Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change. Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change. This strategy has had some success. Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction. By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing. The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints. These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views. The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.
Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.
Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.
However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated. Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations. Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.
Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests. But international relations is different. In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak. The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible. Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.
For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is: first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change. It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit. It is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change. Defection means cheating. Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.
Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies. Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.
Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions. No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price. To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.
To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence. Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change. Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.
The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic. The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident. A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one. Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.
But what of arguments not based on self-interest? What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture? In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the movement by Arne Naess and many others. The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas. Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance. Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.
Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate. One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation. Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value. Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.
But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?
In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself. Aristotle used the example of eyesight. We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones). The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away? We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.
This is a basis for building political action because of its universality. Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss. Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.
Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value. It is already all around us in political discourse. Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible. For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.
In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil. It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself. It’s also not just a fight over ideas: it is a battle for survival. The supporters of the right, to paraphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state. In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations. The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie. No more. Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct. Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’. On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year. The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.
These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-seated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them. What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly? Could Canada go down a similar route? Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities. With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources. The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits. This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee. On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts. On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource. As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher. If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of the state as a (re)distributor of resources. With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible. On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing. I want to end on a positive note here. Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever. I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US. If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.
History’s largest international conference is taking place this month to commemorate a series of milestones and assess progress on key environmental issues. After thinking and writing about these issues for so many years, I hope readers will forgive the tone of this post, it’s admittedly ‘glass half empty’—on another day I might be more optimistic.
It’s been 40 years since the world’s first international Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972. Since then, anniversaries of these milestones have been held at various intervals, with the key turning point being the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio which established the notion of sustainable development and set the global agenda for the 21st century.
In the past 40 years, entire generations of people have emerged from poverty, gained education, raised children, fallen into war, lost their homes, tackled disasters, and accumulated debt. Countries have been formed, economies bankrupted, and entire societies have risen, fallen and stagnated. The unrelenting trends of environmental destruction have been unshaken by these human earthquakes. Virtually every curve follows the same pattern: from carbon emissions to depletion of the ocean fisheries to accumulation of plastics, the trends are unchanged. The human acceleration of the carbon cycle, depletion and degradation of energy, growth in global population, and accumulation of wastes has proceeded at an unrelenting pace.
In 1992, Agenda 21 listed a series of aspirational goals: international cooperation, peace, and participatory sustainability were among them. It was optimistic and mediocre. It was the best we could do at the time, and in hindsight, probably the best we’ve ever done. Looking back now, we can see the forces that were brewing to both advance and hobble the emergent global consensus. Businesses got on board for the first time: tired of being labeled the enemies, and realizing the need to forestall government actions, they either went wholesale for a radical re-hauling of their practices or threw money and marketing at the problem to change perceptions. All these years later, it’s hard to say which tactic had the greater impact.
As the environmental damage of some business activities became harder to avoid, reduce or hide, businesses changed tactics. They labeled their environmental critics as ideological nutcases or foreign enemies. Scientists were a tougher community to silence, but not impossible. Funding think tanks to stir up doubt about global warming and buying politicians bought some industries some time to become too big to fail and so lock governments into subsidizing them when the inevitable crisis hit.
For their part, the environmentalists were caught off guard by the ferocity of the counter-attack. Hostage to the business cycle, their pessimistic message found solid ground in those populations whose stakes were lower and who had the most to gain from changes: the lower middle and upper middle (both countries and classes) had sufficient resources to spend with some discretion and when given a choice that make economic sense, they were willing and able to make changes. They created new green enterprises, touted urban farming and wind and solar energy, and focused on changing the local level, leaving the large businesses the global field upon which to play.
In taking this hunker-down survivalist approach, however, many forgot that their local environments were dependent on the global in inseparable ways. Their urban and suburban lifestyle was oil-fuelled and globally-adapted and vulnerable at its very core.
Governments essentially vacated in the face of irresolvable differences: they were derailed by issues of fairness in compensation for losses, human rights claims, global inequities in resource distribution, and the unwillingness to give up any sovereign claims whatsoever. While talking a good game, they utilized any and every opportunity to shift costs onto others and spare their own any discomfort. The ‘others’ included future generations, other countries’ territories, and other species. To be fair, there is no room for heroes in environmental negotiations, since the fault is increasingly everyone’s, and so, essentially, no one’s.
There are real problems to be solved here: air, land and water pollution can be reduced, species can still be saved, warming can be either accelerated or slowed. Imagine what might be done in the next 40 years. The earth cares not about how these things are accomplished, just whether they are.
For more analysis and some governance solutions, see the excellent Earth System Governance Project: http://www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/
Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues. Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions. They prepared a blog, poster or paper to present their work. This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term. My thanks to all of my hard-working students, it was a close competition among some outstanding submissions. I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!
With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life. These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time. Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.
2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level. Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross. The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited. This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced. Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but transformational. They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources. The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters. This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.
Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008. As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses. Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?
Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation. However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.
Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field. Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped. Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.
President Barack Obama launched a new plan to create jobs last week. Although Obama’s speech was not about the environment but creating jobs, underlying it was the implicit premise that there is an unequivocal synergy between government spending on clean energy, increases in economic growth, and job growth. But how are jobs and the environment related?
Sometimes there is a stark conflict between jobs and the environment: for example, protecting old-growth forests means that some foresters may have less work, full stop, end of story.
However, more often, the choices are less stark, and more complex. Building wind turbines means using plastics, steel, energy, and other materials that must come from nature in the here and now. Building turbines may create fewer jobs in the short term than (for example) drilling for oil. On the other hand, building turbines now may help reduce the reliance on oil in the future. This would, paradoxically, increase job losses in the fossil fuel industry. On the other hand, employment from wind production is less subject to declines in the supply of the resource, since wind is, in theory, not limited in supply the way that oil is. On so it goes.
What I want to argue is that both unemployment and environmental degradation are functions of the same problem: the way in which capitalist economies produce wealth. Unless the fundamentals are addressed, meaning changes in the way that work and nature are imagined and valued, then governments will be able to do little to solve either problem.
Both work and nature in capitalism are what is termed ‘factors of production’. This means that, essentially, the application of work to nature is what makes production of goods happen. John Locke was among the first thinkers to elaborate this idea, arguing that the mixing of labour with nature produced property rights and ownership. Others, like Karl Marx, also postulated that work and nature combined together to create value (although emphatically not a right to property) and in fact Marx attributed the value of all goods to the amount of labour included in its production. The relative neglect of nature, and the resulting environmental and resource degradation, is to a large degree what has driven the environmental movement in the West since the beginning of industrial capitalism in the 17th century.
Industry and factories in the Industrial Revolution required, and voraciously consumed, both work and nature. In the process, through the adept use of technology, politics, and the forces of supply and demand, industrialists were able to ensure that their costs were kept low and the prices of goods high. The effect of the productive forces of capitalism was to progressively and systematically devalue both nature and work as factors in the value of goods. The disconnect between work and nature therefore became one of the key features of industrial capitalism.
The devaluation of work and the devaluation of nature in production have now reached a crisis point. Since there is not a US economy or a German economy or a Chinese economy but a global economy, the same factors that devalue work in China also devalue the work of thousands of middle-class Americans and Canadians who production has become, not less efficient, but more efficient, in the process of adding work to nature. Efficiency has, perversely, increased waste by making workers redundant and nature incidental to the calculation of wealth.
The disconnect between nature and work, and the devaluation of both, has been accompanied by distorting imbalances in economic activity: the havoc wreaked upon the value of thousands of people’s work (in the form of homes, infrastructure, and businesses) by a hurricane is counted as a plus in the national accounts, because it makes possible more production rather than less. The manufacture and monitoring of weapons of mass destruction becomes a productive activity, since the damage it potentially causes is discounted, omitted from the national accounts that focus solely on the present value of the application of work to nature. Drilling for oil and even cleaning up an oil spill becomes productive work, while taking measures to prevent the spill and protect oil workers is counted as a cost, and so is devalued. Oil companies roll in profits, while governments compensate them for their costs, feeding the devaluation cycle.
So, the problems of unemployment and the problems of environmental degradation are related. However, increasing economic growth with little attention to the devaluation of nature will not solve unemployment in the long term, since it activates the very forces that devalue both work and nature. Unemployed workers, like ecosystems, represent overutilized and undervalued factors of production. As long as growth is calculated in a way that devalues work and nature, then governments will continually play catch-up to try and make up the difference. Ultimately, as we are seeing, government’s efforts to bridge the gap, in the form of payroll tax cuts and spending for stimulus, become devalued themselves. Subsidizing the costs of these inputs in the production process makes them less, not more, valuable for industry. Valuing nature for the ecosystem services it provides, and valuing work for the usefulness of the goods it produces, ultimately improves efficiency and reduces the waste, both human and natural, that capitalism creates.
For more: Worldwatch Institute “Valuing Nature’s Services Today is an Investment in the Future” September 14th, 2011
Looking back at the historical development of human rights, one could easily point out the depressing record of genocide, oppression, discrimination, violence and hatred that has characterized the world. One can paint a similar picture with respect to the environmental record: every graph and equation seems to show a decline in biodiversity, environmental quality, and in prospects for a sustainable future.
However, recent events suggest that pessimism on human rights may be misplaced. If we look at the big picture, we might start to see that there are some lessons for environmental activists in the history of human rights. For example, it was once accepted as natural or inevitable that military campaigns necessitate mass bombing of civilian targets, that violent regimes would persist beyond the ability of the international community to act or even to comment on them, and that individual despots were beyond the reach of justice, likely to spend their retirement years in obscure luxury.
All of these assumptions are now, if not gone, severely strained. The fight for human rights continues throughout the world, individual people have shown over and over that there are limits to their toleration of oppression. Similarly, environmentalists might consider harnessing frustrations that are emerging around the world, in order to change international environmental norms in fundamental ways. Here are my suggestions:
1. Work from the inside out
With global environmental initiatives stalled, local action will become more important than ever. The fundamental barrier to progress on climate change has always arisen from the tensions between countries at differing levels of economic development. As with human rights, differences between countries historically stood in the way of new legal instruments to structure international norms. In the case of the UN Universal Declaration, Cold War differences stalled the development of the two major Protocols for decades after the 1948 effort. Given these differences, beginning work on the ground, and working within the norms, rules and procedures that operate locally will have greater effect on the international process than starting at the top.
Environmentalists have sometimes shied away from appealing to ethical arguments, preferring to couch the case for environmental sustainability in the stale language of self-interest and economics. This strategy should now be abandoned, as it guts the vision and content that is needed to inspire change. Systems change in response to fundamental cultural and normative shifts, not to instrumental rationalist appeals to individual gain. Human rights have made strides because of the universal power of the ethical arguments for human dignity. Everyone can relate to the struggles of others, and this is why the suppression of rights and freedoms (including rights to economic opportunities) has inspired resistance all across the world, from Tunisia to Britain to Libya.
3. Appeal to states & peoples, not to governments
Governments, whether democratic or not, are ill-equipped to deal with ecosystem breakdowns. Governments in democratic countries are focused on electoral cycles and polls. Governments of non-democratic countries are focused on keeping power. Although it may sound like heresy in some circles, states (in the sense of political institutions and communities that sustain a common identity and legal personality over the long term) are better equipped to deal with these problems than individual governments. Human rights language has always transcended governments, and human rights activists have always used government statements and commitments against them, entangling them in commitments that end up constraining them in ways that never could have been predicted.
4. Think long term
Human rights struggles continue, but progress should be acknowledged and recognized. The institution of slavery, which had existed in various forms for millennia, has now virtually been abolished, and any group who practices it now does so in the shadows, surreptitiously and shamefully. It could be argued that the planet can’t wait, and I agree with this sentiment, however, it is short-termism that has gotten us into this situation of ecological crisis, and changing the view to a planetary one should also involve a shift in thinking beyond the 20-year window that presently hampers societies.
5. Quiet efforts pay off
After Live Earth (Al Gore’s massive public relations global conference event) in 2007, interest in addressing climate change seemed to fade away. Big, splashy events are temporary, they ignite but lack the ‘long tail’ needed to create sustained change. The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia with the actions of one individual, seemed to come out of nowhere. Closer examination, however, reveals that the work of thousands of activists, journalists, and ordinary people created the conditions for change that enabled the revolutionary movements to transnationalize quickly. Contrasting these two examples also reveals the key role of information technology. Live Earth was primarily a visual and broadcast-style ‘industrial’ event, while change now happens through microblogs and ‘post-industrial’ social media. These efforts are necessarily more dispersed, less hierarchical, and less predictable, but clearly they are potent.
None of this is to say that torture, oppression, and genocide are (or perhaps ever will be) eliminated. The reports out of Syria and other places like Sri Lanka, Somalia, Congo, and Colombia suggest that there is a long way to go to achieve respect for fundamental human rights, freedom, and dignity. Nevertheless, environmentalists should take heed.