Dec 16 2009
I’ll state for the record that I consider myself to be a “green”. I’m utterly convinced that human beings have thoroughly mismanaged their environment, much to the chagrin of every other species we’ve managed to wipe out or endanger in the process. Even in Vancouver, considered by some metrics to be the most sustainable city in North America, that’s still just a relative measure; we don’t have a sustainable society here on the coast and things get worse in virtually every big city away from here. I further believe that much can be done to create more sustainable societies at the local level, through something as simple as changing habits.
That said, I’m struck by the panicked reaction of world leaders, media and protesters of the Copenhagen summit. At this point, it’s not even about getting a good deal that makes sense for all stakeholders. It’s about getting a deal, any deal. That’s not democracy in action. That’s a farce.
Damn the torpedoes, or the strangeness of debt-choked developed nations handing over billions of dollars to the developing world, no strings attached, with which nations can in turn fund eco-friendly initiatives or machete-wielding armies that employ rape as a general policy against their enemies. (Instead of using the West as middle-men, wouldn’t it make more sense for these climate-change endangered nations to simply go directly to Saudi Arabia or China hat-in-hand?)
It’s certainly clear that people, particularly the youth, in a great number of countries are concerned about environmental degradation and the possible effects of climate change. Reducing carbon output seems to be the clear goal. So on that level, it would seem to make perfect sense for world leaders to meet and discuss general principles for meeting this challenge.
But there is no such general agreement on the specific solutions for lowering carbon emissions. Carbon caps on paper? Gasoline taxes? Subsidies and investment in bio-fuels? Electric cars? Tree-planting? Stowing of carbon underground? In concrete? Paying Third World villagers to sit around, not chopping down the lungs of the world? Shutting down the tar sands project by government fiat? All of these solutions have pluses and minuses.
Canada is not unique in hosting disagreement over what sorts of solutions would work best. Every country in the world is asking the same questions. While it might sound more manageable to just get world leaders in the same room to hammer out an agreement, it hasn’t worked in practice. World leaders can’t put forth concrete and robust proposals because they largely have not been able to work out these plans even towards their domestic audience. World leaders literally don’t know what they can offer at these summits.
Canadians were never asked for input on what the government would offer at Copenhagen. There were no town hall meetings. There was no referrendum. No intense national debate. You can’t even say that the Conservatives already had a mandate for specific environmental policies vis a vis Copenhagen from the last election. The summit certainly wasn’t on anyone’s radar back then. And even if Canadian voters had been aware of an upcoming summit, there’s no way they could have voted for a particular party on the basis of its support for specific proposals — even shortly before the end of this summit, there still aren’t any.
For Canada’s government — or any government, for that matter — to take a strong position on any of the Copenhagen proposals would be extremely challenging when these issues haven’t been resolved at home. They can’t represent their constituents when they don’t know what they’re representing.
This failing was not inevitable, by the way — if all national governments paid as much attention to defining environmental policy as they do with foreign policy and defense, leaders would be able to represent their nations with a mandate even to make policy based on strict guidelines on the fly. But that hasn’t happened. So governments at Copenhagen, even if they have strong popular support at home, can’t act democratically at this summit.
That said, the issues being discussed at Copenhagen are too dire to ignore.
Given the limitations of what can really happen at these summits, we ought to go back to using them to discuss general principles. When it comes to hard figures, technical solutions and economic intervention, these general principles can be a guide for bilateral or regional international solutions. That seems to be the best we can do for us and the planet.