the scenario that scientists said was the worst case, that was sort of the upper level of projected emissions. The pace of emissions and the increase of greenhouse gas emissions in the Earth’s atmosphere has vastly surpassed their expectations.

JAY: Well, what are some examples? What are examples of what you’re talking about?

WYSHAM: Well, the Arctic is the prime example, where it is melting decades ahead of what was anticipated, that we’re expected to be ice-free within the next decade in the Arctic. This was a scenario that scientists anticipated perhaps by 2030, 2050, maybe even the end of the century, and it’s now happening in the next decade. We are seeing a much faster increase in temperatures than was anticipated. And, of course, all you have to do is look at countries like Pakistan or Thailand to see some of the consequences of the most serious rainfall that is expected [incompr.] look at the Horn of Africa and you can see some of the drought. Now, all of [incompr.] climate change. Of course, you know, it’s hard to unpack all of the data, but virtually every climate scientist in the world says that not only has climate change begun, it is accelerating much faster than anticipated, and we really only have a few years, about three years, until 2015, to reach our peak emissions. At that point we need to be on the downward slope, heading down to zero by 2050. Unfortunately we’re nowhere near that. And what the International Energy Agency suggests as a scenario is one that’s really quite horrifying. It suggests that we may see an increase of 11 degrees Fahrenheit, or 6 degrees Celcius, by the year 2100. Now, that’s just a scenario that no one has anticipated, and yet that is essentially what the IEA, which is a fairly conservative body, has put forward as a likely scenario, given the current emission [incompr.]

JAY: Now, when this was being talked about a couple of years ago, hitting 2 or 3 degrees was considered more than dramatic. Much of the world would be flooded, much of the world would be turned into desert, just based on hitting 2 or 3 degrees. You’re saying they’re now saying it could be 6 or 7?

WYSHAM: Yup. The International Energy Agency has said that essentially we are on track to a 6 degree rise in temperature by 2100, not a 2 degree rise, which was the upper limit. Now, that’s 2 degrees Celcius, of course. That was the upper limit that scientists said was the limit that we should avoid reaching. Unfortunately, we are on track to exceed that fairly soon.

JAY: Okay. So if you look at what’s happening in Durban and you look what’s happening particularly in American politics, it’s not a lot. The sense of urgency that seemed to be there a couple of years ago is gone. So why?

WYSHAM: You know, it’s puzzling to me. I think all of the various NGOs that are–the nongovernmental organizations that are working on this are frustrated because there’s a feeling of exhaustion, that the public is exhausted, that politicians are exhausted. And really we’ve reached a point in time where urgent action is required. There is some good news, however. You know, I think what we’re seeing here in the United States, with the Occupy movement, with the resistance to the tar sands pipeline, the expansion of this pipeline from Canada’s tar sands, the Keystone XL Pipeline, these are the kind of grassroots movements that I feel very hopeful are actually going to provide the building blocks for the kind of climate justice movement that we need to build in this country to move us away from the disastrous scenario that the IEA and others suggest we’re headed towards. And that’s because I really do believe that grassroots action, the kind of action where people are taking it to the streets, is really what’s required as we move forward in taking on the kind of entrenched corporate interests that have taken over Washington, even taken over the State Department, taken over the White House. And that’s where I think the future of climate activism lies.

JAY: Is the point here that it takes such fundamental restructuring in terms of how, you know, capitalism works that the various elites of the world would rather deal with the consequences of climate change than deal with the restructuring?

WYSHAM: You know, that’s a very scary scenario, to essentially assume that the elites of the world know where we’re headed, which is millions if not billions of people being sacrificed on the altar of fossil-fuel driven growth. And, you know, is it a question of ignorance? Is it a question of denial? Or is it a question of greed? I imagine it’s probably all three. But [incompr.] for this rise in temperature for the problems with drinking water availability, with crop failure. You know, if you read some of the news that’s coming out of Durban, just on the opening days of the Durban conference, there was a serious downpour, a flood that killed close to ten people, and the crops were wiped out. Now, that’s what Africa and a lot of the developing world is going to be facing is major downpours that wipe out crops, droughts that wipe out crops. And it’s going to be harder and harder for these countries to build back up in the face of such weather disasters.

JAY: Well, when you look at the American situation and American media and the sort of political discourse here, how do you account for the fact that I think now the last numbers I’ve seen is that 50-50 or maybe even a majority of Americans actually don’t believe there is such a thing as climate change?

WYSHAM: Well, actually, the numbers–you know, you have to disaggregate the numbers. It turns out that those who are part of the Tea Party are the people that deny climate change the most fervently. People who self identify as Democrats, actually a majority of them do believe that climate change is underway. And Republicans, you know, are below 50 percent. But there is a public perception that there is a serious problem with climate change. I think what people feel is that, you know, the solutions that have been put forward that are on the table are complex. They don’t understand them. They’ve been told that it’s going to mean an increase in the price of consumer goods. And they don’t understand the way forward at a time of economic crisis. And so I think a lot of people have tuned out to this issue, at least in the way that it’s been presented in the past, namely with cap and trade and carbon offsets and so on.

JAY: Is that part of the problem, that the solutions that the Democrats in the US, and certainly in many of the other industrialized countries, that a lot of these so-called solutions that are being proposed, like cap and trade, actually will increase the costs of energy for ordinary people and will make rich people richer who own energy companies in many cases? And so is it partly that the kind of proposals that have been made just aren’t real, don’t seem effective to people, so people feel like they can’t deal with any of this?

WYSHAM: You know, [incompr.] have not been effective, and I’ve argued this in the past on your show. There is a tendency for carbon trading and cap and trade with offsets to be corruptible. It’s readily corruptible. I mean, we’re seeing all sorts of corruptions taking place right now across the globe. But, you know, there are alternative approaches that are now being considered, and I strongly encourage people who haven’t read Naomi Klein’s article in The Nation just on November 9, I believe, of this month, November 9 of this year, to take a look at it, because she sort of breaks down, you know, what we’re up against in terms of the kind of systemic changes that we need to make. And, really, if we do begin to make those systemic changes, I think we’ll see ancillary benefits in the form of, you know, cleaner air, greater access to public transportation, a just transition for workers away from the fossil fuel industries, you know, cleaner, relocalized agriculture, sustainable agriculture, rather than the kind of agriculture that’s becoming more common globally now. And also, really importantly, we need to dethrone the GDP as a measure of economic growth. We need to be moving in the direction of alternative ways of measuring those things that we value as a society, including, you know, a sustainable future for our grandchildren. So our–you know, as she says in her article, climate change supercharges just about everything that’s on the progressive agenda. And, you know, it’s–in many ways climate change is not the only outcome. I mean, stopping climate change is not the only outcome of taking on these issues. It–we will have to rein in corporations. We will have to make sure that they’re not treated as persons as they are today. This is all part of the progressive agenda, and it’s also part of a just climate agenda.

JAY: Well, thanks very much for joining us, Daphne. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Daphne Wysham

Daphne Wysham is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and founder and host of Earthbeat, now airing on 61 public radio stations in the US and Canada.