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Copenhagen: No sense of urgency

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. Joining us from our studios in Toronto is George Monbiot. George is the author of the best-selling book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian newspaper. Thanks for joining us again, George.

GEORGE MONBIOT, AUTHOR: Thanks. Thanks, Paul. My pleasure.

JAY: So the leaders of the world are gathering in Copenhagen to stop the planet from burning, we are told. So are they serious about it?

MONBIOT: I’m afraid that the cuts they’re proposing don’t bear much relation to what the science demands. If we’re to prevent two degrees of global warming—and we’ve kind of got to prevent more than two degrees, because that’s the point beyond which a lot of the world’s natural systems start to go into meltdown—then we’re going to need much, much bigger cuts than they’re proposing. I hope, we’re really talking about it, overall, 90 percent plus, and what we’ve been offered so far goes nowhere near enough. We need to go beyond even the rhetoric of cuts. We need to start deciding which bits of our fossil fuel reserves we’re not going to use, and indeed to stop prospecting for more fossil fuel, because we simply can’t afford to burn it. And we effectively have to have an action plan for getting out of fossil fuel and replacing it with alternative energy. Now, that’s just not happening. We’re not hearing that kind of talk coming from the major parties who are gathering in Copenhagen. We’re not hearing it coming from the US, certainly not from Canada, which has been one of the major obstacles to a deal so far in Copenhagen. We’re hearing it a little bit from the European Union, but not enough. And we’re not hearing it from the major developing countries either, particularly China. So it’s not looking too hot for Copenhagen—or, rather, it is looking too hot. It’s not looking cool enough for Copenhagen.

JAY: One of the German climate advisers has said that the announcement by Obama of a 17 percent reduction by 2020 of 2005 levels winds up being only a 2 or 3 percent reduction of 1990 levels. What targets were scientists saying should be hit? And what do you make of the whole Obama plan?

MONBIOT: Well, just to put this in perspective, in 1997 during the Kyoto negotiations, the European Union was calling for a 15 percent cut on 1990 levels by 2010, and even that was considered by many scientists to be too little too late. I mean, what we’re really talking about, if we’re going to get on track for and if we’re going to be serious about trying to prevent more than two degrees of warming, the sort of cuts we’re talking about is 10 percent in 2010, i.e., in one year, never mind 2 or 3 percent by 2020. That’s just hopeless. It’s a completely different scale of response. It’s an order of magnitude out. And I’m afraid we’re just not going to hit those targets if we carry on along the trajectory that the US is proposing.

JAY: Now, the European Union, there’s been some suggestion that they might actually put up trade tariffs or barriers to countries that are not meeting these climate change targets. How realistic is that threat? And if it is, what would be the impact?

MONBIOT: It’s possible, not least because the whole world trade agreement process is run into the sand. It’s been eight years now and nothing’s really happened, so there’s quite a lot to play for. And, certainly, if we have a legally binding agreement and countries aren’t abiding by that agreement, then there is a possibility of sanctions. The question is: would anyone really be brave enough to impose sanctions on the United States and China? It doesn’t seem very likely to me. I mean, at the moment, you know, what I’m calling on is for the citizens of all countries to use the greatest moral and political pressure to get their governments to act in a way that is commensurate with what the science demands. And, you know, we need to point out to them that this is the moral question of the 21st century, not necessarily because the way it’s going to hit us. You know, in the temperate countries, which are most responsible for this problem, we’ve got quite a lot of climatic resilience—you know, we can take quite a bit of warming and we’ll survive for a few decades. It’s not going to hurt us nearly as much as it’s already hurting some of the people of Africa, for example, some of the people of Asia. If you look at sub-Saharan Africa, if you look at Bangladesh, if you look at India, Pakistan, if you look at the Maghreb, all of these areas are already being hit very hard by the impacts of climate change, and they’ll be hit harder and harder as those impacts escalate. And in some of those countries, we are going to see people deprived of their homes in very large numbers, we’re going to see them deprived of their livelihoods, and we’re going to see them deprived of food and water. And if we don’t deal with climate change and we don’t prevent these dramatic and disastrous effects from taking place, then what we’re going to see is a catastrophe of the kind that the world has never witnessed before. What we’re looking at is the tremendous lobbying power of sunk costs: once an investment has been made, people will fight to the death to defend that investment. On the other hand, if you look at the latest report by the International Energy Agency, it says that just to maintain our energy supplies, we’re going to need to invest—get this—$25.5 trillion in energy infrastructure between now and 2030. That’s just to maintain conventional energy supplies. And that’s an almost infeasible number. Now, if we’re going to start investing money like that into renewing the world’s energy infrastructure, why not invest in renewables? Why not invest in clean technology rather than investing in fossil fuels? In other words, you know, any decision we take is not going to be cost-free. There’s a requirement for vast investment in energy whichever way we go. And you could say, well, it’s implausible to invest huge amounts of money, the amount of money that it would require in renewable energy, so we can’t go down that route. And then you say, well, look at the amount we’ll have to invest in fossil fuels—that’s implausible as well. And if you’re going to take one of two implausible options, take the good one, not the bad one. You know. And this is further complicated by the fact that these fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever. But renewable energy does. You know, the wind isn’t going to run out. The tide’s not going to stop going up and down. The waves aren’t going to stop rising and falling. You know, these sources are going to be there forever. Certainly for—.

JAY: What do you make of the debate between China-India and United States-Canada, to some extent Europe, although more United States and Canada, where they say, well, look, you guys have been doing more of the emissions than we have. You should bear more of the burden. And Canada and the US says back, yeah, well, that may be true, but as an aggregate, China, you’re about to surpass us in terms of emissions. And they seem to have this sort of convenient stand off.

MONBIOT: I think it’s the height of hypocrisy for the US and Canada to turn to countries like India and China and saying, "You’re polluting too much." I mean, let’s look at this on a per capita basis, how much per person is being produced. And the US and China are producing roughly 5 times per person per capita of what the Chinese are producing. And so you can’t turn to the Chinese and say, "You are the problem," you know, when it’s the US and Canada which are producing five times as much as the Chinese. I mean, that’s hypocrisy of the highest order. And, of course, the Chinese are just going to turn around and say, "Come on. Which planet are you living on? This is insane. You know, you are the people"—us in Europe, you in the US, people here in Canada—"you people," the Chinese will say, "are the ones who have benefited from this massive use of fossil fuels over the past 150 years or so. It’s created your Industrial Revolution, your great wealth, and all the rest of it, and now you’re blaming us for this problem? You know, the historical legacy of fossil-fuels consumption is almost entirely in the rich Western nations. It’s not in countries like China and India. And so to then turn around and blame China and India for the problem is just grossly unfair. And the danger you could end up with is this, like, perfect circle of finger-pointing, where the US and Canada says, "It’s not our responsibility; it’s India and China over there." And India and China say, "It’s not our responsibility; it’s the US and Canada over there." Someone’s got to break that deadlock, and the onus is on the rich countries to break it, because they have the greatest moral responsibility for climate change, they have the historical responsibility, and per capita they have the current responsibility as well.

JAY: But is underlying all of this the basic idea that the leaders of these countries don’t seem to think it’s going to affect their country so urgently?

MONBIOT: And it won’t. You know, I mean, apart from the north of Canada, which is being hit very hard already, in the US and Canada and most parts of Europe it’ll come up later and it’ll be less bad than it is in some of the poorer parts of the world. This is a moral question. We have a moral responsibility to other people in the world. If we pursue only our selfish interests, yeah, for a few decades we’ll be okay. We’ll get through. But the people in the poorer parts of the world won’t. People in the tropics, they are being hammered already by climate change. Now, do you want that on your conscience? Do you want it on your conscience that you could, as the First World bloc, be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people? Only if you’re a psychopath. If you’re a decent human being with a heart, if you’ve got empathy, if you’ve got a sense of responsibility, if you’ve got a sense of human decency, then you’re not going to want that to happen and you’re going to want to do everything humanly possible to prevent that from happening. And that means acting as much as we can to stop runaway climate change from taking place.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, George.

MONBIOT: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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