This month UTP Higher Education celebrates the publication of Peter J. Stoett’s Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice. “Can we save this wonderful, green and blue, mountain high and ocean deep planet from further human abuse? Will it save itself without us?” begins Professor Stoett. The book explores these questions first through an introduction to major environmental challenges and then through a series of case studies exploring the limitations and possibilities of international governance—which involves not only governments but civil society and the private sector—to create effective solutions to these challenges.
The deeper aim of the book is to encourage sustained, informed discussions of environmental policy and problem-solving. And, serving this purpose extends beyond the covers of the book. Read on for Professor Stoett’s reflections on the Durban climate change conference (held this past winter), and the role of conferences like this (including the upcoming Rio+20 this summer) in establishing effective policy that serves a principle of environmental justice by protecting the right to a safe environment as a human right.
Durban, Dread, and Promise: Moving Beyond Our Age of Angst
Two recent (2011), critically acclaimed films do a brilliant job of capturing one of our least-favoured emotions: dread. The fear of more severe emotions to come. The sinking realization that doom is not just a far-off threat but is lurking outside the door. Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia take the viewer on a cinematic journey through mental illness, societal expectations, and a gnawing sense of impending doom. They remind me of the climate change debate and the lack of enthusiasm most environmentalists feel for the international talks in Durban, South Africa, last November and December.
Take Shelter explores this sense of dread from an individual’s point of view. Its main character (in a stunning performance by Michael Shannon) is increasingly obsessed with what he feels is the coming storm of storms. His neighbours and family think he is losing it, and he has reason to suspect this himself, but those dark clouds are coming nevertheless. The deftly directed Melancholia portrays varying responses to the arrival of a colliding planet and plays deftly with our senses of denial, optimism, panic, and gloom. One of the main characters, played by Kirsten Dunst, begins the film in a state of mental disarray but emerges as a calm witness to the apocalypse, while the supposedly stable people around her are unable to adapt.
Both films provoke thoughts about the fragility and uncertainty of life, the human frame against environmental catastrophe, and our own sense of agency, which is rather apt material for our times when the specter of destruction and mayhem induced by climate change has replaced the fear of nuclear weapon strikes that plagued several generations during the Cold War. (There is a major difference, of course, between the two images. Climate change is indeed here, now, happening largely to people who have the least recourse to political power or the economic power of adaptation; whereas, with the calamitous exceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have not been used—directly, at any rate—on human communities.) But these films echo our environmental realities not only through their apocalyptic themes but also through the near-indifference to these eventualities exhibited by the majority of the characters. (Politicians, by the way, are noticeably absent from both films, which could be worrisome or refreshing, depending on your viewpoint.)
Meanwhile, predictably, climate change talks sputtered in Durban, South Africa, as yet another United Nations conference disappointed those who believed Santa would deliver the present of political certainty this year. Stalemates ensued the usual debates: the split between Northern and Southern countries over who should pay for past mistakes, the short-term costs of serious action (which pale next to the long-term costs of inaction, but that is harder for politicians to conceptualize), the sheer suffocative weight of heavily subsidized fossil fuel development, and distrust and resentment, all within the context of yet another global economic crisis.
As the talks circled the drain, it was hard was to escape the image of Nero fiddling away while Rome begins to burn; of the coming storm driving Shannon’s character bonkers; of the arriving planet the wealthy subjects of Melancholia choose to treat as an exotic postcard rather than as a threat to all life on earth. Surely, by now, and despite the best efforts of the relentless climate change “denial industry,” we are conscious of both realized and anticipated floods and droughts, new extinctions of species, invasions of alien species, melting ice and permafrost, and the drowning of shorelines and small islands. Angst, and the smell of despair, sets in, not because we are doing nothing, but because most people realize we could be doing much more.
However, work is getting done, especially at the local level—survival remains the strongest of motivations. While global negotiations can appear frustratingly divisive, the vast majority of constructive dialogue on climate change and action is taking place at a more local level, where citizens’ groups, invested local companies, and conscientious individuals are taking steps to modify their daily behaviour, albeit in the often-mesmerizing uncertainty of the international context. Individual actions, as the films remind us, speak volumes and make big and little differences in human lives. Governments may be unable or unwilling to take firmer steps (or may even be openly hostile towards those taking them), but many citizens are stepping on regardless.
We can also take some solace (while exercising healthy caution), in the fact that the level of diplomatic activity on environmental issues is unprecedented. In every sector, from ocean to forestry to biodiversity, we have tens of thousands of scientists, national and international civil servants, politicians, non-governmental organizations, progressive corporate leaders, journalists, and others working hard to make a difference. My book Global Ecopolitics is fairly comprehensive but only covers a fraction of all this activity. Of course diplomats, scientists, and policy wonks do not always agree on everything and have a limited impact given the size and scope of the problems. But, the evidence is, happily, overwhelming: never before have so many people, from so many geographic regions and cultures, been so engaged in environmental protection, biodiversity protection, oceans research and advocacy, and many other facets of the contemporary pursuit of sustainable development.
There are ethical issues at stake here as well, and we need to keep these in mind if we seek legitimate solutions. Whether or not the Kyoto Protocol will survive as an architectural framework for what people are calling “climate governance,” it is clear we need to think beyond this in order to realize any sort of effective change. Another phrase made the rounds in Durban and beyond: climate justice. This is not, contrary to those eager to dismiss the entire project, just another way of reframing the old debate about colonial responsibility. It is rather a reflection of climate science meeting contemporary ethics, and it is the logical continuation of pursuing environmental justice, a term still in use in many contexts around the world.
The Canadian and American governments are right about their insistence that countries such as China, India, and Brazil need to play a proactive role in greenhouse emission reductions (though there is evidence they are indeed doing so already). But, it is ethically irresponsible to ignore the basic fact that the majority of people adversely affected by climate change are those who contributed the least to it. This won’t go away, and needs to be discussed openly in venues such as the Durban conference, even in an era of fiscal austerity. While we would be foolish to place all responsibility for implementing environmental solutions on the outcomes of international conferences, we must demand that this venue be used to deal with the adaptation question, since the misery inflicted by climate change will have to be partially mitigated by the wealthier countries, which can also help by spreading technological advances.
At least on this front there was, in fact, some progress made at Durban. Government representatives furthered an earlier commitment to establishing an international Green Fund that will be used for climate change adaptation measures amongst other things; this is a continuation of the dialogue on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Adaptation Fund. Though even semi-knowledgeable people suppress a smirk when they are told the Fund’s ambitious goal is to provide $100 billion per year by 2020, we are at least headed in the direction of compensation related to the excesses of industrial and agricultural activity. How we actually raise this money, and how it is distributed, will be a major factor of public life in the next few years, and we should challenge ourselves to open and protracted discussions now, before time runs out and talks resort to the more usual habits of recrimination and evasion.
These harsh challenges should be viewed as calls of duty. We need to take the best science we have—which, it is widely accepted, points to the very serious consequences of inaction—and strive for a common approach towards collective survival. Today’s complexity is no reason to sacrifice the ability of future generations to cope with the ecological reality they will inherit from us. Rather than succumb to the temptation to declare all efforts futile, people are responding to the challenge of sustainability in remarkable ways across the globe. Some, such as the Inuit of northern North America, have no choice. They are by default the first-responders to climate change, losing valuable hunting ranges due to sea-ice loss and the displacement of hunted species. Others, such as the inhabitants of small ocean islands, see a colliding planet on the horizon, realizing their living space could well be submerged in the decades to come. Others face less immediate challenges but are concerned about the impact all this will have on their children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life. We need to think about our motivations and come to reasonable conclusions about the contributions we can make. Then, we need to make them. The upcoming Rio+20 conference may not yield spectacular results either, but it is an opportunity to publicize the need for more hard work ahead.
Take Shelter and Melancholia explore age-old themes, but they seem more pertinent with the shadow of ecological collapse looming over our thoughts. A touch of dread and a large dose of confusion are also poignant reminders of the fragile beauty of life and nature, urging each of us to consider how we can be part of an ethical solution, and perhaps, in the process, find a greater part of ourselves than we knew existed.
- Peter J. Stoett
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