Posts Tagged ‘Copenhagen Climate Conference’

Copenhagen – now what?

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

The Copenhagen meeting finished some time ago now, and didn’t succeed in delivering anything useful. I’ve resisted the temptation to write about it earlier, rather I wanted to see what others said first, before making up my own mind about it. There’s been an awful lot of analysis published in the blogosphere since the meeting ended, I’m sure I’ve not encountered every view, but here are my own conclusions.

One thing is obvious, we did not get the fair, ambitious, and legally binding document we were all hoping for. Not even close. All we got was the ‘Copenhagen accord’, a piece of paper with no legal weight written by a few of the participants. That accord has no numbers in it that we can use to actually set policies. It does not state when emissions should peak, what reduction in emissions is required, in what timescale, or anything like that. There is no way to turn it into a plan of action, to decide how to tackle climate change based on what it says. It is worthless in itself, and is quite possibly worse than having no agreement at all.

By stepping outside the UN framework to produce that accord, those few countries that created it have seriously weakened the UNFCC process.
President Obama announced the accord to the press before most of the national representatives had even seen it, which shows a distinct lack of respect for protocol. How can the UNFCC be taken seriously now that a handful of leaders have ignored it and made up their own agreement?

On the other hand, it is not at all clear that anything else was on the table. I have not seen anything mentioned anywhere that the formal process of the UNFCC had created a document that was ready to be signed at the end of the meeting. If you know otherwise, please let me know via the comments. And, worthless as it is in practise, it is nonetheless significant that America and China have both signed even so weak a document as they did.

In the aftermath, the inevitable finger-pointing has taken place, with most people blaming someone half the world away for the failure. It’s difficult for an observer like myself to know what really happened, who is at fault, and why the process broke down. There was clearly a lot of good intention from many places, I doubt so many world leaders have ever been assembled in one place before. They wouldn’t all go there to look bad, I’m sure many of them wanted to come away with something real. Many countries went to Copenhagen having made pledges which, while inadequate, were much stronger than anything they have comitted to in the past. So what happened?

President Obama was clearly a key player, and he went there empty-handed. He didn’t offer anything new, much to the disappointment of many. The offer of ‘mobilising a fund of $100 billion annually for mitigation’ by 2020 is not worth much. Americans spend that much each year on bottled water, so it’s not exactly digging deep into their pockets. Besides, the International Energy Agency estimates that, for each year we delay action, the cost of tackling climate change will increase by $500 billion. So having $100 billion per year by 2020 really isn’t impressive.

It seems likely that, had America made a bigger comittment to cutting its own emissions, the conference could have gained a lot of momentum. With one of the highest levels of emissions per person in the entire world, America, like many western countires, has a clear debt to pay for the wealth it has accumulated. People were looking to President Obama to take the leading role he claimed he would when he was sworn into office. He failed to do that. To be fair, when you see the political pressure and tactics wielded by the fossil-fuel industries in America, it’s hardly surprising that President Obama couldn’t offer more. He simply doesn’t have that much power.

George Monbiot of the Guardian points out that Obama demanded concessions, despite offered nothing in return. On the other hand, Mark Lynas blames China for systematically blocking all attempts to name concrete targets. In Mark’s own words:

it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

You can read more on Mark’s views of Copenhagen at the New York Times dotEarth blog, it’s worth reading.

I think that both George and Mark make good arguments, as do many other writers, but I have to say I give a lot of weight to Mark’s analysis. Mark was in the room for the negotiations, he saw it all first-hand. I’ve read Mark’s book, Six Degrees, and was impressed at how well he took such a large body of research and summarised it in terms we can all understand. He’s also one of the few environmentalists who has come to understand the importance of nuclear power in addressing climate change. That’s why I trust him as an observer and a critical thinker, and take his opinion seriously.

So, given that the UN framework didn’t yield a result, and that those who wanted to do something were prevented from doing so by those that don’t, what does that mean for the future? Here, the blogosphere seems to be more in agreement, people-power still matters, and there are a lot of people who aren’t giving up.

People from all walks of life have been calling for action on climate change. George Monbiot, in that same article above, is quite blunt about blaming people for complacency.

For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic.

I guess he’s right. I know I came late to the party, and wish I had acted sooner.

At the other end of the scale, a group of international investors managing $13 trillion in assets also called for strong action (full report (PDF)). You can bet that they wouldn’t be asking for strong legislation to attack global warming unless they thought that it was needed for the global economy to survive.

Young people are getting in on the act too. Take a look at the video below, produced by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Their message to world leaders is load and clear:

Those of you who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of people already doing it. Our future will not be written for us, but by us. You’re not done yet. And neither are we.

It’s great to know so many people from such different levels of society want action, but it won’t be enough to simply tell governments to act. It’s important that people both understand what is needed and agree on how to act, so a clear, unified, and sensible message is sent to political leaders. One of the biggest problems here is that a lot of people think that renewable energy sources can solve our energy needs, and many environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear power.

Advocates of ‘renewable energy’ regularly fail to consider the cost or effort required to satisfy demand. Replacing conventional electricity production with renewable sources is simply not sensible when you look at the amount of raw material (e.g. concrete and steel) that is needed, or at the amount of land that would be needed for the installation. Never mind the fact that solar or wind power are useless in a cold spell of weather like we are having at the moment, so we would still need something reliable to provide power when we need it most. See David Mackay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, for some clear discussion about the theoretical limits of renewable energy and decide for yourself if you think it’s really a viable option.

I’ve written before about green-groups misguided opposition to nuclear power. Few of them seem to understand the realities of modern nuclear power, which is cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more reliable than it was during the cold-war days of the nuclear arms race. By perpetuating this myth, they are supporting the fossil-fuel industry. How? as Steve Kirsch said recently:

If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for base-load electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.

Needless to say, weather-dependant renewable energy cannot provide that base-load, and the only real competition to fossil-fuel is nuclear power. If I were a fossil-fuel CEO, I would certainly want to spread fear of nuclear power, and would happily let the green-groups do my dirty work for me!

If you want a good idea of what it takes to replace fossil-fuel with either renewable or nuclear power, take a look at bravenewclimate.com. They consider the practicalities of cost and build-rate for a range of options, and conclude that anything other than massive deployment of nuclear power simply won’t cut emissions in time.

Until green-groups embrace the need for nuclear power instead of renewable energy, we are not sending a coherent or useful message to world leaders, one that they can use to enact legislation that will genuinely cut emissions. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu surely understands this, so President Obama must know it too. Small wonder that he couldn’t offer much at Copenhagen when the environmental movement don’t want the changes that will work, and the coal and oil industries are spending a fortune to mislead and misinform the American public.

That’s not to say that this problem is specific to America, it’s a drama that is repeated the world over. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can start making the changes that matter. Maybe then we can persuade others to do the same too.

Copenhagen – Who pays the bill?

Monday, December 7th, 2009

The United Nations Climate Change Conference gets under way in Copenhagen this week. There’s a lot at stake. We need a global commitment from all nations to adopt a low-carbon path for the future, and we need to get on that path fast. There’s simply no alternative if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world that we would recognise.

I’m somewhat optimistic about the outcome. I certainly don’t think that the conference will result in an agreement that can prevent catastrophic climate-change in itself. Even if it did, we still have to make sure that it gets implemented, and that’s going to take decades of work. Signing a piece of paper this year will not be enough, even it if says all the right things.

So why am I optimistic? Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and I’ll tell you.

Most governments have made some form of commitment in recent weeks, even those that had steadfastly resisted pressure to do so in the past. The United States has pledged a 17% cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. China will aim to reduce ‘carbon-intensity’ by 40-45% by 2020, and India will reduce its carbon intensity by 20-25%, also by 2020.

On the one hand, it’s great to see such statements in the leadup to the conference. On the other, of course, those levels of cuts are not enough to make any difference to the changing climate. Compared to 1990 levels, the US figure corresponds to a cut of just 2%, while the Chinese and Indian carbon-intensity targets mean even less.

Carbon intensity is like car mileage, you can drive more efficiently to improve your mileage, but if you drive further as well, you may still burn more petrol. China plans to grow its economy at 8% per year. That would mean that by 2020 Chinas’ emissions will be almost double the 2005 level.

Of course, there will be lots of finger-pointing, with people on all sides calling for others to do more, while claiming that they are doing their share already, or that they do not want to do more until other countries commit themselves to do more. Playing ‘chicken’ with the climate is not what we really want to see in Copenhagen. Some will point out that China emits more CO2 than any other country. Others will point out that the US emits more per person than any other country (sorry, almost any other country.).

You can see the emissions per person for a number of countries in the graph, below, taken from David MacKay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. That graph is for the year 2000, and you can clearly see that the ‘developed world’ is emitting far more CO2 per person than China or India, for example.

Carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions per country for the year 2000

Carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions per country for the year 2000

So it seems to me that the developed world has a clear moral obligation to take the lead in cutting emissions. Of course, everyone has to play their part, but there’s no need for anyone to wait, we can and should be cutting deeply, now. Unfortunately, politicians end up discussing the financial cost of action instead, arguing about how much money it will take to change, and what will it do to their countries’ economy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s your money they’re protecting either. No, it’s the money of big corporations that lobby hard to protect their interests.

Big corporations have always worked to protect themselves. The gas companies opposed Thomas Edison when he wanted to light the streets with electricity, for example. The reality is that every year of delay only increases the financial costs down the line. Will we have to change the way we live in order to tackle climate change? Yes, we will. Will it have an effect on our economies? Yes, of course. But will it hurt you, or me? Not necessarily.

Thomas Alva EdisonThomas Edison
Image via Wikipedia

Thomas Edison changed our lives for the better. Henry Ford changed our lives when he established the automobile industry. Other changes are more gradual, like from theatre to silent films, to talkies, to television, to videos, and now to satellite and internet TV. The entertainment industry has changed drastically in that time, and people have changed with it.

Changing our way of life is very much part of our way of life, and that’s a good thing. When we realise that fact, tackling climate change will not seem difficult or painful, it will appear as the opportunity it is. Unless you’re the CEO of a fossil-fuel company, of course.

So that’s one reason why I’m optimistic. I believe people can come to terms with the changes needed to tackle climate change, once they realise it is in their personal interest and the interests of their family to do so. For that to happen, we just need to look at who is behind the voices opposed to doing anything.

If you’re among those who think climate change is not a real problem, ask yourself this: where did you get the information that led you to that opinion? What motivates the person who tells you not to worry about climate change? What’s in it for them if you believe them?

Dig deep enough, and you’ll probably smell oil. Sometimes its obvious, such as the recent article in Scientific American, but often you have to dig deeper. If you do, you’ll probably find you are being conned by industry-funded PR campaigns.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m fond of quoting President Nasheed of the Maldives. Well, I’m going to do it again. In a recent speech, he expressed himself very clearly:

To my mind, countries that have the foresight to green their economies today will be the winners of tomorrow. They will be the winners of this century. These pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil. They will capitalize on the new, green economy of the future. And they will enhance their moral standing, giving them greater political influence on the world stage.

Here in the Maldives we have relinquished our claim to high-carbon growth. After all, it is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport. Low-carbon technologies now exist, to deliver all the goods and services we need. Let us make the goal of using them.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a few other leaders could make a stand with President Nasheed, and offer us development, electricity, and transport, instead of coal and oil?

Climate Action Day in Ferney-Voltaire

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

350.org logoClimate Action Day was yesterday, October 24th. It was organised by 350.org, and there were about 5200 events worldwide. One such event was ‘Picnic for the Planet‘, held in Ferney-Voltaire, organised by Paul (thanks Paul!). Ferney-Voltaire is just down the road from me, so Dweezeljazz and I went along. We gathered by the statue of Voltaire himself for a photo after the picnic. I think Voltaire would probably have approved of our actions, he was quite a force for change in his own day.

Picnic for the Planet, in Ferney-Voltaire

Picnic for the Planet, in Ferney-Voltaire

Climate Action Day was intended to send a message to politicians ahead of the December Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the message that people want atmospheric carbon dioxide reduced to a maximum of 350 parts per million (ppm).

Why 350 ppm? The 350.org site has a page explaining it. If you want a more detailed scientific explanation, you can take a look at Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? (Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231), by Jim Hansen et.al. The bottom line is that, if atmospheric CO2 levels remain higher than that for any length of time, the earth’s climate will change change out of all recognition. A great many species will go extinct and many vital ecosystems will be destroyed. Our lifestyle, anywhere on the planet, will become a lot more difficult to sustain, as whole countries become uninhabitable.

Of course, this would be a very bad thing!

Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 ppm is entirely possible, the difficulties are political rather than technical. It’s difficult to get politicians to see past the next election, so they’re reluctant to embark on anything that requires global co-operation for a number of decades. If they go to Copenhagen with that attitude, they’re unlikely to solve the problem. We need a climate-change treaty that is fair, ambitious, and binding, and the sooner we get it, the better.

That’s the message we need ringing in the ears of our politicians as they go to Copenhagen, and that’s what Climate Action Day was all about. Picnic for the Planet was only one of the events yesterday. Take a look at the 350.org homepage, they have a slideshow of the photos people have sent in from all over the world, or visit the 350 blog. It’s impressive to see how many people took part. Anything that gets active participation from people in over 180 countries must surely count for something!

Personal experience of climate change

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009Today is Blog Action Day 2009, and the subject for this year is climate change.

I’ve learned a lot about climate change in recent years, but nothing brings home an academic lesson like a little personal experience. I got that when I visited Chamonix at the beginning of August. I particularly enjoy the view from Brevent, on the opposite side of the valley to Mont Blanc itself. From there, on a clear day, you can enjoy an unsurpassed view of Mont Blanc and its surroundings. The panoramic restaurant at Planpraz does some very good desserts. While you sit there soaking up sunshine and calories, you get the best view possible of the Glacier des Bossons, straight across the valley from you.

I have been to Chamonix many times, summer and winter, since about 20 years ago. That’s not a long time really, I’m not exactly old! Nonetheless, as I looked across the valley in August, I realised I could see for myself that the glacier des Bossons has retreated a lot in that time.

Glaciers around the world have been retreating for a long time, I know, and have even caused the border between Switzerland and Italy to change. I don’t know why I was so surprised to realise that I could see it for myself. Here are two photos to prove it, both taken by me, from Brevent. On the left is a view from July 1993, on the right, August 2009. The views aren’t taken from exactly the same place, but you can see common features in them.

In the 2009 photo, you can see the bottom half of the glacier is almost separated from the top part by a clearly visible band of rock, running across the top of the picture. You can see that there is a thick shelf of ice, above the rock, that breaks away as it crosses the line of rock. In the 1993 photo, that band of rock is nowhere visible. Then, the ice was thick enough to cover the rock completely. That gives a fair idea of how much the glacier has melted since I have been visiting Chamonix. I can only imagine how Fernand Pareau feels about it, he’s been watching the glaciers retreat for much longer than I have. In Fernands own words:

Même les glaciers ne veulent plus nous voir, ils reculent!

Even the glaciers don’t want to know us, they back away!

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009

 

Glaciers are important for many people. Switzerland depends on its glaciers for drinking water and hydro-electric power (which supplies half of their electricity). With predictions that these glaciers may be gone by 2050, if not sooner, that’s not a good situation to be in. Elsewhere in the world, the story is very similar. The glaciers of the Himalayas may well disappear on the same timescale, which could seriously affect the lives of up to 750 million people who depend on them.

Nor do you have to appeal to something as dramatic as running out of water to suffer the effects of climate change. Insurance companies now factor climate change into their calulations, and you can guess who ends up paying the bill for that! Climate change could melt a hole in your pocket just as easily as it melts the glaciers.

With climate change having the potential to harm so many people, in rich and poor countries alike, it’s not surprising that more and more people want something done about it. From individuals doing what they can to big businesses calling for strong policies from world leaders, people are calling for action at all levels of society. Even most world governments realise change is needed, but without a concerted effort from all of them, tackling climate change will be that much harder.

The UNFCC conference in Copenhagen, in December, is our chance to get some common sense from our politicians. World leaders will have the opportunity there to negotiate a truly historic treaty to tackle climate change. There is no excuse for them to fail. From the viewpoints of economy, national security, food security, and health, as well as for reasons like saving polar bears and rainforests, it makes sense to stop the damage we are doing to our climate.

And yes, it is possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but the longer we delay, the harder it will be. Personally, I’ve seen enough of climate change, and would like not to see any more. The 350 organisation has called for people to take part in public activities on October 24th to demonstrate their support for a strong climate treaty. Why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to, add yourself to the numbers, and see if we can’t encourage our leaders to stay cool-headed in Copenhagen. Otherwise, we’ll all be in hot water eventually.

Why is Copenhagen important?

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is hosting a conference in Copenhagen in December (United Nations Climate Change Conference, Dec 7-18, 2009). It’s supposed to negotiate a successor for the Kyoto protocol, to map the road for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses worldwide. As such, it’s an extremely important event, but how important is it really? Well, in the words of President Nasheed of the Maldives:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Until now, politicians everywhere seem to be claiming to be leaders in cutting emissions, while refusing to do anything until someone else does more. Everyone manages to find someone else to point the finger at. With all that hot air from the politicians it’s no surprise the globe is getting hotter!

There are few now who doubt that the global climate is being changed by mankind. Those who do are regularly debunked in the media as having not read or understood the scientific information they refer to, or they simply make up their own ‘facts’ to suit themselves. Some will tell you the climate is not changing. Some will tell you it is getting cooler. Some will say it’s getting warmer, but that it’s not our fault, or that it is our fault but it’s good for us, and so on. Like a child who hasn’t done his homework, they keep hunting for credible reasons.

On the other hand, scientists are agreed that the climate is changing, and that it’s our fault. Organisations as diverse as the World Bank and leading medical organisations around the world are calling for action to tackle climate change. Even religous leaders agree that the climate-change must be addressed.

If you personally have any doubts about the reality of global warming, one easy way to get some good information is to watch the Climate Denial Crock of the Week videos, by Peter Sinclair. These are a series of short videos that address some of the major claims by climate-deniers, showing where they are wrong in a very clear and entertaining manner. The facts are laid out very clearly, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Take a look, for example, at Denial was a River in Africa, and ask yourself if professor Hugh Montgomery might be correct in his claim that India is building a fence to keep Bangladeshi climate refugees out.

Other good starting places for more information on global warming are RealClimate.org and the New Scientist Guide for the Perplexed.

You do not have to look far to see evidence of climate change. The small island nation of Tuvala is already feeling the effects of rising sea-levels, while on the other hand, California is running out of water. Even the British government knows it must plan for a changing climate. Changing the climate in Britain might sound like a good idea, but it’s not. Decreases in rainfall will harm agriculture, while increased flooding will also occur. Even so, Britain will have it easy compared to other countries. August in Australia has been exceptionally warm this year, and the predictions are that it will only get worse there. These are only a few examples, there are many others, from all over the world. Just keep your eyes on the news, you’ll see more.

Back in July, a meeting of the G8 countries accepted that global warming should be limited to no more than 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees farenheit). The Alliance of Small Islands States has called for a limit of 1.5 degrees celsius, arguing that 2 degrees is too much. They’re right, even 2 degrees will be enough to drastically alter the climate of the earth. Our grandchildren will grow up in a world unlike the one we see today. 2 degrees is enough to ensure that, for example every summer in Europe is as hot as the summer of 2003, and that one killed tens of thousands of people.

So how do we limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees? To translate that number into action, you have to consider the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we can allow in the atmosphere. 2 degrees corresponds to about 400 ppm of CO2 (according to the IPCC). So far, so good, we’re below that according to the little counter on the left of this page. However, that’s not the whole story. Barry Brook points out that lower emissions-targets are even better, in order to slow down the damage from the warming that has already begun. It’s like turning down the heat before the milk boils, so it won’t boil over. 350 ppm is now the widely accepted target, enshrined in the campaign by Bill McKibben at 350.org. As you can see, we’re way above that target already!

Whichever number you pick, the important point is that we are already in a dangerous situation. The world’s climate is changing fast, and in ways that are not good. There will continue to be big changes in climate whatever we do, but it is not too late to do something about it, not too late at all. The faster we reduce emissions, the sooner we reduce the damage to the environment, and the less sufferring there will be for man and beast alike. That is why Copenhagen is so very important.

Reducing emissions fast is possible, we know enough to be able to do it. Cleaner energy, higher efficiency cars and electrical appliances, recycling, reducing waste, and all the other things we keep hearing so much about, these all add up. Sometimes it costs money, for large-scale infrastructure like replacing coal-fired power stations, sometimes it saves money instead. Many big companies are going green, despite the economic recession, so cost can’t really be a big issue.

For individuals, too, reducing your carbon footprint can be as easy as small changes in lifestyle, neither expensive nor difficult. It’s quite possible to reduce your electricity use by half, for example. Solving global warming is more a political problem than a technical one, persuading people at all levels (families through to governments) that it must really be done.

Individual action is very important, of course, but the Copenhagen meeting must succeed if we are to reduce emissions globally and really begin to tackle climate change. That is why we have to make sure that our leaders do the right thing, instead of getting wrapped up in petty arguments and worrying that they will lose the next election. People power is crucial to making Copenhagen a success, and one way in which you can express your personal-power is to get involved in some of the demonstrations that are being coordinated around the world in advance of the meeting. 350.org is organising an International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to? You might be glad you did, one day!

“Don’t be Stupid” about climate change

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, has recently given the best political speech I have ever heard. Released with the premier of “Age of Stupid“, his message to the world about climate change was very clear. If you’ve never heard a politician talking straight and making sense before, you may find it refreshing.

 

Come to think of it, that makes two politicians I know of who know how to make sense, Presidents Nasheed and Obama. Hopefully it’s catching.


Pete Poslethwaite as the Archivist

“Age of Stupid” was released on March 15th in the UK. Set in 2055, it’s a film about the consequences of global warming, made using a lot of real news footage from recent times. For example, one clip features French mountain guide Fernand Pareau reflecting on the way the glaciers and Alps have changed in his 82 years. The film stars Pete Poslethwaite as a man looking back at 2008 and asking “why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”. Pete is a lovely actor, highly charismatic and gloriously ugly (no offense intended, Pete). I just loved him in “Jurassic Park – The Lost World”, a role rather at the opposite end of the ecological spectrum. Pete clearly believes in the message of “Age of Stupid”, he has a wind turbine in his garden in Shropshire.

Back to President Nasheed, what did he say in his speech? Well, for one thing, he announced that the Maldives is going to be carbon-neutral within a decade. In his own words:

The cost of this probably will be high, but please understand, failure to act will cost us the world. If the Maldives, a small, relatively poor country, can achieve a big reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions, there can be no excuse from richer nations who claim that going green is to complex, too expensive or too much bother.

That’s a bold statement, but is it really such a big deal for such a small nation to achieve that? I think so, it’s not like they have a great deal of flexibility in going carbon-neutral, their choices are very limited. They import all their wheat, so it’s unlikely they can grow biofuel crops. They can’t relocate to higher ground to escape rising sea levels, because they don’t have any high ground to go to. They have no mineral resources and very little in the way of agriculture. As far as natural resources go, they have sand, sea, coral, fish, and tourists. That’s not a lot to work with.

The credit-crunch is already affecting the Maldivian tourist trade, tourism is down 14% on last year. They are calling it the ‘financial tsunami’, referring to the drop in tourism after the tsunami of December 2004.

Global warming will damage the reefs in many ways, such as bleaching through heat-stress, acidification from the extra CO2 dissolved in the ocean, and erosion from rising sea levels and extreme weather events. When the reefs suffer, the fish suffer too, so they get hit from all sides. No, small as they are, I reckon that going carbon-neutral has to be a lot harder for them than it would be for many other nations with more resources at their disposal.

President Nasheed is taking other measures to protect his nation. I’ve written before about some of the things the Maldivian government is doing to address climate change, but that’s not all of it. He’s reduced the cost of the presidency from $150 million per year to $4 million, and is selling the $7.5 million presidential yacht. He chose not to occupy the presidential palace, it may become a museum or a university. Instead, he shares an office with his secretary. Clearly he doesn’t want to squander the resources at his disposal.

The Maldivian government also recently introduced a total ban on shark fishing within their waters, extending a previous ban which only covered the tourist atolls. Sharks are top predators in the marine environment, and as such they are essential to maintaining the health of a coral reef ecosystem. The Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries is working to find alternate livelihoods for the shark-fishermen, so they will have no reason to defy the ban. This is important when you realise that these are not rich people killing sharks for fun, but just poor people trying to feed their families, and one shark-fin can be worth $100. There’s a very good discussion on shark-finning on the Southern Fried Scientist blog, but be warned, the video linked there is not for the faint of heart.

President Nasheed says “for untold fossil fuel consumption in our lifetime, we are trading our children’s place in an earthly paradise”. It would be understandable to think that the Maldives has more at stake than the rest of us, since they are such a small, island nation, but that would be totally and terribly wrong. If the world can’t save countries such as the Maldives today, we won’t be able to save places such as London, New York, or Hong Kong tomorrow. Much of Manhattan could be under water by the end of this century, and the longer it takes for us to act, the worse it will be.

The last part of President Nasheeds’ speech is directed towards the climate conference in Copenhagen in December of this year:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Well said, President Nasheed, it seems to me the world could do with more leaders like you. Perhaps if we all send a clear message to our own leaders, we might get the message through in time.