As Cancun begins, deep pessimism abounds

Frank McDonald has a timely overview of state of near-paralysis that has engulfed global efforts to arrest climate change in today’s Irish Times (including a good plug for ThinkOrSwim), though I might quibble with the statement: “many scientists now say that the melting glaciers will cause sea levels to rise by one metre by 2100”.

A paper in ‘Science‘ last year pointed out: “The last time carbon dioxide levels were apparently as high as they are today — and were sustained at those levels — global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than they are today, the sea level was approximately 75 to 120 feet higher than today, there was no permanent sea ice cap in the Arctic and very little ice on Antarctica and Greenland”.

In other words, we are now ‘locking-in’ centuries of unstoppable sea-level rises that will re-draw the map of the world, innundate the majority of the world’s major cities and fertile river deltas, turn Ireland into an ever-shrinking archipelago and displace billions of people – to where, exactly? Frank concludes his piece on Cancun aptly: “The only question is whether anyone will notice”.


(From the Irish Times) NOBODY EXPECTS much to emerge from the latest UN climate change conference which opens today in the Mexican resort of Cancún. Unlike all the hype that preceded last year’s Copenhagen summit, it has barely registered in the public consciousness. And in any case, people are preoccupied by more pressing issues.

Environmentalist John Gibbons, who blogs on, says there is “no doubt but that climate change has fallen off the public agenda compared with, say, 12 months ago. Then, there was cautious optimism pre-Copenhagen. And Obama still looked like he might deliver on “cap-and-trade” [in carbon emissions].

That was then . . .

Now, he senses “an enormous sense of frustration, bordering on despair, in both the ‘traditional’ and ‘pragmatic’ environmental camps. Despair in some quarters is bordering on panic, as the numbers keep getting worse and worse”. For example, average temperatures in Greenland went up by 3.8-8.8 degrees last winter.

This was “way ahead of projections” by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, the New York Times reported on November 13th, many scientists now say that the melting glaciers will cause sea levels to rise by nearly one metre by 2100, and this “would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over”.

The year drawing to a close has been marked by “extreme weather events”, such as the record-breaking heatwave in Moscow last July and August when temperatures soared to nearly 40 degrees, or the monsoon floods in Pakistan, which submerged nearly a fifth of the country, affecting the lives of 20 million people.

The political context is not encouraging, particularly in the US. Last July, a climate change and energy Bill that would have inaugurated a “cap and trade” regime for carbon emissions was abandoned by Democrats in the US Senate after it ran into opposition from Republicans and even some fearful Democrats.

Although President Barack Obama put his name to the G20’s recent Seoul summit declaration reaffirming “our resolute commitment to fight climate change”, the issue was far down the agenda – on page 16 of the 17-page document, way behind measures to promote “strong, sustainable and balanced [economic] growth”.

The blinkers are on nearly everywhere. When Coal India, a huge government-owned company, offered 10 per cent of its shares to investors, the 510-page prospectus didn’t once mention climate change – even though coal is the most carbon-potent of fossil fuels and burning it contributes significantly to emissions.

Former Greenpeace climate negotiator Jeremy Leggett, now executive chairman of Solar Century, noted with exasperation that the offering was oversubscribed 15-fold – mainly by foreign fund managers. Thus, Coal India’s shares soared on the first day of trading (November 4th), effectively valuing the company at €36 billion.

“Those ending up owning stock include some 484 foreign funds, 195 mutual funds, 44 insurance companies and many banks. Many of these investors were using ordinary citizens’ money, and this would have included the nest eggs of many people worried about global warming and its dire impact on the world by the time they retire.”

Even campaigning Guardian columnist George Monbiot has thrown in the towel. “In terms of real hopes for global action on climate change, we are now far behind where we were in 1997, or even 1992 . . . When talks fail once, as they did in Copenhagen, governments lose interest. They don’t want to be associated with failure . . .

Yet the scientific evidence continues to accumulate. As Monbiot noted, the first eight months of 2010 were as hot as the first eight months of 1998, which were the warmest on record, according to the US National Oceanic at Atmospheric Administration. But paradoxically, “the stronger the warnings, the less capable of action we become”.

The disappointing outcome of last December’s Copenhagen summit contributed to this crisis of confidence. Although world leaders cobbled together an “accord” recognising the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be kept below 2 degrees, no specific measures were adopted to achieve this objective.

This paralysis is causing unease and dismay even in the corporate sector. On November 16th, some of the world’s largest investors (with collective assets totalling $15 trillion) called on governments to “take action now in the fight against global warming or risk economic disruptions far more severe than the recent financial crisis”.

The 259 signatories included such major players as Allianz Global Investors and HSBC Global Asset Management as well as many of the largest European pension funds and a dozen US public pension funds and state treasurers. It was claimed to be the largest ever group of investors to call for international action on climate change.

What they’re seeking is a set of clear policies that would encourage private sector investment in low-carbon technologies.

Although global clean energy investments are expected to exceed $200 billion this year, they said this was “substantially less” than the $500 billion required annually by 2020 to keep warming below 2 degrees.

To boost this investment, they called for short-, mid- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets; “strong and sustained price signals on carbon emissions”, new policies to accelerate deployment of energy efficiency, renewable energy, green buildings, clean vehicles and clean fuels, and a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies – pledged by the G20.

The phase-out of such subsidies, estimated to be worth $312 million a year, has also been endorsed by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In a report published earlier this month, it said that abolishing them would “enhance energy security, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution, and bring economic benefits”.

In its World Energy Outlook 2010, the IEA warned that the long-term cost of governments pursuing weak policies on climate change – as most of them are doing now – would be an additional $1 trillion to cut carbon emissions after 2020, or run the risk that the rise in global temperatures would reach a disastrous 3.5 degrees.

“This is not good for anybody – neither for energy producers nor consumers. That is why we are ringing the alarm bells strongly with this report,” IEA chief economist Fatih Birol told the European Energy Review. “What is needed very badly is a clear signal for the energy sector to transform itself.” And so far, that signal hasn’t come.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson and others have recently set up the dramatically titled “Carbon War Room” with the aim of harnessing the power of entrepreneurs to implement “market-driven solutions” to climate change and create a post-carbon economy. It will be making waves in Cancún. The only question is whether anyone will notice.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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5 Responses to As Cancun begins, deep pessimism abounds

  1. Barry W says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on Cancun, and for saying what’s been on my mind for months now… how can we be sleepwalking into this disaster? How come nobody cares? With all our intelligence, capacity for information sharing and incredible technologies, can we humans really be dumb enough to collectively exterminate ourselves?

    John, I don’t expect you to answer this, I know you’re asking the same questions regularly, but the sheer utter madness of it all is overwhelming at times. It’s hard to imagine just how awful the next few decades are likely to be, I’m tempted to just forget about it – like everyone else seems able to do – and stick to worrying about the recession, IMF, X Factor or Wayne Rooney’s marital problems.

  2. denis says:

    The world`s population has to keep using fossil fuel, or else they will starve in the short term.
    Global warming will ensure that they will definitely starve in the long term OK ?, but if you had a choice, which scenario would you choose ?

  3. John Gibbons says:


    I’m not sure I accept the two choices you set out as being the only options. We’re not just using fossil fuels at the moment, we’re pissing them away with mindless profligacy. This is dumb from an emissions point of view, but even for those who choose not to “believe” all this CO2 mumbo jumbo, there’s the (other) basic fact that there is a finite and rapidly declining pool of fossil energy available (specifically, accessible oil).

    An ultra-low emissions energy trajectory is the only game in town, both for conservation of fossil reserves (ideally to allow a rapid re-tooling of zero-carbon options, from nuclear to wide-scale renewables) and to try to stabilise atmospheric CO2 levels – or at least arrest the rate of increase. Of course, all this buys us is time, but it’s surely better to at least try than the counsel of despair set out in your posting.

    Let me expand briefly: you’re probably right. Humanity’s collective goose is most likely cooked. We are certainly in the late twilight of industrial civilisation. There are, however, millions of other species on Earth who have a chance of surviving the end-Anthropocene phase, and if we’re intellectually incapable of saving ourselves, that doesn’t mean we have the right to commit total ecocide into the bargain and actually kill off all life on this planet.

    Your ‘burn, baby burn’ injunction is, in my view morally indefensible.


    All I can say is that I know the feeling. Internalising these anxieties takes its toll on people, and it’s certainly easy to feel disempowered, overwhelmed. I certainly feel that way from time to time, but as someone once said, this situation is far too serious for the luxury of despair. We may be an atavistic, voracious and cruel species, but we’re also the smartest, by a long, long shot, ever to exist.

    Perhaps our powerful desire to survive will eventually overcome collective inertia and gross stupidity. Perhaps not.

  4. denis says:

    Thank you for your reply John.
    There are far too many people in the world all wanting a so called higher standard of living.
    This of course is not possible, and will probably end in misery for them as they fight over their dwindling resources.
    We, on the other hand in Ireland, have the means to actually live quite well—we have a lot of resources that stood us in good stead in the past, and with proper organisation, could serve us well into the future, to wit our agricultural land, for indeed the main prequisites for life is the ability to grow food, construction materials and fuel.
    Our penchant for placing BMW`s and oversized houses at the top of the desirability index, has clouded our perceptions of reality.
    However a good dose of temporary hardship will most certainly make us think and reorganise our priorities—-this is already happening with the rediscovery of the allotment, and is a most welcome change in the right direction.
    We have a great chance now to invent the new society, forgetting the shallow thrills of the consumer splurge that we became enslaved to.
    Our main problem will be to be able to keep our country to ourselves—-I see a great threat of being taken over by not so benign forces.
    Despite the certain horrors of global warming, I am sure that mankind will survive, and survive well, living a much simpler more time free and satisfying life—-we in Ireland have the ability to invent and perfect this new way of life, especially at this time.
    I am actually full of hope, and will look expectantly for the new wave of young leadership which this economic disaster will undoubtedly throw up—–people like yourself John, and the many thinking people who respond to your articles.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful posting. Agree we in Ireland are better placed than most to get away relatively lightly (at least initially) thanks to our maritime location, though in a 4C+ world, all bets are off for everyone. New leadership is sorely needed, though in my own case, being the twilight side of 40 pretty much rules me out on the “young” part! Humanity has backed itself into a tight corner; dramatic change is now pretty much certain, and much of it is likely to be deeply unpleasant.

    Letting go of the present (and of what we imagined the future would hold) is part of a long, difficult process of moving towards acceptance of our altered reality, and of taking whatever steps we can take to prepare for what lies ahead.

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