The financial crisis of 2008 and the ongoing EU debt crisis have underscored the short-sightedness of our current way of thinking, as well as our inability to process risk. We must apply this lesson to climate change action urgently. If we are unable to contain man-made problems and allow them to spiral out of control, we cannot hope to handle natural ones.
However, the sentiment at the UN Climate Change Conference in Durban this week seems to be almost as dark as it is in Brussels. Expectations are low at this last ditch attempt to save the Kyoto Protocol as reflected in the gloomy press coverage pre-conference, in stark contrast to the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Several political leaders remain conspicuously absent, as they grapple with fiscal stagnation and vicious markets at home. This is disheartening, as the issue is more urgent than ever before. The Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of next year, and there are no international legally binding agreements in place after 2013. On the other hand, we seem to be moving in the wrong direction even when the agreement is functional; a report from PWC notes that carbon intensity has increased last year, as global emissions grew for the first time in a decade.
The outlook for global climate action looks even bleaker outside the UN framework. The global economy continues to reel from the debt crisis, having barely recovered from the subprime crisis. Funding for renewable energy companies is drying up, as harsh austerity measures have hit private equity entrants. Banks are shrinking their balance sheets to comply with new capital ratio regulations at a time when investment in R&D and innovation in the sector is sorely needed.
The obstacles are not simply financial in nature of course; the Republicans don’t believe in climate change in the first place. With the impending U.S. elections overlapping with the highly publicized bankruptcy of Solyndra and Evergreen Solar, the world's highest emitter of green-house gases does not seem set to lead by example. To add to the uncertainty, rising unemployment coupled with the oil and gas boom in the U.S. has soured public perception of President Barack Obama’s green jobs policy.
But having potentially found "a century’s worth of gas supply" does not mean climate change will go away. We need to tackle carbon emissions, whether the global economy is in recession or not. There is no silver bullet. The way forward is not easy, convenient, or clear-cut. We cannot let short-term benefits outweigh our future or wait for an international natural disaster to start taking climate change seriously.
The two crises have highlighted that our economic and political systems are broken; we must adapt to survive. Mass uprisings extending from the U.S. to the Middle East have sprung up in the past year as the public fights for equality and more transparent governance at a pivotal time. If politicians cannot reconcile basic ideological differences and agree to raise the U.S. debt ceiling or stop contagion from spreading in the EU even to save their own skins, how can we rely on them to save the planet? It's time to move beyond conventional platforms and look for bold, new leadership that thinks beyond elections and terms in office.
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