Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Durban and everything that matters

A HUNDRED years from now, looking back, the only question that will appear important about the historical moment in which we now live is the question of whether or not we did anything to arrest climate change. 

Everything else—the financial crisis, the life or death of the euro, authoritarianism or democracy in China and Russia, the Great Stagnation or the innovation renaissance, democratisation and/or political Islam in the Arab world, Newt or Mitt or another four years of Barack—all this will fade into insignificance beside the question of whether we managed to do anything about human industrial civilisation changing the climate of Planet Earth. It's extremely hard to focus on this, because environmentalism goes in and out of political fashion depending on the economy, war, and so forth. But from the perspective of our great-grandchildren, the only thing that's going to seem important is whether we burned all the fossil fuel on the planet and sent global temperatures up by at least 4 degrees Celsius in the next century, or whether we took collective action, shifted our energy sources, and held the global temperature rise to 2 degrees or less.

Actually, I take that back: there are two possibilities. The first is that global warming will seem to have been the overwhelmingly important question, a hundred years on. The other possibility is more depressing, but I'll get to that later.

So, the global climate change conference in Durban surprised most everyone and managed to pull out a deal at the last minute. I found this surprising because unlike other organised bodies that tend to swirl around in terrifyingly chaotic bickering before pulling out a deal at the last second, such as the United States Congress or the European Union, the global climate change conference doesn't have anything immediately at stake for any of the participants. No governments would have fallen if the negotiators in Durban had failed to reach an agreement (more's the pity). And yet they reached one. This seems to indicate that something in the politics of climate change may have shifted a bit. More