Intervju med Robyn Eckersley

Klartenkte, engasjerte Robyn Eckersley intervjuet av Aleksander Melli – om grønne kappløp, USAs klimautfordringer, alternativer til dagens COP-forhandlingssystem. Men også om muligheter for håp, motstand og lederskap hos en voksende klimabevegelse, og hos Norge som nasjon.

Få med dere Eckersley under det avsluttende stormøtet på Folkets Hus i morgen, med videolink fra Cancún. Også på scenen: Jostein Gaarder, Stein Guldbrandsen og ordstyrer Aleksander Melli.

Robyn Eckersley er årets Arne Næss-gjesteprofessor, og oppholder seg i Norge til over nyttår. Eckersley er en av verdens ledende tenkere i krysningsfeltet mellom politisk teori og økologi.

AM The article you wrote yesterday described the climate negotiations gridlock between the US and China as part of an ongoing shift in the world’s power balance. Do you see a new cold war rearing its head in a heating world?

RE There is certainly the possibility of a tense new geopolitical divide but if it does emerge we will have to call it the ‘warming war’ given that this is the world that the G2 will deliver to us all.  But we need to counterbalance these concerns with the likelihood of a more productive form of rivalry.  In the Cold War, this took the form of a space race.  In the post-Cold war, it will take the form of a green high tech race.  China certainly intends to win this particular race and it has already raised concern in Congress.  This may be the crucial lever we need to get those in Capitol Hill galvanised. Tax breaks and more R&D won’t be enough to beat China at this game.  The US will have to put a price on carbon sooner or later.  Meanwhile, we may see more movement on this score inside the Pentagon, which needs to find an alternative transport fuel to oil and feed its electricity hungry bases all over the world.

AM Where do you see potential for détente and progress between – and within – these two crucial actors?

RE The green tech race is certainly a sign of progress, but it is not exactly a détente.  One area where some form or raprochement is desperately needed is the issue of ‘carbon leakage’ and border tax adjustments.  The US does not want to put a price on carbon because it is worried that investment, jobs and emissions will migrate to so-called carbon havens like China.  Most of the cap-and-trade bills that have been put before Congress have applied border tax adjustments to make imports more expensive and exports cheaper to cancel out the effects of a price on carbon so US industry and labour are not disadvantaged and there is no carbon leakage. This has infuriated China and India, who see such measures as ‘backdoor targets’.  The revenue collected from firms from developing countries at the US border would also assist in the decarbonisation in the US, which is a perversion of the principles of common but differentiated responsibility.  I have suggested a compromise that might appease both Congress, and China and the G77: impose the border adjustment tax, but recycle the revenue back to the developing countries for low carbon investment.

AM The world appears at times to be hostage to a handful of climate change sceptics in the US Senate – and thus to the US oil lobby, and what you might call the surreality-based community that constitutes a large chunk of the GOP’s voter base. At least 47 incoming senators and congressmen deny scientific data that proves human activity is warming the planet. How can Obama circumvent the GOPs ongoing strategy of sabotage? Which other tools has he left unused?

RE This is a huge challenge for the Obama administration, for which there are no easy answers.  Many observers suggest that Obama may be better off playing cards that are not obviously about climate change, which promise other benefits to America, such as energy security and green jobs.  Senator John Kerry, who has been the key climate champion in the Senate, has certainly enlisted these frames.   The problem, however, is that this does nothing to expand the imaginations of Americans to think about the plight of the rest of the world, or indeed its own disadvantaged citizens.  Hurricane Katrina should have served as a wake-up call.  Americans are prepared to take significant anticipatory action to address one kind of catastrophic risk (terrorism) but they prefer a ‘wait and see’ approach in response to a far more dangerous catastrophic risk (climate change).  I think Obama and climate advocates in the US should find more creative ways of framing the problem.   For example, terrorism is like the risk of a nuclear strike.  The appropriate metaphor here is the sword of Damocles that may, or may not, fall.  Climate change is like the frog in the heating saucepan: it will definitely boil if nothing is done.  With the possibility of dangerous and abrupt climate change, we have the frog in the saucepan with the sword of Damocles also hanging over its head!!

AM You write that “one card up the administration’s sleeve is the US EPA’s power under the existing Clean Air Act to regulate CO2 emissions for utilities and transport.” Lawsuits against the Environmental Protections Agency’s claim are making their way through the courts, and any broadening of the EPA’s mandate would be viciously opposed by the Republicans. The World Resources institute has found that the EPA and the single states (via California’s cap and trade scheme, for example) together have the power to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 14% by 2020. Yet even this optimistic scenario isn’t exactly what the climate doctor ordered. Obama is focusing more on energy independence and green jobs than the EPA card. Could this be a good strategy, given the odds against empowering the EPA?

RE I’m afraid there is more bad news on this topic.  I’ve heard rumours that Obama may trade away the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases for other concessions from a Republican dominated Congress.  I hope these rumours are false.

AM Even if the Copenhagen pledges are adopted by the Conference of Parties (COP), we’re still talking about promises, promises: a legally binding framework appears to be years away. Leading US climate scientist James Hansen, a firm advocate of the scientifically founded notion that time is running out, cheered on the breakdown of the Copenhagen negotiations. Any comments?

RE There are many who hold the sentiment that a weak political agreement is worse than no agreement, but only if this keeps up the pressure for a stronger legal treaty.  So far, the latter remains a possibility but it is unlikely to follow the Kyoto model.  The US’s preferred approach, which I call ‘Do-it-yourself’ climate policy, strays too far from the core burden sharing norms of the UNFCCC and lacks all the desirable features of a so-called top-down treaty in dealing with major collective action problems.  These advantages include: higher ambition based on a relatively greater adherence to generally agreed objectives and principles (rather than special pleading), a common methodology, stronger commitment and better compliance.  States take legal treaties seriously.

AM You’ve said that a domestic “pledge and review” regime, based on bottom-up domestic action, is not enough to deliver a safe climate. If I understand you correctly, you currently advocate a group of negotiators supplementary to the COP rounds; a scenario in which countries representing 75% of world emissions – the G20 plus representatives of developing countries – enter negotiations, and thus avoid the problems of reaching a broader consensus through the COP system. Please explain.

RE My proposal for a minilateral council is merely a suggestion, but it is intended as a response to the fatally cumbersome procedures of the UNFCCC, where each line of the treaty must be agreed by consensus of 193 parties, and any party, large or small, can exercise a veto.  This is not a recipe for a timely agreement. There have been many proposals in the wind for a ‘critical mass approach’, such as an agreement among a small number of the major emitters whose support is crucial for an agreement (such as the G20, or the Major Economies Forum).  This approach is defended as more streamlined and more effective.  However, I have strongly criticised these proposals because they disenfranchise the most vulnerable parties.  Agreements made by the big emitters are likely to lack the level of ambition required and to prove my point, AOSIS played a major role in ensuring that the 1.5 degree target was included in the Copenhagen Accord, and for a review to take place in 2015.  However, one needs to concede that multilateralism with large numbers is very cumbersome so I have proposed an alternative minilateral approach that is guided by the UNFCCC’s principles of common but differentiated responsibility.  One could envisage a Climate Council made up of representatives of the most capable (the top economic powers), the most responsible (the top aggrerate and cumulative emitters) and the most vulnerable.  This Council could be as small as ten, and still cover 70% of global emissions and, miraculously, this also include representation from the UN’s five major regional groupings.  Here’s the list: USA, China, India, Japan, European Union, Russia, Brazil, and a representative from the African Group, AOSIS  and Least Developed Countries.  The Council could be embedded in the UNFCCC process and be responsible for determining the most crucial issues: mitigation commitments and finance.  Decisions would still have to be accepted by the COP; but the Council would carry significant authority and even if some members of the COP objected, there is no reason why the members of the Council could not negotiate a plurilateral agreement that any other state could join.  It would have enormous pulling power.

Of course, these are just the fantasies of a green international relations theorist.  Who knows whether this idea will travel.

AM I’ve heard of good ideas that do. Perhaps there’s an historical analogy in the role the UN played moving slowly towards a stable world order in the post-war years. Yet rebuilding in Europe would have been much slower without the Marshall Plan. Where do you see potential for strong unilateral initiatives in the fight for climate stability?

RE There have been many proposals for a new Green Marshall Plan.  This has been a favourite idea of Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance.  However, the US is not sufficiently motivated to revive this idea in the current geopolitical setting.  However, there are other states which are well placed to mobilise significant funds for low carbon development in the developing world, either unilaterally, or in agreement with other like-minded states.  Norway is one such state, and it has already committed large sums to addressing REDD.

AM The current state of affairs makes 3 or 4 degrees of warming quite likely. This would plausibly entail a massive extinction event, and human suffering on an unimaginable scale. What can civil society do to improve the current state of our imagination?

RE If you look back at some of the strategies of the peace and anti-nuclear movements in the 1980s you might find some good leads.  First, these movements were clearly transnational, spanning both east and west.  Second, they included alliances of scientists, philosophers, public intellectuals, ordinary citizens, religious and inter-faith groups and rich variety of social movements.  Third, there was a significant outpouring of public meetings, literature, documentaries and films to enable ordinary citizens to grasp what was at stake, and what a nuclear winter scenario might look like.  Today, we already see similar developments in the broad climate movement, all of which will help to cultivate a ‘climate imaginary’ to cut through the rather complicated and technical scientific and policy language of political elites and ‘wake-up’ those who are tuned out of these debates.

AM On a personal note, how do you deal with gloom and doom?

Fortunately, I’m not gloomy by nature.  I also read climate stuff on a daily basis so one almost develops a professional detachment in approaching the climate political problem as an intellectual challenge.  But my visceral response is never too far beneath the surface and it can hit with a pang or wrenching feeling from time to time, especially when I think of the younger generation and what they might have to endure, or when I think of so many rivets popping out of planet Ark.  So while I get seriously disturbed by the direction in which we are heading I’m buoyed by the fact that it is not too late to make a significant difference. There is nothing productive about succumbing to gloom and doom – that’s a recipe for resignation.

AM During your recent talk with professor Karen O’Brien, you discussed the geopolitical background for inaction, and also where progress and hope can be found. The environmental movement may have made some mistakes in framing the fundamental climate issues. You talked about positive leaders in the business community, in grassroots activism, changes in our ethical mindset. One thing that wasn’t discussed is: where do you draw the line? When is it justifiable to engage in civil disobedience, say, to stop a coal-fired power plant? When is it justifiable to speak of gross political negligence, or even a kind of default genocide, a war of inertia on future generations?

RE I have toyed with the idea of considering what kinds of acts might qualify as ‘crimes against nature’ in some of my research and I have had critical conversations with colleagues over whether some politicians might be later tried for ‘crimes against humanity’ but I cannot imagine that the international community would be prepared to set up an ad hoc or permanent tribunal along the lines of the International Criminal Court.  I think Gandhi’s practice of non-violence civil disobedience is more productive since it seeks to prevent bad things from happening, rather than punishing culprits after the event.  This practice has been part of the repertoire of action for social movements for many years, and it can sometimes be quite effective when practiced on a mass basis (remember all those conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam, all those young men who preferred prison to conscription, and all the support they received from well-wishers  – and the war did come to an end).  I think the time will soon be reached when coal becomes the new tobacco, and is recognised as a socially and ecologically harmful industry that should be closed down.  Many citizens will then see it as their duty to object to coal fired power stations through the practice of civil disobedience.

AM “The future of integrated carbon markets is looking shaky.” Is there a silver lining in this cloud?

RE I wish I could see one, but alas I cannot.  I recently read an interesting proposal for a common carbon tax, to be imposed on all countries but with the funds rechannelled back to developing countries according to the UNFCCC’s burden sharing principles.  This is certainly much simpler than the carbon markets we currently have, but it would be very difficult to get political agreement.

AM Your current work deals with climate leadership. You have identified Norway as one of a few potential leaders in the climate battle. Please explain.

Norway is a member of the so-called Umbrella group, which is made up of mainly laggard states most of which have been heavily dependent on fossil fuel.  It includes the US, Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.  What intrigues me about Norway is that in around 2007 it broke from the pack, as it were, and considerably raised its ambition to become a climate leader.  Norway’s 2020 target of reducing emissions unilaterally by 30% (rising to 40% if other developed countries take comparable action) is the third most ambitious unilateral target in the world after Germany (minus 40%) and Britain (minus 34%).  This is obviously to be commended and I only wish my own country (Australia) wanted to be a climate leader like Norway!!  However leadership is not self-appointed, it has to be earned, by which I mean, socially recognised and accepted.  You cannot be a leader without followers or supporters.  Here we need to distinguish between pioneers and leaders.  Pioneers take the first step without waiting for agreement. They help to show the way. However, pioneers only become leaders when they attract followers by inspiring or enabling others to act in ways they would not otherwise have acted. In spending money in developing countries, Norway is certainly enabling those countries to do things they might not have otherwise done.  So Norway may be considered a leader for these countries.  However, we also need to ask whether Norway’s domestic climate policies are likely to inspire other countries and that is a much more open question.   Few countries (especially in the wake of the GFC) are lucky enough to have a significant sovereign wealth fund to direct towards green purposes, and many would also say it is easy to spend money abroad but much harder to reduce emissions at home.  Whichever state is able to show how to increase the eco-efficiency of production AND maintain an eco-sufficiency of consumption will emerge as the true climate leader in the developed world.

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