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Darkening Skies on the Road to Durban

Despite growing unease about an unstable climate, nations cling to 19th century energy habits

By J.R. McNeill Created: November 26, 2011 Last Updated: November 26, 2011
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Coal fired power station in Huaibei, in east China’s Anhui province. China, the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter, said it will push at the UN climate talks in Durban for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires rich nations to reduce their emissions. (AFP/Getty Images)

Coal fired power station in Huaibei, in east China’s Anhui province. China, the world’s top greenhouse gas emitter, said it will push at the UN climate talks in Durban for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires rich nations to reduce their emissions. (AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON: Confronting an environmental future that promises more unstable climate, the nearly 200 nations convening in Durban for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have no easy answers. The world seems stuck in the 20th century, and no technological advances are ready to alleviate the climate consequences of fossil-fuel combustion.

The most powerful economies thrive on fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion remains a dream and effective carbon sequestration, too. We rely upon complex technological systems that can fail with disastrous consequences, as at Chernobyl in April 1986, the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, or in Fukushima in March 2011.

As China commits to fossil fuels, the globe will find it harder to choose a new path, however urgent that may become.

The political institutions and habits of mind that took shape over the centuries do not lend themselves to global-scale cooperation that climate change requires. National governments normally put short-term self-interest first.

Some governments have shifted positions. The election of a new prime minister in Australia in 2007 and a new U.S. president in 2008 temporarily eliminated powerful resistance to negotiations on climate change. But so far, the negotiations have led to no action, in part due to the intervening financial crisis that struck in 2008.

Quest for Growth

The balance of power in the international system is changing fast. The rise of China is exceptional in historical terms, a global and scaled-up version of the meteoric rise of Germany within Europe circa 1870 to 1900. But China is unlikely to change the fundamentals of global environmental history any time soon and gives every sign of behaving in traditional great power fashion, pursuing perceived self-interest without much concern for the biosphere.

The same is true of India and its climb to power in the international system. The players may change, but the rules of the game remain the same.

The economic ideologies of the 20th century remain intact in the 21st. The quest for economic growth continues to dominate policy thinking, whether in meetings of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, or the corridors of power in Brussels.

A few individual voices may offer ideas that challenge consumption as the path to wellbeing and happiness, as they did centuries before. Buddhist, Christian or other religious leaders periodically call for observing the non-materialist principles within their traditions, but few of the faithful have chosen to answer these calls. Eloquent pleas for good stewardship, restraint or responsibility to future generations continue to fall overwhelmingly on deaf ears.





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