This is not how it was supposed to end. Internationally, this decade was supposed to give us a comprehensive global treaty to contain climate change. In Ireland, some of us allowed ourselves hope that a soft-landing for the Celtic Tiger would herald a “post-materialist” era where environmental and social considerations were given as much weight as economic ones in policymaking.
Instead, the Copenhagen climate talks ended in confusion and recrimination and in Ireland the economic crash has driven us back to very understandable materialist concerns about budget cuts and job losses.
The coming decade will see whether humanity is capable of overcoming a complex web of environmental problems that pose an existential threat to civilisation. Climate, the most urgent and most mainstream of these problems, epitomises the challenges.
Politicians and scientists agree we must limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius to prevent runaway climate change. Current pollution trends put us on a path to six degrees of warming this century, when four degrees or more would trigger the breakdown of civilisation as we know it. To be closer to two degrees than four we need to make global emissions start to decline before 2020.
That is the challenge of the decade. When we are writing our reviews of the 2010s there will be no more telling benchmark of human progress. Are global greenhouse gas emissions lower in 2019 than they are now? Put another way, will we choose survival? To answer this most basic question successfully humankind will have to answer two subsidiary questions, one evolutionary, one political.
As a species are we evolved to tackle a threat like climate change? It doesn’t seem to trigger our fight-or-flight reflex in a meaningful way. For most of us it seems remote and abstract. The gases that cause it are invisible. And the ultimate source of the threat is not external – it is us, our current lifestyles, our historical choices and our future aspirations.
However unwittingly, we are the root of the problem, and therefore the solution. If an army were massing on our borders, if an asteroid were hurtling towards Earth, no one would question the need to act. But as we set fire to the only home humanity has ever known, we struggle to perceive the threat and have so far failed to act decisively.
The second question is a practical, political one. Can an international system of 192 nation states solve a global problem? The lesson of Copenhagen is no, at least not if we cling to our traditional approach to interstate negotiating, where short-term national advantage trumps long-term public interest.
It is the tragedy of the commons writ large. For the vested interests in each state it makes sense for their country to keep polluting as much as possible and national negotiators act on that basis. Given the limited capacity of our common atmosphere to absorb that pollution, however, this approach will prove disastrous for humanity as a whole.
As the decade progresses there are three signs that would indicate we are moving beyond this “mutual assured destruction” approach to climate change. We need to see all three.
First, are any of the players acting unilaterally to cut their emissions, against their perceived short-term interests? The obvious candidate is the European Union, itself a unique political formation where national sovereignty is pooled and co-operation has replaced competition in crucial areas. The EU has made a unilateral commitment to action on climate change, but it is a weak one. When you account for the caveats and the loopholes it adds up to less than half our fair share. So, will we see EU climate policy start to reflect the union’s pioneering nature? Will the EU move to cut its emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, in line with the science?
The union could act on the courage of its convictions. Those advocating the abolition of slavery did not say they would only free half their slaves until their competitors freed theirs. The EU could also act based on its long-term economic interest. A low-carbon economy will build energy security, resilience and sustainable jobs for the rest of the century.
China is acting to limit its future emissions, despite its determination not to be legally bound to do so. And the US is moving too, faster at state and company level than federal level. If the early years of this decade see these players significantly limit their emissions it will be both a sign of hope and an international confidence-building measure.
Second, will the emerging transnational forces gain the strength and focus to push nation states towards a global deal? The run-in to Copenhagen saw supranational civil society coalition-building reach new heights, with the likes of 350.org, Avaaz and the tcktcktck campaign mobilising hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Friends of the Earth alone had 500 activists in Copenhagen, representing our two million supporters across 77 countries. On the business side, lobbyists for polluting interests still hold the upper hand – but this time more than 500 transnational corporations signed a Copenhagen communique most of which could just as easily have been written by non-governmental organisation campaigners.
Third, will our governments manage to agree a new treaty that provides a global framework for action and “mutual assured survival” rather than destruction? This is the key test. Can we lift our eyes to the horizon long enough to put aside short-term national advantage? This past decade there has been much talk of the G8, the G20 and now the G2, China and the US. But the new treaty must institutionalise the G1: humanity, and our common cause to protect the only ecosystem that supports our existence.
The coming decade will require you to decide where you stand, and soon.