There is increasing evidence of dangerous, possibly catastrophic, climate change approaching. The latest science leads to the conclusion that limiting climate change to a 2⁰C increase in average global temperature is now not possible. There always was, after all, only a 50% chance. Now it has become a question of which year the threshold will be breached, how high the temperature will rise, over what time period, and what the consequences will be for the planet.
Twenty years after Rio – after the legislative framework for effective global coordination to combat climate change was set in place – we arrive at deadlock. The capacity of the global community to solve the over-riding global challenge has proven to be inadequate. The global interest has been torn to shreds by the mindlessly competitive pursuit of excessive national interests.
The talk will now turn to ‘transition periods’, to ‘preparatory phases’, ‘voluntary targets’, ‘coordinated action’, and ‘bottom-up approaches’. Our national leaders will spin positively into 2012. The ‘realistic expectation’ will focus on the possibility of global agreement by, or after, 2020.
The realistic prescription, from the UN and research institutes, is that global emissions need to peak between 2015 and ’17.
Historians, assuming sufficient social stability for dispassionate analysis a half-century from now, will search for reasons for our collective failure during the critical twenty-year period, 1992 – 2012. They will conclude that human technology outpaced human institutional capacity for rational decision-making. National leaders responded, as constitutionally and politically obliged, to national interest.
There were no global leaders. While individuals could identify the global interest, while nations, through the UN, could also identify it in theory, they could not break it down into legitimate national interests, and enforce these.
Should national leaders be held to account in any way, and if so how? Electoral judgement is palpably insufficient. Elections reflect a multitude of issues and considerations. They focus on the minutiae of local politics. They are bound by the short electoral cycle.
Is this failure a criminal matter? Not yet; and even if in the future, probably not in time.
There is a gathering movement to make ‘ecocide’ – the mass destruction of the natural environment – a crime in international law. Friends of the Earth have suggested that, “ecocide law may be the only way to make climate criminals rethink crimes of commission and omission”. A leading campaigner, Polly Higgins, toured New Zealand earlier this year. But ecocide might be more pertinent to corporations or individuals – it’s a stretch to capture national leaders criminally on climate change.
In the US, a group of children (Kids v. Global Warming) filed a lawsuit against the Federal Government in May to compel it to take action. “The generations before us … just kind of thought of the world as limitless,” says Glori Dei Filippone, 13, a plaintiff in the case. “My generation and the one after it are going to have to work hard to fix this mess.” Comparable action has been tried, and further contemplated, here in New Zealand. But the courts interpret weak law with rigorous conservatism.
Recently Palau announced an intention at the UN to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on, “whether countries have a legal responsibility to ensure that any activities on their territory that emit greenhouse gases do not harm other States.” That is pretty much within the reach of existing law, but it is unlikely to move national leaders before 2017.
Then, of course, there is mass civic protest. Much of this has been happening for a while. It is likely to intensify. In the US, James Hansen, in his 70s, has transmogrified from leading scientist to protest activist – to allay, if not avert, the approaching storms of his grandchildren. Jeannette Fitzsimons, in her 60s, has surrendered parliamentary activity for similar civic action here in New Zealand. She, too, cites her grandchildren. It is not just Generation Zero.
I too, am deeply concerned for my own grandchildren. Mia is aged 7, Khali is 5, Mala is 4, and Oshani is 2. My first grandson, Sal, was born a few days ago – while the Durban conference was busily failing. I shall devote my efforts to parliamentary debate and questions – committee work here, a member’s bill there. It is where I am at, in the here and now. It is what I can do.
The 50th Parliament opens next week with the Speech-from-the-Throne. Will the Prime Minister devote more than a passing line or two to climate change? Will we, in response to the existential human challenge of all time, do more than chant our willingness to play our part in what has proved to be an inept, and inadequate endeavour?
We need an Urgent Debate in the NZ Parliament. The discussion needs to be of a new kind. It must not be the usual adversarial partisan game that passes for free and robust debate within healthy parliamentary democracy.
We need a new approach. Something has to be done. Fast.