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Finding common cause before COP17

In the spirit of there being an appropriate Keynes’ quote for all contemporary political problems, here’s one for COP17: “Its better to be broadly right than precisely wrong.” Put differently, critical analysis does not start from a clear-sighted definition of justice but from widely shared intuitions of injustice. This is the simple logic that runs through the global occupation movement.

The occupy movement has provided a set of reasoned objections to the current economic system. The counter criticism that they have not provided coherent solutions is irrelevant. They are a protest movement. In any case solutions to the flaws within the current system abound. The problem is the absence of political will, not the absence of good ideas. The same is true of the global movement for climate change justice.

In many ways these two movements are identical. Both are formed from a bewilderingly diverse range of peoples and interests, and both are united by a common objection to the irrational discounting of the future over the present.

But does this common cause change anything? For the thousands of people heading to the seventeenth COP in Durban it may seem like the global economic crises and the debates that surround it simply make their jobs more difficult. Domestic and regional economic crises only increase the difficulty of securing adequate funding for UNFCCC financial mechanisms and push climate change off the broader political agenda.

But perhaps, with the rise of protest movements around the world, there is a chance for a bit more honesty about the role of civil society must play in overcoming these barriers. Whilst the negotiating process forces all parties to accept the lowest common denominator, civil society will continue to advocate for progress in line with the scientific consensus. If other parties choose to present these alternatives as a barrier to progress they are wilfully missing the point.

If political realities fly in the face of justice then it is the politics that must change not our definition of justice. It is the role of civil society to continue making this point.



3 Responses to “Finding common cause before COP17”

  1. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking blog, as always! I think that you’re right in identifying that there’s more behind the role of civil society in the climate movement. For me, one of the valuable contributions that civil society can make is raising the level of ambition until they are commensurate with what the science is telling us.

    It’s time that the political process recognised that you can’t negotiate with reality and that it’s irrelevant to aim for 2 degrees when your policy positions and political manoeuvring are pushing us towards 3 to 4 degrees.

    Look forward to reading more.

  2. Tom Lafford says:

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks very much for your comment. You’re absolutely correct in your diagnosis of the barriers to political progress. However I’d like to suggest that the failure to overcome these barriers does not denote specific failings in the message or strategy of the civil society/ NGO groups that engage with the UNFCCC process.

    The UNFCCC process has consistently produced outcomes that represent ineffective compromises between different parties negotiating positions. This is well represented by a commitment to a 2 degrees and policies that put us on a path to 3.2+ degrees. How do the civil society groups that work on the negotiations respond to this?

    They respond first by restating the injustice of these failings, pointing to the responsibility of all parties to represent the interests of all those who their decisions will effect. Second, they produce policy recommendations commensurate to just outcomes.

    Whilst you provide an important set of critiques to the second element of civil society enegagement (the policy proposals), it seems you do not recognise the importance of the first.

    A question: is civil society’s primary role to act as an effective ‘think tank’ for the parties to the negotiation? And, if so, should they preference political saliency over just outcomes?

    I should say again that I recognise your objections to the specific policy asks made by civil society. My point is that there is more to civil society engagement than policy asks.


    Tom L

  3. Michael Davies says:

    Love the protest picture. “Er… no you didn’t”.

    The hopeless quest for legally binding targets has become the main blockage to meaningful progress. Countries can control greenhouse gases with about as much certainty as they can control their economy or internationsl trade. The uncertainties and radically different starting points and histories of countries make ‘burden sharing’ in a target based system impossibly complex and intractable.

    A much better approach would focus on policies and measures – giving priority to action rather than (empty) promises. Measures that systematically raise the price of carbon, solve infrastructure problems (eg. nuclear fuel cycle or gas to China), build international cooperation on x-border challenges (eg. on forests), set coordinated performance standards (vehicles, appliances, buildings), sponsor innovation (CCS) are much more manageable for countries than emissions targets set for many years hence, and therefore much more negotiable.

    Targets will come in three forms:
    1. Too weak or compromised to bite (EU ETS cap)
    2. Too distant to be binding on today’s leaders (2030, 2050)
    3. Too vague to have impact (2 degrees)

    It’s about time that the environment movement woke up and realised that their totemic call for ambitious legally binding targets is part of the problem and strengthens and deepens the deadlock.

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