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Humanity is done for

The battle to protect our climate appears lost, with humanity condemned to a slow and strange form of collective suicideJames Nix 


Suicide is a controversial word to use. And it needs qualification. The generation that held sway in the twenty years between 1992 and 2012 fired the shots, hitting not themselves, and not so much their immediate offspring, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They – or should I say we – released bullets that will really only hit in great numbers decades from today. It will be those born relatively recently and in the future who will suffer most as runaway climate change sets in. If the emissions that cause temperature rise are not arrested within the next 3 to 4 years, the fate of future generations will be sealed. It is not a situation that can be rescued belatedly: if average temperatures rise over 2 degrees there is no stopping it; it increases inexorably, ever-higher.

And it needs further explication: it was wealthier people in rich countries that first loaded the gun and then pulled the trigger. If 2013 is to mark the year the firing begins to stop, societies will have to deliver two momentous changes. The first is the effective division of large parts of humanity into closed systems which we call ‘professions’ that don’t really bother to talk to each other. And the second is the ever-growing influence of corporate lobbying power, with the associated tendency of politicians to kowtow.

Taking the split society first, the chasm between economists and scientists is particularly glaring. Last year we realised that a maximum of 20 per cent of the world’s fossil fuels could be burned without raising global temperatures beyond two degrees. And yet there was – or is – no collective endeavour by economists to back a pricing structure that would reduce the burning of fossil fuels, let alone stay below carbon limits (see inset). Economists seem to have managed to box off what’s happening in the natural world, thinking their own profession needn’t bother absorbing such data, or respond proportionately.  Too many of them shrug and say that the cost of environmental degradation should be priced in, without factoring in that we face a planetary emergency that will not wait. Economists should recognise that, unlike the ephemeral diktats of economics, the planet is a good in itself. Carbon pricing must be effected soon and so stringently that it makes the difference the evidence says is necessary.

The rise in lobby power is pervasive. From planning policy failures in Ireland, to more and more coal-burning in Asia, to the descent of Canada into environmental vandalism, the pervasiveness of corporate power, more and more mixed with political jingoism, is never far off (also see inset).

Yet there remains hope that civil society may mobilise and, however late, help slow the pace of climate change. It all depends on how many people join and support organisations trying to make a difference, and how this new energy, if it does come, is channelled.



Canada – whose tar sand companies have taken it from virtue to villainy

Canada’s descent coincides with the election of Stephen Harper as PM in 2006 (leading a minority Government) and the ramp up in the very polluting process that sees oil extracted from tar sands.

Harper greatly cemented his power in mid 2011, with his Conservative party winning more than half the seats in parliament, and returning Harper as a much stronger PM.

In little more than six months after his re-election in 2011, Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto treaty on climate change – making it the first country to U-turn on its 1997 commitment.

The warning signs had been there since 2006. Not long after entering office, Harper began throwing up barriers between climate scientists and the media, force-feeding scientists ‘media lines’ which they are made repeat to journalists, with ‘media officers’ taping the interviews to make sure the scientists keep faith with Harper’s shady script. The result: some of the world’s leading experts documenting the damage that higher temperatures are doing to Canada’s far north are prevented from conveying the truths of climate change.

In 2008 the Harper government banned one of Canada’s most respected scientists from addressing a key international conference. Running from that time right through to today, there are countless reports of the Canadian government muzzling its own scientists, recent examples being highlighted in the Montreal Gazette of 7 January.

Behind it all are Canada’s oil barons. Harper himself hails from the home of tar sands – Alberta – where he once worked for an oil company.

Harper’s muzzling of scientists and his studied environmental ignorance bespeaks the ascent of Albertan corporate power. This January Albertan politicians conducted a grand tour of ten European capitals, including Dublin. An Taisce highlighted the Dublin trip to Ireland’s main media but their focus was elsewhere (horse burgers, as it happens).

To give succour to the tar sands companies, the state government in Alberta tried to distort the pollution data from tar sands, only to be roundly exposed by Canada’s not-for-profit Pembina Institute.

As well as exposing lobby power, the story of tar sands underpins the case for carbon pricing: in levying a tax according to the level of pollution caused by each fossil fuel, the oil wrung out of tar sands would be so expensive it would stay in the ground, forever.


Fair carbon pricing

Within our day-to-day personal lives, we can do a lot, but becoming paragons only goes so far without intelligent government policies. Governments worldwide are criminally ill-disposed to policies that might have adverse short-term effects on standards of living. A few years back the Department of the Environment ploughed hundreds of thousands of euro into the then ubiquitous Power of One campaign, giving pointers on how we can recycle more, reduce fuel use in travel and enhance energy efficiency in the home. A more ambitious element of the campaign, to hint that we might consider reducing our intake of meat, was vetoed by the Department of Agriculture – and was dropped from the campaign before it reached the public.

But to really push down climate emissions will take an accurate and diligent programme, one that raises the cost of creating climate emissions – and redistributes the proceeds in a fair way.

Ultimately, this will need to be an international system, with rates for each country set according to the output of climate gases by the average citizen.

Before it becomes international, individual countries need to make a lot more progress on their own steps to fairly price carbon.

Ireland will apply the carbon tax to solid fuels from 1 May 2013. It is a welcome step towards taxing demonstrable ‘bads’ like pollution instead of ‘goods’ like labour. However, the initial rate is low (€10 per tonne), the level of application hasn’t been clarified, and there is no detail yet on enforcement provisions.


James Nix is the newly-appointed Director of An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland.