Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thinking beyond Kyoto

The world and his or her spouse is looking at the Kyoto Protocol as it comes into force today.

Articles by Gregg Easterbrook and George Monbiot articulate two sets of thinking that are familiar and worth taking account of when thinking considering how to make progress. George Monbiot writes:

When terrorists threaten us, it shows that we must count for something, that we are important enough to kill. They confirm the grand narrative of our lives, in which we strive through thickets of good and evil towards an ultimate purpose. But there is no glory in the threat of climate change. The story it tells us is of yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until it is poisoned by its own waste. It is too squalid an ending for our anthropocentric conceit to accept.

… But if our political leaders are to save the people rather than the people's fantasies, then the way we see ourselves must begin to shift. We will succeed in tackling climate change only when we accept that we belong to the material world.

I don’t think the way the contrast is drawn in the first of the two paragraphs quoted above is especially helpful. It’s reaching for effect. The main point in the second paragraph – accepting human belonging in the material world – is more to the point, and potentially more constructive. It does, however, leave open what is to actually be done.

In an article datelined 14 Feb for The New Republic (subscription only), Easterbrook writes:

Last July, Bush announced an international agreement for global reduction in emissions of methane, the most potent of the common greenhouse gases. Discussion of action against global warming centers on carbon dioxide, which receives the bulk of attention for reasons we will get to in a moment. But molecule by molecule, methane has 23 times more atmospheric warming effect than carbon dioxide. The White House's July 2004 agreement requires the
United States, United Kingdom, India, Ukraine, Mexico, and Italy to reduce global methane emissions by an amount equal to roughly one percent of all greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere by human activity. Surely you are thinking, One percent--that's not much. But the best-case outcome for the Kyoto treaty is roughly a one percent reduction in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gas.

...Yet reporters who write reams about carbon dioxide rarely mention methane, and some environmentalists become actively upset when the potential for methane reduction is raised. Why? Because the United States is the world's number-one emitter of carbon dioxide. (At least for the moment; if current trends hold, China will pass us.) Keeping the focus on carbon dioxide is the blame-America-first strategy. The European Union, on the other hand, is a leading emitter of methane, given the natural-gas energy economies of many Western European nations. Talk about methane reduction makes Europe uneasy. In the regnant global warming narrative, the United States is always bad and the European Union is always good. Raising the methane issue complicates that narrative.

Easterbrook has a point on the need to avoid excessively simplistic narratives and stage villains. He is right that much of the press hasn't been up to the mark, although I think there has been more coverage of the methane issue in mainstream press than he allows (including in the New York Times and influential semi- specialist publications like Scientific American).

But I don't think he's right to say, for example, that the EU is uneasy about methane reduction. The EU is a leading consumer, not emitter, of methane (combusted, it produces C02 and water).

I wrote this for openDemocracy.

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