The climate wars are over. We lost. What do we do next?

Making the news these past few days is the both gloomy and frightening announcement by the International Energy Agency.

Last year saw a record volume of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere, almost guaranteeing that global temperatures will pass “safe limits”:

Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency.

The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” – is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions.

Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.

“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions,” Birol told the Guardian. “It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

When normally cautious bureaucrats utter words such as “bleak”, then we don’t need to read between the lines.

Translated into the vernacular, Mr Fatih Birol is basically saying we’re f*cked.

This should be sobering news to anyone, but perhaps more so to those active in environmental politics. The key message is this:

  • We lost the fight.
  • We’ve been out fought, out thought and defeated by the carbon lobby and vested interests.

Is my assessment wrong?

The twenty year war that began in the summer of 1989

Since 1989, when NASA’s James Hensen stood before an US Congressional committee and announced a discernible human influence on the atmosphere had been detected we’ve fought for binding international treaties, prices on carbon and an engaged and motivated public.

On all three counts nothing has been achieved of lasting importance:

  • GHGs are pouring into the atmosphere at record rate
  • The Copenhagen (COP15) talks all but failed
  • In Australia at least, the public is hostile to a carbon tax.

The old paradigm of raising public consciousness, lobbying government and protesting out the front of oil company HQs and power stations has proven to be ineffective.

We’ve had twenty years to tame the vested interests that have distorted the debate in order to protect their own self interests.

We’ve had twenty years to recognise the urgency of the problem, and vote in governments prepared to act. And what has been achieved?

A child born in 1989 is now in their early twenties.

We’ve had an entire generation to prevent this unfolding tragedy.

And we still lost.

Next time you’re walking down the streets of your suburb or city, look at those “kids”. Marvel at their confidence and assurance. The way they chatter into their phones, text their lovers and friends and think only of the next few years.

It was our role to act as stewards for their future, to give them a world in which they could flourish, fall in and out of love, marry, divorce, have children, fail, triumph and make a difference.

Now ask yourself when you’ll have to apologise to those “kids”:

One day, without doubt, they will ask why we didn’t “do something” when we had the choice.

And remember this.

One day, they are going to be very, very angry.

Copenhagen: our civilisations wake

Some where between 40,000 and 100,000 people attended COP15, agitating the world’s governments to “do something”. I applaud those who went there, and were prepared to stand up for their beliefs. But all the hand wringing, books, protests, newspaper articles and blogs calling for immediate action have come to naught.

Am I wrong?

Someone tell me I’m wrong.

Someone point to one concrete measure currently in place that will slow the rise in temperatures and sea levels.

Some wind farms? A few have been built amongst great controversy.

Some nations have set ambitious targets to reduce GHS emissions. But is that enough?

It’s remarkable given that most serious politicians, business and military leaders accept the science. A clear majority of the public accepts the science.

And still, nothing of substance has been achieved.

The seas are dying.

The ice is melting.

The temperature is going up.

We’re emitting more GHGs each year.

COP15 was “our” wake, a great big, ineffectual, noisy, messy Irish style wake. In the end COP15 was a fitting epitaph for our carbon-drunk civilisation…a party, some speeches and not much of lasting substance. A few sore heads and some regrets.

So I ask, what’s next? The same tired old slogans, protests and marches are a waste of time.

We need a new plan.

We need to start thinking about what we can do, and perhaps abandon the notion the world’s government’s will collectively come to their senses.

History has always proved such utopian fantasies wrong. When we go down, we go down snarling and ripping at each others throats.

Just look at the quality of “political” debate in both Australia and US. We’re becoming increasingly polarised.

The question is what can we do – now – with the limited resources and time that we have to prepare for a hotter, wetter and less genteel age.


10 thoughts on “The climate wars are over. We lost. What do we do next?

  1. I agree with you in that “We need to start thinking about what we can do, and perhaps abandon the notion the world’s government’s will collectively come to their senses.” We have no other choice but, as individuals, to each do something. Until we care enough (and I don’t mean just going to protests and rallies, but changing our approach to living to be more earth-conscious all together), policies won’t ever change. If the government won’t regulate our actions, then, let’s do it ourselves. And perhaps, it’s not just government policy, but business policy that we should be thinking about. I believe it is high time that corporate social responsibility becomes a serious reality and not just a promotion label. I know I am on a quest to watch my actions (at home and with my business), I hope that instead of giving up, others will start understanding that the answer lies with each one of us giving a little more and taking a little less. It is out job to take care of the earth and our communities. No one else is going to do it for us.


    1. I couldn’t agree more. In a post I wrote a little while ago, I suggested how “greenwashing” can actually be beneficial for both industry and customer. It would be nice to see genuine corporate responsibility working with increasing community resilience and adaptation.

      Mike and I are planning to go live with an initiative called “Generation Adaptation” in which we hope to promote information sharing and community building within the already engaged global citizens – hopefully addressing what you’ve discussed.


      1. That’s a very interesting point you make in your article on greenwashing. Thanks for the link! 🙂 Could you explain to me a little more about what “Generation Adaptation” is? My blog(something I just recently started) focuses on the beginning steps toward adopting a more (environmentally and socially) responsible lifestyle from what I know, but I am myself looking for ways to improve my efforts at being eco-conscious.


      2. Sounds like a great project you have there – I’ll add you to my reader. If you liked that post my resource flow chart post links to the five of that series that I created (references 1-5).
        Here’s a link to the beta shell of the Gen[A] project – it’s all empty, but for the “about” and “policies” (on the blog) pages, but what is there explains the hope of the project. Feel free also to subscribe (via RSS or email) too or sign up to the forum so that you’re up to date when we take off.
        The hope is that it will be a collective effort; no ownership, but rather a meeting place for anyone engaged on the issues of climate change, unsustainable urban environments, food|water|energy security and biodiversity loss. So, in that way, we want to open the blog up to meaningful debate and discussion (climate denial will not be permitted – it has to be productive discussions). If you’d like to contribute, there is certainly room to cross post relevant material.
        The big thing at the moment is getting enough material to populate the calender and the groups and organizations pages – we need more content there.
        I think how Mike feels, expressed in the post above, is a fairly common feeling among the engaged people after a few years of this crazed denial noise. By building such a community, we can hope to re-energise ourselves to am for a sustainable, prosperous low-carbon future.


    2. Thanks for the comments… I think you’re right in that we have to take responsibility ourselves. While my post may come across as fatalistic, I’m not “giving up”. However I consider it highly likely climate disruption will become a significant force over coming decades, and we need to start thinking about what that means at both global and local level.


  2. Hi while all that you say is true and Ive thought for along time that it would be this way , all is not lost for once we get a good kick up the arse from the climate and poeple realise this is not just some abstract concept then the ingenuity of humans will kick in and we will go all out to save ourselves .
    Just that in the meantime alot of most likely poorer people will suffer first .

    So we must keep fighting the Climate Dark Ages we are in now .


  3. We mustn’t lose heart. Recently my 8 year old son had to do a 5 minutes talk on “someone who changed the world.” He chose William Wilberforce who fought to have slavery abolished throughout his political career.

    Remember that at the time slaves were the energy source behind much of the wealth of the British Empire. There were many powerful vested interests ranged against him. But he persisted. Women couldn’t vote but he persuaded them to boycott West Indies sugar. He delivered passionate speeches telling people how bad conditions on the Middle Passage were. He didn’t give up and in the end the powers that be had to find another energy source.

    You could argue that with climate change we’re dealing with the consequences of that now. But we have done it before so we can do it again.


    1. Helen – I agree. We can’t lose heart. But, I think we do need to consider what next. Obviously no one can predict the future with certainty, however we need to think about some of the “not so rosy” scenarios. I’m not saying we should throw our hands in the air and give up… indeed the very opposite. We can we channel our efforts, and the wonderful human capacity to solve any challenge.


  4. The only good news I’ve been hearing is from those whose relentless positivity makes the cynical me wonder whether the denial industry has moved into Phase Two: make it look like something is being done, while continuing to do nothing.

    We lost one battle. But losing a battle does not necessarily mean losing the war.

    It’s time to start fighting.


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