The Asia Institute Seminar
“Climate Summits and the Definition of Security”
December 14, 2012
Sustainable Energy and Economy Network
Institute for Policy Studies
Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions’ energy investment and carbon finance activities. Her recent studies on the World Bank’s climate activities include World Bank: Climate Profiteer, and Dirty is the New Clean: A critique of the World Bank’s strategic framework for development and climate change. She has appeared on several radio programs and C-SPAN sharing positive visions for fair and equitable climate action in the United States and overseas. As a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network, Janet is committed to bringing hard-hitting policy analysis into grassroots organizing.
Tell us about the recent Doha Climate Summit that you attended.
I just returned from the Doha Climate Summit. This summit, much like previous climate summits, followed a rather predictable sequence. The developing countries came to the table with strong and articulate demands for real action from those who have signed the Kyoto Protocol, or who had affirmed its content. The debates went back and forth for a while about what might be done, but, and this was a bit shocking to us, the developing countries did not get any of the demands they made around the Kyoto Protocol, even those clearly delineated in the Kyoto Protocol. This pattern has continued in every climate summit and is a bit frightening when you think that we are not talking about the future, but about holding to promises that have already been made.
We heard a lot this time about loss and damage. As always, There were some discussion of mitigation and adaptation issues as well. Of course all of these programs require money. But the discussion seemed to revolve more around how to get money and less around why the money was needed and why this situation is so dire. was surprised how much, much more than in past years, every conversation we held, every section in which we discussed what stakeholders should do, there was a strong argument that we should invite the private sector in to pursue these projects. The private sector is named more explicitly than ever before.
The argument advanced is that since governments are broke, we have to appeal to the private sector’s interest in making a profit if we want to go forward. For example, in discussions concerning the Green Climate Fund we witnessed the US and UK declaring adamantly that they are not going to be interested in any plan unless there are sufficient opportunities for the private sector, that is to say, opportunities for significant profits.
I spoke to an influential figure from the developing world who is widely respected and he said to me, “Of course we are interested in working with the private sector. But the Green Climate Fund is not supposed to be about helping the private sector of the developed world to find more business opportunities in the developing world. If anything, the fund should be about helping our own private sector to develop in a manner that benefits the environment.”
So the debate on climate is about how funds can be made more attractive for institutional investors, how we can increase the amount of money that flows into these funds. But very little is said about why it was that we are raising these funds in the first place. After all, the point of these funds should not be to raise money, but rather to get work done. The actual work should always be the focus, not the structure for raising funds.
What are your thoughts about security and the environment? Why we cannot conceive of the environmental crisis as a security issue?
So what is interesting to me is that the total amount that we in the United States spend on defense, 1.3 trillion USD, is in fact almost the amount that was recommended to address environmental issues related to climate change in the developing world. The South Centre (reacting to UN estimates) was suggesting that for developing countries that cost of mitigation and adaptation the total would be around 1.5 trillion. So if we can spend that much on the military that means it is possible to motivate that amount of cash for the environment.
So the question remains, why are we having so much trouble grasping the reality of the threat of climate change? First we have financing from the Koch brothers and other interest groups to make it look to people as if the concern about the climate is overblown. It appears as if 50% of scientists doubt climate change if you read some popular magazines, but this is pure misinformation. Almost no scientists doubt the conclusions about climate change.
The second problem is that the full implications of climate change are just too scary. If the problem is really that severe, it could completely undo everything we have come to value, destroy the world as we know it. We will have to change the way we live our lives. From transportation to food to careers, the family, everything would have to change. Some might think this is exciting, but for many the threat is just overwhelming.
Another problem is that the issue of climate change is so long term and we are not used to thinking too long term. Security we tend to think of in terms of whether we can do something in a day or a week, or maybe a month. Most Americans cannot think too far in the future. It is so easier, granted a certain nihilism and consumerism that infects our society, to just ignore those events that are far off on the timeline.
But Hurricane Sandy did help to make the threat of climate change quite real. Such extreme weather is something ordinary people can feel. The governor of New York says this was a result of “climate change” he was a very mainstream person Chris Christie asked for Federal funds to rebuild the seashore so it will look like it did before Hurricane Sandy. But Mayor Bloomberg went much further. Mayor Bloomberg said we need to use Federal funds to start rebuilding New York City itself. He said explicitly that the sea levels are rising and we need to create a sustainable city right now. Bloomberg declared that climate change is here. He even went as far as to suggest that we need to restore the wetlands around New York City to absorb these sorts of storms. In other words, we need an adaptation strategy. So the combination of an extremely weather event with a powerful argument from a mainstream politician with high political visibility helps to change the dialog. Bloomberg is not Al Gore, he is not a representative of Friends of the Earth. When he makes these sorts of statements, he has real impact on popular perceptions and change how we live, how we use taxpayer money. That development is exciting for us.
Ultimately, we need to start thinking about security in an intergenerational sense, as what might be called “intergenerational security.” That is to say, what you do today will impact the future, will impact your kids, your grandchildren and on beyond us. So “well-being” can only be measured in terms of whether the next generation can enjoy the same things as you do.
Such a shift of perception helps us bring in the question of climate change into focus. In addition, there is a range of alternative indicators of well-being that can help us to get on track in terms of the direction we follow as a society. For example, there is the “genuine progress indicator” (GPI) that has impressed me. It offers an alternative to the GDP indicators that are so distorted. That genuine progress indicator covers such issues as crime, commuting, pollution, loss of farmland and the value of household work, giving us insights into how our economy works. Alternative indicators can help us to rethink security issues as well. We can go beyond a rather limited definition of security like “are we being bombed today,” to talk about ecological security, the stability of one’s life and of one’s children’s lives for the near and long-term.
We can think of security in terms of food: are your sources of food secure for you and your children? Or in terms of housing: are you secure with your home and can you count on having it for the long-term? Or other services like transportation or healthcare. Now the military has its own distinct interpretation of what security means. But I think that with a bit of imagination that definition can be expanded and reworked to cover these issues. We can talk about security in terms of what we avoid, in terms of natural disasters, disease or other threats that are often more serious than military threats.
The general disruption of the economy caused by weather includes the disruption of access to food, or to one’s job. That part of climate change is a big part of the picture that we have not started to think about. Climate change can make everyday normal life extremely challenging extremely quickly. We did not talk at the Doha Summit about these issues. You expect to go to the grocery store and buy broccoli, but if we can’t transport it, or if we can’t grow it, or if you can’t get to the store because of a flood, that will be a major impact of climate change on your daily “security.”
Why are we so slow to recognize a threat on this scale as a security concern?
There are multiple factors. In part our misunderstanding of security results from the amount of information fed to us by a variety of interest groups who want us to see security in the old fashioned way—a way that assures them big budgets for traditional weapons. They have an economic interest in focusing in on the hardware required for military conflict.
Finally, there is a controversy among those active in the environment community about how far we should go in engaging the military and traditional security establishment in the United States. Might it be a mistake if we use the security lens to look at this complex problem? If we talk about security and climate change, if we have more military voices at the table, the argument goes, then we will be talking about how climate change will cause more disruptions in the world and cause greater instability. So, because of the disruptions that might result, we need to have more military people involved in climate advocacy.
There is reticence among some in the climate community about such a dialog because of a feeling that we should focus on human insecurity and the very human consequences of climate change. If we look at big picture issues we risk ending up with the rather dangerous conclusion that there is somehow a military solution to this problem of disruption using those tools the military already has. Such a shift of focus could be catastrophic for the effort if the military is not already fundamentally committed to such a transformation—which it clearly is not yet.
On the other hand, because the security community has so much more money and power than the climate community, that there is some justification for considering how we might take some of that space back.
The Asia Institute has put much of its work of late into responses to desertification in Northeast Asia. What came up at the Doha Summit of interest related to desertification?
It is a bit alarming that the massive climate change known as desertification does not come up in the discussions on climate taking place at climate summits. I have never heard the topic raised as an issue to address in the debate on climate finance or in the debate about the Global Green Fund. Combating desertification was not on the list of major projects seeking financing.
But for that matter, we rarely talk about the causes of climate change at climate conferences. Rarely do we have any discussion about fossil fuel burning, or the misuse of resources, or consumer culture. .
We do talk about forests on occasion. The main channel for talking about forests is in terms of REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation) which is essentially a carbon trading scheme that the World Bank has been pushing for since 2008. The main argument of REDD is to pay to people to not cut down trees. The logic is that having forests in the ground should be more lucrative than cutting them down and if we change the economic incentives, we will see a big shift in the trend towards deforestation. Making living forests valuable is good, but rather than making it fund-based, it is a financial product that would be put on the market and tied to the price of carbon. But the price of carbon itself has tanked, down to a few dollars or less (just to be safe, who knows what the price will be when you publish, but it’s been hovering here) per ton rather than 20 dollars per ton.
With regards to deforestation, there may also be the assumption that since the United Nations has set up a program to handle it, it is not the responsibility of the climate change community—even if desertification is the most
severe form of climate change. The topic never comes up. We do talk a little about the rise in sea levels, but even that is discussed in a very limited sense. I don’t remember seeing desertification anywhere.
Over the last five years, I detect a shift in the debate on climate change from an Al Gore inspired, “We need to do something about climate change. We need to reduce emissions and lay the foundations for a new society” to “We need find the right market mechanism to make the green solution profitable. We need to get the private sector involved so that they can make the changes that must be made.” So the focus has moved from culture to finance.
We started with an argument about how to change our very culture and our habits. We had a debate about how we conceive of transportation, energy and consumption. Now that debate is increasingly replaced by a focus on the financial argument for the environment. The assumption at these summits is that, “We don’t need to change; we just need to get the incentive structure right so that those who control large amounts of money can change their direction.”
That approach is one step removed from actually addressing climate change. Moreover, that approach is not logical. After all, we are going to have to do things that are not profitable to stop climate change, things that cannot be packaged as good financial investments for private equity firms. We will lose money in the short time to avoid disastrous clean-up in the long term. Overall, there may be a few business opportunities, but this is not going to be a big profit making project; that is the reality we must face. Profit cannot be our first-line motive.
We need a strong social movement who says that we cannot tolerate such dangerous behavior or such irresponsible policies. We need a social movement that will stage large protests in front of the headquarters of companies, or government agencies, if they are engaged in unethical behavior. Without the social movement, you have great ideas, but the policy will not move forward. That is the story of the Obama administration.
Finally, part of the problem in terms of awareness is a profound deficit of imagination. The scale of the problem and the depth of the impact is enormous and beyond the ability of many to conceive of. We tend to think that tomorrow will basically be like today. It is a challenge for people to think that the situation may be radically different.