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Change the system, not the climate

cop15 logoToday, fifteen thousand humans gather at the Bella Center in Copenhagen. Ten thousand of them shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding their species from unimaginable suffering, widespread death, and possibly even extinction.

As many as 50,000 more humans are expected to arrive, elsewhere in Copenhagen, to help make sure this responsibility isn’t forgotten. Unrepresented, meanwhile, are 1.25 million other species that face similar, if not graver threats to their existence.

While stupendously important, the task of the ten thousand is not complex. Not difficult. Not even taxing. They don’t have to save the world in two weeks. They just have to agree that the world is worth saving, and thus set in motion the process by which we do so.

So easy is this task, in fact, that I can illustrate it in just 193 words:

The ten thousand must agree with the overwhelming scientific consensus that digging up and burning carbon, in its various forms, has undoubtedly caused the observed 0.7 degree increase in global average temperatures since pre-industrial times.

They must agree that if we continue on our current trajectory of increasing carbon combustion rates by three percent every year, the result will be a scale of death and suffering not witnessed on this planet for 251 million years.

They must agree that the founding principles of our global economic system – growth, consumption and the pursuit of profit above all else – have been a constant driving force in the acceleration of carbon emissions.

They must agree that in order to successfully reduce the rate at which we burn carbon, to the levels deemed safest by the best climate forecasting available, we must change the founding principles of this economic system from growth to stability, from consumption to sustainability and from profit to wellbeing and happiness.

The ten thousand must agree to implement these changes within a time frame that gives humanity and her fellow species the best possible chance of avoiding widespread suffering and death.

The above sentiments are obvious to those souls with a free and uncorrupted mind. Agree on these simple points first, unite in this common cause, and the rest should follow within two days, let alone two weeks.

The problem, the reason for fear and doubt and concern and vein-popping anger, is that the ten thousand who find themselves in this position of responsibility are some of the most likely ten thousand human souls on this planet to not have a free and uncorrupted mind. This is the reason why the challenge seems so great, the chances so slim.

To hammer home the point, among the ten thousand is a leader who has spent the weekend condemning the denialists that populate his political opposition. Yet, this very morning, a committee chaired by a member of his own party backed his decision to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. His name is Gordon Brown, and his mantra is economic growth.

It needn’t be this way. The specific economic changes required to tackle climate change have already been laid down clearly and starkly in the book Kyoto2, by Oliver Tickell. In it, the flaws and failures of the existing climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, are simply and elegantly made clear.

First, says Tickell, allow a consensus of scientific evidence to determine by how much we must reduce carbon emissions, on an annual basis, in order to give us the best chances of avoiding catastrophic changes to our climate.

Second, sell carbon permits on a ‘sealed bid’ auction – subject to upper and lower price controls – to whichever individuals and organisations wish to dig up and burn fossil fuels.

Third, regulate the use of these permits as close to source as possible, to ensure the previously agreed annual limit is not breached.

Fourth, collect the proceeds from the sale of carbon permits in a ‘global climate fund’.

Finally, allocate fairly the money within the climate fund to where it can best be used to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Thus, almost entirely the fund would be directed to the world’s developing countries, where the effects are felt greatest and where the cost of mitigating will be most difficult to meet. Tickell estimates the fund would be worth $1trillion per year.

The above system has a number of obvious benefits. It takes the burden of financing mitigation and adaptation away from hard-pressed and financially-crippled governments and pushes it toward the most profitable industry on the planet: The fossil fuel industry.

It removes the complication of allocating carbon emissions to individual countries, when any single tonne of carbon can plausibly be attributed to several different countries, such being the nature of globalisation.

It also removes the overwhelming likelihood of 192 different emissions targets being missed by those same hard-pressed and financially-crippled governments.

Change the system, then, or the climate? You’ve got two weeks to decide.

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