Brooks no dissent

MCFly attended the “Public panel discussion on climate change” (yes, we know, we should stay in more) at Manchester University this evening. Below is a ‘he said she said’ account (mostly ‘he said’ – all the panelists were men of a certain age. One (white American), one Latino, three from the sub-Continent.) But before that, some philosophical musings about the Point of These Things.

For the umpteenth time, we were told how important it was going to be to innovate, and have an active civil society. MCFly agrees whole-heartedly. But is getting sick of unimaginative and hierarchical formats (See the youtube video MCFly versus boring meetings) which stultify and do nothing to create ‘weak ties‘ between members of the ‘audience’. It’s like going to a Weight Watchers meeting and being force-fed deep fried mars bars while being shown videos of eating contests.

None of the panelists said anything that a reasonable and informed person could really disagree with, or that hasn’t been broadly known among the cognoscenti for many years. There was a real sense of the shopping lists and sheep voting that the wolf become vegetarian. There was also a real sense of preaching to the converted. There was a smattering of the usual suspects, a lot of post-graduate students and… nothing that connected anything to the local situation. So what are people supposed to DO? Study more, apparently.

Right, enough with the whining already. Here’s the facts:

The first speaker, Dr Debapriya Bhattarcharya, compared the catastrophic Copenhagen conference to the “Murder on the Orient Express”, where Everyone Dun It. He said the failure of Copenhagen was positive insofar as it brought to everyone’s attention the seriousness of the problem, and that everyone was there, including the Americans. To build on the Copenhagen Accord it was going to be important that the Developing World was not penalised and that the questions around how the rich reduce emissions commensurate with the targets (e.g. ‘two degrees’) and how the transition to a low carbon economy could be facilitated.

Mohan Munasinghe of Manchester University pointed out that climate change was only one of multiple global problems requiring an isolated approach. Copenhagen had shown the limits of pragmatism and self-interest. He felt that principles and a change in value systems was required. He compared the trillions spent on bailing out banks with the anemic response to poverty and climate change. He admitted the problems in working transdisciplinarily, with everyone needing to be first in their own particular field. He called for thinking that took in the whole planet, across centuries, for coalitions involving civil society, business etc.
Jose Figueres, as befits a former president, knew how to work a crowd. He told a story of the last twelve years (of hug growth that raised millions out of poverty) and the recent crash that caused Keynes to be resurrected. He invoked the notion of deckchairs being re-arranged on the Titanic, of an old carbon based economy being propped up instead of a new economy being created. He said there was a three-fold iceberg-

  • world’s planetary boundaries, without enough raw materials to produce all the expected ‘stuff’ (his example was cars in China)
  • energy price spiking (once demand creeps up above the 87 million barrels of daily oil production)
  • and the ‘hostile environment we are creating: the Wall Street meltdown is child’s play compared to the ecological meltdown. Asia’s glaciers provide 50% of the drinking water for 40% of the world’s population’.

Dr Ambuj Sagar predicted a Global Deal taking a long time to get done, and suggested that in the meantime ‘no regrets’ policies be implemented. He thought that instead of mere ‘technology transfer’ there needed to be technology innovation that was appropriate to local conditions, and called for the finance and delivery models to be adjusted accordingly. He wanted ‘Climate Innovation Centres‘ to be set up.
Finally, Joseph Stiglitz spoke. He felt that although there was acceptance of ‘the Science’, this hadn’t led to a global agreement. He pointed out that the cuts for the developed world were huge. He outlined various solutions propounded (individual tradeable emissions allowances, ethical perspective, Kyoto) and the problems with each. He outlined questions around finance and technology, and, with his economist’s hat firmly in place, talked about carbon taxes that could send the right signals. He felt that to provide ‘incentives’ (i.e. punishments) for obdurate countries, there needed to be border taxes and that although there were problems around ‘green tariffs’, these could be dealt with by ‘independent third parties’.

Questions from the floor

The first focussed on measuring true progress as opposed to only economic growth.
Stiglitz, who had chaired Nicholas Sarkozy’s group on this agreed, saying there were issues around the mismeasure of GDP, the gap between it and well-being, and around sustainability. And (as promised in the meeting by MCFly) here’s the link to the report

The second asked panelists what they thought of the recent “Heartwell” report. The panelists were largely unimpressed.

MCFly pitched in (have you ever known us to STFU?) with an observation on what happened to border taxes when they were proposed by Sarkozy. Joseph Stiglitz drew attention to the fact that in the Congressional bill on Climate Change of 2009, there was a section on carbon leakage (which assumed Uncle Sam was among the good guys), so the principle is understood, even if the rest of the world’s perspective on who is causing this mess isn’t.

All in all, this event was fine if you’re concerned about the global (though none of the speakers speculated on the future of the UNFCCC process, which is an odd omission), but not much cop if you’re focussing on t’local…

PS The event is an annual thing put on by the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. This year it followed an “Advanced Graduate Workshop” attended by the likes of Nick Stern, and was co-hosted by the BWPI and the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University.

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Below the surface...
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