An Obituary for Cancun

2010 may be remembered as the year that the climate change campaign movement, at least in its current form, officially gave up and died. The mortal injuries were inflicted at Copenhagen in December 2009, and since then it has been slowly dragging its decaying corpse towards the open grave at Cancun, where it will finally be interred next month.

If, as expected, Cancun ends in deadlock, then the final oration may be another ‘Danish text’, delivered in a mumble to a global audience that would rather be drowning its sorrows in the pub than being made to sit in a draughty church listening to sermons delivered by those who never really believed in the first place. The funeral will be attended by the great and the good from the worlds of politics, the media and campaigning, and various vacuous celebrities chasing the coffin in pursuit of a new bandwagon to jump on. And whilst there will be the odd voice of dissent, even amongst the devout these will be about as welcome as Reverend Fred Phelps at a remembrance service.  

The inheritance will be contested between the US, China and the EU, who will want the paperwork done, dusted and buried as quickly as possible. Whilst the offspring such as Bolivia will be left outside banging on the door about a legacy that everyone else had long ago given up on. This is the legacy that could have limited average global temperature rises to 2°C or, heaven forbid, even 1.5°C, by the end of the century. But what makes these offspring particularly unwelcome is their temerity to argue that fighting climate change is about making social and political reforms that would cut to the heart of the capitalist system, and demand their pound of flesh in return for the ecological genocide inflicted on them by the developed world.

For many of the NGOs and lobby groups the Cancun Summit will be simply another annual visit to a church they have long since abandoned. Just like Midnight Mass, some will arrive tired and emotional, and most will be looking forward to getting back home, and quietly enjoying another festival of consumption away from the brief media spotlight.  

Although precise details of the proposals to be put forward at Cancun have yet to be published, expert opinion seems unequivocal in concluding that the summit will be nothing short of an abject failure. The choice of location alone is expected to result in a significantly lower turnout from campaign groups, thanks in part to the reputation of the Mexican police forces. A night or two in the cells in Copenhagen will seem like a dream holiday to anyone arrested at Cancun, however this is unlikely to deter representatives of the indigenous movements in Latin and South America, whose communities endure the blows inflicted by climate change and capitalism every day of their lives. Yet these are the voices most quickly drowned out by the corporate hymns, the meaningless confessions of the political figureheads, and the evangelical preaching of the green pastors of the developed world.

Globally, the summit will be marked by the usual mix of conferences, marches and other cap dothing moments, but the tone of these will be a sombre counterpart to last year’s excitement and anticipation. In London the annual march will yet again be a poor second cousin to the massive anti-war march that will precede it by a few weeks, but at least there will be one.

Unlike in Scotland, where what appears to be a long process of hand-wringing by the usual suspects in the NGO world finally resulted in a decision not to hold one, long after the dwindling number of independent campaigners could have had enough time to step into the role. Instead, Stop Climate Chaos Scotland is organising ‘The Big Connection’, a glorified lobby of Parliament where those who can be bothered to show up will be listened to by those MSPs already converted, and largely ignored by the rest. Expect a re-run of Copenhagen in miniature, only with slightly less confusing accents, fewer long lost relatives, and better canapés.

Last year the Scottish NGOs were in thrall to the ‘world leading’ Climate Change Act, and seemingly convinced that the rest of the world might listen to what their political leaders had promised, but this year the scales have fallen away again and it’s back to business as usual. And what better evidence for this than the total lack of protest last month when the Scottish Government finally got round to eviscerating its promises by reducing the annual emissions targets in the secondary legislation that everyone knew was coming? Furthermore, a new report by Prof Robert Watson, a former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concludes that if emissions embodied in the goods we import are accounted for (a factor that myself and many experts have long argued should be included) then the UK’s annual emissions will have actually risen by around 12% on 1990 levels.    

The reason this factor is so critical is twofold. First of all, a huge chunk of those imported emissions are currently attributed to China, the same country that attracts much of the criticism directed by those nations who like to portray they’re doing a lot at those they like to portray as doing very little. It is grossly unfair to greedily consume cheap goods from the developing world whilst insisting that they also pick up the bill for the emissions that producing those goods generates. This makes uncomfortable reading for those who proclaimed the wonders of the Scottish and UK Climate Change Acts, but the second reason is even more uncomfortable.

There is only one way that most of us can do our bit to reduce those embodied emissions, and that is simply to consume less. Yet this flies in the face of the Scottish Government’s mantra of ‘sustainable economic growth’, to which all the political parties at Holyrood and most of the NGOs seem wedded. To criticise this risks the loss of hard-won political influence and exclusion from the cocoon of polite society that comes with it. But not doing so will leave them captured by the system they should be challenging, ignored by many scientists, and distrusted by the increasingly small section of the public that may still be willing to listen. Most importantly though, conveniently ignoring the issue may further undermine public trust in climate science itself.

So is all hope lost? No, but only if we begin to turn away from the Climate Messiahs and towards those movements that originate from, or engage with, the indigenous communities that are already bearing the burden of our consumer greed. These movements have had a presence in the UK for many years, for example through branches of the World Social Forum. They are also vocally supported by political organisations such as GreenLeft and Socialist Resistance, and the various socialist parties such as the Scottish Socialists and Respect.

But how many of you will be turned away by my mention of the ‘s’ word? Therein lies perhaps the biggest problem of all. It may be socially acceptable to casually bleat about the (capitalist, neoliberal) ‘system’, but to advocate and actively fight for an alternative is still seen as social and political suicide. Yet if that system remains unchallenged then climate change will one day ensure that it will be overthrown, quite possibly violently, as extreme weather and rising sea levels force millions of people to leave their homelands to seek refuge. Today’s ‘problems’ of immigration will seem mere quibbles in the face of mass movements of populations demanding land and other recompense for the damages inflicted on them. All so we in the developed world could carry on blindly consuming in the face of this crisis of overconsumption.

This is by no means mere scaremongering about a fictional future, although fiction does provide some powerful illustrations of what that future may look like, but an evidence-based call to arms to consume less, and to publicly challenge the orthodox and accepted.  

The obituaries for Cancun are already being written, and the Mark Anthonys of the green movement are preparing to take the stage. But now, more than ever, it is time to question the casting. If the current darlings of the green movement do not use their brief moment in the spotlight to challenge the heart of the system, then those alive in 100 years time may be re-writing the script – and re-casting them as Brutus.

Published by

Keith Baker

, I grew up in South Wales, where I started trying to make a bit of a difference to the environment as a conservation volunteer with my school at the tender age of 11. Then since finishing my first degree (in environmental science) at Sussex University in Brighton I’ve hopped about the universities of the UK and the world a bit, finishing off with a Ph.D in Domestic Energy Consumption from De Montfort in Leicester. Hardly the best university in the world but a fantastically multi-cultural place to live, and home to a community of campaigners who carry on the city’s political tradition of causing trouble. Indeed although the students of its second university may not be known for living up to it, the choice of name for the university is rather apt for the community it serves. I’ve been living in Edinburgh for about two and a half years now, where I’ve been working as a researcher and campaigning in my spare time, and to be honest I’m a little disappointed. Edinburgh is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and sits in an equally beautiful landscape, so you would think that people at all levels of society would be being inspired to work hard to preserve the environment, globally as well as locally. Whilst some of my articles will hopefully dispel the myths around ‘eco-friendly’ products, I’ll also be discussing bigger problems that we all contribute to, knowingly or otherwise. These will be sprinkled with greenwash pet-hates such as carbon capture and storage, the media’s coverage of climate change and other scientific matters, and the lack of real progress to improve the energy efficiency of housing – I’m sat writing this in the spare room of a modern flat with a thick top and jumper on and it’s still freezing! . I’ve spent much of my time working with other campaigners who, shall we say, wear green sleeves and red shirts. It tends to nurture the rebellious streak, but that’s a big part of what makes me me. Sometimes it takes asking the most awkward questions to ferret out the truth. I’m hoping that, with your help and vigilance, we might even win the odd victory from this little corner of the internet.

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