October 23, 2009
Contrivance in Copenhagen
by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
For a brief moment in Copenhagen, the effort to address climate change spoke with a single voice. It was the voice of a middle-class Danish girl, the protagonist of a four-minute film called "Please Help the World," produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark to show at the opening ceremonies.
The film begins with the girl watching television news of climate disasters. That night, clutching her polar bear stuffed animal, she dreams a terrifying nightmare: climate apocalypse. She is hit by a flood. She runs from tornadoes. An earthquake, apparently the result of some as yet unknown climate change impact, tears the earth asunder.
The girl awakens, screaming. Her father is there to offer comfort. In what is apparently an effort to calm her, he shows her, of all things, the United Nations COP15 web site. She watches speeches by U.N. grandees like Desmond Tutu and Rajendra Pachauri demanding action now. She grabs her father's video camera, leaps from her stool, and dashes to the rooftop of her apartment.
There, with an angry sky as backdrop, she does what any sensible person would do when faced with global apocalypse: she points the video camera at herself and starts talking.
What Copenhagen Teaches Us About Ourselves
With all hopes of a treaty abandoned months ago, diplomats and greens are in a state of serious cognitive dissonance, attempting to resolve the seriousness of the problem with the total lack of a meaningful government response. They do so, not by asking hard questions about the viability of the Kyoto framework, but rather by creating a simulacrum of action to substitute for any meaningful action to reduce emissions or adapt to a warmer world.
In this, Copenhagen represents the first truly postmodern global event in human history. Other generations had Versailles, Yalta, Bretton-Woods -- agreements that re-organized nation states and shaped the modern world. We, by contrast, have Copenhagen, which has no power to do anything. In reality, Copenhagen is no more effectual than the made for media confabs like Davos. But the United Nations, multinational green groups, and sympathetic reporters have succeeded in creating the impression of action where there is, in fact, none at all.
In this environment, it is in the interests of participants to stop trying to discern what is symbolic from what is real. Copenhagen's signifiers -- its words and images -- have a conveniently shifting relationship to the external world.
The final result is a conference that is desperately fake from beginning to end. It opened with a fictional girl who loses her polar bear to an angry earth. It will end on December 18, when President Obama and President Hu Jintao will, to the sound of thunderous applause, call for bold action while they, in reality, implement business-as-usual energy policies.
There is no better symbol of the phoniness, the manic self-referentiality, and the desperation of global warming politics today than the one created and projected by United Nations diplomats upon the screen: a scared little girl with a video camera.
Everyone Pretends It's Real
While Copenhagen is pure simulacrum, there is still an external reality. That reality has a name: "business-as-usual," or BAU. The U.N. emissions reduction framework has not, will not, and cannot reduce emissions below BAU emissions increases. Nor can it create, or get nations to enforce, a new treaty to do so.
Last month's announcement that Copenhagen would not result in a new treaty should have been the nail in the coffin. Instead the United Nations claimed there would still be a "politically binding" agreement -- a stepping-stone to a comprehensive and binding treaty next year.
But more than 5,000 journalists and thousands of additional diplomats, activists, and NGO staffs had already bought plane tickets and reserved hotel rooms. At least 1,200 limos had been rented, and 140 private planes were scheduled to arrive. Nobody wanted to cancel, since conferences, if they are good for anything, are a chance to get away from reality.
So everyone has come to Copenhagen anyway, to play their parts in an elaborate Kabuki Theatre whose outcome -- no treaty, no emissions reductions -- was known well in advance. The White House promised emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. China announced a cut of carbon intensity by 40 - 45 percent by 2020. Finally, pronounced U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer, the supposed breakthrough "can unlock two of the last doors to a comprehensive agreement."
But it's all transparently phony. There will be no "agreement" -- Obama and Premier Wen Jiabao will simply announce their proposed national energy agendas as emissions reductions targets. As for being "politically binding," both leaders remain bound to their nations, their interest groups, and their publics, not to each other, much less to U.N. diplomats.
Even if Obama can pass cap and trade out of the Senate -- and several Democratic Senators are saying it's already dead -- the legislation would not likely reduce emissions below business-as-usual, much less 17 percent. Firms could purchase so many offsets that the "cap" is virtually meaningless, allowing domestic emissions to rise at business as usual rates for at least the next decade and likely two.
China's promise to cut its carbon intensity is, as political scientist and Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. has calculated, "essentially business-as-usual as projected by the IEA" (International Energy Agency).
The ambitious sounding emissions reduction promises offered by other leading nations-- 25 percent by 2020 by the Japanese government, 30 percent by 2020 by UK Prime Minister Brown -- are all equally empty.
Other global treaty negotiations resulted in actual treaties -- and ones that shaped reality. Nuclear nonproliferation agreements resulted in dismantling warheads. Versailles and Yalta negotiated the end of wars and the remaking of the modern world. The Geneva Convention changed how we wage war. The Montreal Protocol resulted in nations agreeing to phase out ozone-depleting CFC gases.
What makes Copenhagen the first postmodern global event is not simply that it lacks a relationship to reality, but that so many continue to project such faith that a solution lies close at hand onto an effort that has so abjectly and obviously failed.
Simulating Emissions Reductions
Europe gamed the Kyoto protocol in 1997 by rigging the framework to start from a high 1990 baseline, instead of the much lower 1997 baseline. Europe was thus able to count big emissions declines dating back to the early 1990's and create a perception of European leadership.
Europe's claims are nothing short of fraudulent. Its emissions declined for reasons having nothing to do with Kyoto: rapid deindustrialization and a switch from coal to natural gas in the early '90's in Britain, and German reunification with a collapsing East German economy, are responsible for most of Europe's claimed reductions.
The seeds of Copenhagen's postmodernism were planted early. The 1992 Rio conference resulted in an agreement for voluntary emissions reductions that never occurred. The 1997 Kyoto protocol was based on a commitment that the U.S. could not ratify and Japan, Canada, and Australia could not keep.
As emissions rose, U.N. officials, European leaders, and greens maintained that progress was being made by pioneering the simulation of emissions reductions through what are known as "carbon offsets." They are commodities with no fixed relationship to actual emissions reductions. A Stanford University study of the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism found that one- to two-thirds were completely phony, representations of emissions reductions not backed up by reality. The New York Times has charitably called Europe's supposed reductions the result of "creative accounting."
In 2007, Bali talks to extend Kyoto collapsed due to divisions between developed and developing nations. U.N. officials, EU leaders, and greens blamed George W. Bush and scheduled a new round of talks at Copenhagen. But the collapse of talks last month debunked the notion that Bush era obstructionism had been the primary obstacle to the establishment of a productive emissions reduction treaty.
The latest U.N. spin is that Copenhagen will lead to a binding treaty next year. But the challenges to negotiating a binding treaty go well beyond the universally acknowledged impossibility of U.S. Senate ratification of any emissions reduction treaty. The rapid growth of emissions in China and India have made the notion that developed nations would bear most of the burden for emissions reductions increasingly untenable. And the failure of wealthy developed economies to make real changes to their own energy economies has demonstrated that, all rhetoric aside, the costs and political difficulties associated with doing so are a good deal greater than many Kyoto proponents had imagined.
So most of the justification for the talks is that they will someday do something. Without any role in shaping reality, the purpose of the Copenhagen spectacle is the spectacle itself. Climate talks are for more climate talks and promises lead to more promises. In our postmodern state, we can no longer see the difference between promises to do something and actually doing something. "Never have so many different nations of all size and economic status," UN chief Ban Ki-moon during the opening ceremonies, "made so many pledges together."
Look Both Ways for Denial
Copenhagen was preceded by a seemingly genuine fight between skeptics who deny the reality or threat of global warming, and greens who deny the political economy of carbon. In their respective simulacra, they see each other as mortal enemies. In reality, they desperately need each other.
In a brilliantly timed release of emails and data stolen from Britain's East Anglia Climate Research Unit, skeptics managed to create an international debate over the evidence of climate change, calling the hack "climategate." The emails didn't challenge human-caused global warming. But that didn't stop the skeptics from waving the emails around as proof that it was all a hoax. Greens dismissed the controversy and the bad behavior of prominent climate scientists, aggressively spinning the CRU hack as "swift-boating."
The result was a phony debate. It served greens and skeptics well but did nothing to spark an honest discussion of economics and technology. Instead, climate scientists and environmental activists continued their running battle with skeptics over trivial disputes such as warming and cooling in the medieval period -- a subject that offers no insight whatsoever into what we should do about today's global warming.
Journalists and activists alike value "global warming deniers" because they are useful villains in the story. Reporters and activists never tire of writing about Exxon-Mobil's funding as some kind of a major scoop, and a researcher at Media Matters can feel like Woodward and Bernstein after just a few hours downloading IRS 990 financial statements from Guidestar.
But really it is phony investigative journalism posing as the real thing. In truth, skeptics of global warming are poor, not rich. According to Media Matters, Exxon-Mobil has given conservative think tanks less than $7 million total since 2001 -- about $1 million a year. By contrast, the combined annual budgets of America's leading environmental philanthropies and NGOs total well over $500 million a year. Two funders alone have promised to spend $2 billion on climate communications over the next few years. And governments collectively spend billions annually, as they should, funding climate scientists to conduct research and publish their work.
Activists, with the help of reporters, have grossly exaggerated efforts by the Bush administration to muzzle NASA scientist James Hansen, perhaps the best-known scientist in the world. Hansen routinely publishes blunt attacks on Congressional proposals and advocates his own agenda all while working as a government employee. After the Bush Administration attempted to censor his work he complained to the New York Times and the problem disappeared. Hansen has one of the safest jobs in America.
The notion that climate skeptics are to blame for collective government inaction is as phony as the debate over whether the stolen emails change our understanding of the science. Neither skepticism of anthropogenic warming nor the belief that scientists are divided nor the public's lack of understanding of science have been significant factors in preventing action on global warming.
The big story is that there is now 20 years of evidence that green communications on climate have backfired. Public concern about global warming today is no greater than it was 20 years ago. Public support for action to reduce carbon emissions quickly evaporates as soon as there is a serious price tag attached. Increasingly dire warnings of impending climate catastrophes have triggered apocalypse fatigue and rising skepticism about climate science. Greens have not only failed to achieve action, they have made the situation worse, alienating the public even more than they had alienated them before 2004, when the two of us denounced apocalyptic environmentalism in "The Death of Environmentalism."
The reason for inaction is the same today as it has been for 20 years. Consumers and businesses alike are loath to increase energy costs in order to address global warming. Fossil fuels are cheap. Low carbon power sources are expensive or, like nuclear power, politically unpopular. No political economy in the world is going to significantly raise energy prices and slow its economy to deal with climate change. So long as the primary lever that climate policy proposes to use to address global warming are mechanisms that, one way or another increase energy prices, efforts to substantially reduce global carbon emissions will fail.
This reality is as firm as the relationship between emissions and warming, but it is one that the United Nations, the world's largest governments, and green activists refuse to accept. For this reason, global warming deniers are, for greens, highly useful enemies -- ones they simply cannot let go.
Delusions of Grandeur
Copenhagen, like the Waxman-Markey climate legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last June, revealed the most delusional natures of liberals, conservatives, greens and skeptics alike. Skeptics and conservatives claimed that Waxman-Markey would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy. Greens claimed it would result in a low-carbon economy for the cost of a postage stamp a day. In truth, as all independent analyses show, the legislation will have little to no impact on energy prices or the economy -- for the simple reason that it will do little to reduce emissions or deploy low carbon energy technologies.
Yet, from London to Canberra to Washington, D.C., liberals and greens sell business-as-usual policies as the keys to averting ecological apocalypse. And everywhere conservatives and skeptics warn that these same policies will lead to economic ruin. The denialists' pas de deux continues, the multiple echo chambers spinning in unison.
In this environment, skeptics and greens alike make hallucinogenic statements and create bizarre media stunts. The president of the Maldives, a nation of 300,000 people, summoned the press corps to a "cabinet meeting" -- under water, in scuba gear -- based on the apparent belief that such media stunts will persuade China and India, nations of two billion people, to fundamentally alter their development paths. Youth climate activists sing "Give Peace a Chance" not because global warming is like war but because it's the best protest song they knew.
Skeptical conservatives insist that Copenhagen, a Davos-style green media event, is in fact the beginning of a new, secret global government. And Senator James Inhofe, who not only denies man-made warming but also believes that it was invented by a vast conspiracy, announced that he would travel to Copenhagen to act as a one man "truth squad."
The climate McCarthyite, Joe Romm, claimed the Copenhagen "plan" -- the promises by the U.S. and China -- "increases the chance for Senate passage of the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill." In reality Obama's promises triggered a backlash from leading Senate Democrats.
Environment writer turned protest leader Bill McKibben spent the last four years pushing political leaders to make new promises. First it was 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050, now it's 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere -- all promises for future politicians (many not yet born) to keep. Angered by the breakdown of climate talks, he recently advised Obama in the Washington Post, to hold more photo ops near the rising oceans and melting glaciers. The Senate may be tough, McKibben added, but there is a solution:
At 350.org, an organization I co-founded that is dedicated to solving the climate crisis, we're working to organize candlelight vigils at senators' offices around the country.
Lacking any power to effect reality, Copenhagen has thus become a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. But the pilgrimage is postmodern and the faith is bad.
European delegates will pretend to have reduced emissions and other nations will pretend to believe them. Obama will promise to reduce emissions by 17 percent even though he has neither the votes nor a policy to do so. China will issue a promise to reduce the growth of its emissions even though it is identical to business-as-usual projections.
The result is what the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described over a century ago as cultural nihilism, something that happens when the old systems of meaning -- God, progress, nature, science -- lose their power. We no longer believe in them, but we continue to behave as though we do.
Nihilism is the phenomenon of going to church, saying confession, and sometimes even praying to God, even though you no longer believe that God will do anything for you. Climate nihilism is the phenomenon of going to Copenhagen, promising to reduce emissions and pretending to believe the promises, even neither though you nor anybody around you has any intention, plan or funding to do so.
Copenhagen is what you get when science lacks the power to re-shape economies, rich nations cannot tell poor ones what to do, and a supposedly common global threat divides rather than unites the world. Copenhagen represents the twilight of modernist idols.
Our postmodern condition, first diagnosed thirty years ago this year by the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, has merged with what Fareed Zakaria calls our "post-American world." In this post-American, postmodern condition no global meta-narrative can predominate because there are simply too many nations, ideologies, and interests in play. The German sociologist Ulrich Beck calls this "second modernity," not postmodernity, because it both depends on and undermines the old modernist ideas and institutions - Science, Progress, the Nation-State, the United Nations.
While the Chinese, the Indians, and the Brazilians are enjoying the post-American world -- for it is a world where their development is largely unencumbered -- the lack of power to reduce emissions triggers a loss of meaning, desperation, and depression among UN diplomats, green activists, and liberals in Europe and the U.S.
For skeptics and many conservatives, global warming plays the opposite role, serving as a new potential threat to capitalism in a post-Communist world, and thereby allowing them to imagine themselves heroically halting the creation of a world government to assault American freedom.
In this environment, what becomes important is not the truth, but maintaining the simulacra. In this way, when political leaders make emissions reduction promises, they are not exactly lying. For lying would require, as Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt observed in his essay "On Bullshit," a concern for the truth that is nowhere evident. The nihilist/bullshitter keeps going to his church -- either of God or of Science -- and keeps making promises without care for whether he can keep them.
In a world that appears to be increasingly without meaning, the nihilist can claim that something means anything, and that nothing means everything. As free-floating signifiers in a simulacrum, images and words can be used outside of their original context by the nihilist/bullshitter for whatever purpose he chooses.
Last summer, the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Miliband attempted to rally public enthusiasm for his government's failing climate and energy policies. Lacking a viable path forward and under pressure from greens unsatisfied with the pace of change, Miliband urged his fellow greens to temper their demands for more urgent action. "If Martin Luther King had come along and said 'I have a nightmare,'" Miliband pointed out, "people would not have followed him."
In our postmodern condition it hardly matters that the authors of those words made them in the context of a polemic called "The Death of Environmentalism" -- an argument that Kyoto, cap and trade, and the dominant regulatory framework for addressing climate change could not work.
But Miliband could not be expected to know, or care, about the original meaning of the phrase he repeated. It is after all, like the rest of the signifiers in the simulacrum, just words.