Connecting the dots

In the lead-up to Copenhagen, the environmental sustainability debate has begun to focus more and more on conceptual issues such as fairness and possibilities. This is distinct from earlier hot topics such as questions over cap and trade or carbon taxes, the merits of the smart grid, and the commercial viability of solar. In this blog I hope to set the tone for the next 21 weeks of pre-Copenhagen discussion and show how recent JustMeans discussions are beginning to really get interesting.


In December, world leaders will meet in Copenhagen to negotiate a global agreement on fighting global warming to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol. As Graham explains, this is the fifteenth iteration, and almost all believe that this round of negotiations represents the make or break point. Another failed treaty will mean that society has given up on its commitment to leave the planet as they inherited it for their children. A success will create a vision for a radically new society and set a framework for transforming the economy. Many argue persuasively that the importance of Copenhagen cannot be underestimated, although expectations might need redefining.

But this is, no doubt, a big task. Kyoto did not set out an alternative vision for society and the world economy and it still failed. It failed conceptually because of the very fact that it did not offer a credible and supported vision for the future. It failed in practical terms because it did not gain developing country commitment, which ensured that US support would be lacking. Before Copenhagen there is some good work to be done.

What type of society do we aspire to live in?

The first question that must be answered is what type of a society we (and our children) hope to live in. Is it one in which we work aggressively to tame a warming planet and preserve nature in aquariums or zoos? Or is it one in which we sacrifice greatly to preserve nature and biodiversity in its purest sense? My recent travels in Dubai allowed me to reflect on and share some of my opinions about these questions.

In an attempt to answer this question, the environmental sustainability discussions are becoming increasingly more broad to include topics such as healthcare, Michael Jackson, Iran, and aging population problems. This is because action against climate change is costly and it must compete with other national and international priorities. The climate legislation moving through the US Congress alongside health care legislation is a case in point.

What does climate change look like?

Another important element in deciding what type of future is preferable relies on individual understandings of what unabated climate change will look like and how it will affect the next generation. To many people’s dismay, I explained that the effects of climate change are not generalizable, yet many people wrote in with first-person accounts about what climate change looks like to them in their home towns. More of this good work is needed.

Who are ‘we’?

Finally, much debate must center on defining a collective understanding of climate change. In order to avoid the problems of Kyoto, developed and developing countries must have a common commitment to fighting climate change. However, the recent G8 meeting, designed specifically to bring both rich and developing countries together, highlighted the tensions that exist. This tension is nothing new, and the lively debates about the Tata car in India have shown that this is not a new problem. In recent blogs I have begun to ask how we can resolve this tension. It is a necessary and extraordinarily difficult task. The environmental sustainability debate will surely be lively over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.