Expanding energy access makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is using a failed scheme — like carbon trading — to pay for it.
The carbon trade doesn’t just fail to address climate change. In countries like Honduras, it fuels a perverse incentive structure by funneling cash to notorious human rights abusers engaged in extractive industries.
With its muddy roads, humble huts, and constant military patrols, Bajo Aguán, Honduras feels a long way away from the slick polish of the recurring UN climate negotiations in the world’s capital cities. Yet the bloody struggle going on there strikes at the heart of global climate politics, illustrating how market schemes designed to “offset” carbon emissions play out when they encounter the complicated reality on the ground.
The debate over climate change generally transpires within the cloistered confines of expensive hotels, executive boardrooms, and diplomatic halls. As seen in the failure to arrive at binding agreements in Copenhagen, the talks are generally as sterile as the surroundings.
This whole week, beginning March 31, the United Nations Ad Hoc Working Groups on climate change are meeting in Bangkok in the critical first round of negotiations to follow up on the resolutions of the climate talks in Bali in December.
With less than 48 hours to go before the Bali climate conference comes to a close, it is now universally expected that the 13th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 13) will produce a watered-down “Bali Roadmap.” Once again, countries will be bending over backwards to seduce the United States into joining a post-Kyoto multilateral process to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.
On the opening panel of the Arctic Science Summit Week, Jeff Miotke announced, “Climate change policy must be based on sound silence.” It was a poignant and telling slip of the tongue. Miotke, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs, joked that his error might have “just cost me my job.” Then he promptly corrected himself: “sound science not silence.” The audience at the March 2007 meeting, a veritable who’s who of leading polar scientists, burst into laughter.
Miotke’s Freudian slip was bittersweet given the failure of leadership on climate change from Washington in general and the White House in particular. The Bush administration’s legacy of denials has morphed into present-day foot-dragging. In November 2006 the shrill pronouncements of President Bush and his advisors prompted outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to note that climate skeptics “are out of step, out of arguments, and out of time.”
Hopes for the Kyoto Protocol are fading, and carbon trading is a farce. To arrest climate change, industrialized states can either "bite the bullet" and adopt socially responsible policies to dramatically cut fossil fuel use and useless consumption. Or they can hope for a "silver bullet"—some new techno-fix that might let them continue to pollute and avoid human extinction. The silver bullet may be winning.
Last week in Montreal, climate negotiators met to determine how the majority of the world’s countries will move forward when the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. While melting ice caps and alarming shifts in ocean currents flashed across the headlines, little progress was made. The sad truth is that the world’s atmosphere will continue to warm. It may warm past the “tipping point,” the point of no return at which feedback loops build upon one another, and exponential increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane bring catastrophically altered weather patterns with devastating consequences, especially for the poorest. Despite the terrifying notion of a looming point of no return, the U.S. government was not a party to these negotiations, having withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol early in George W. Bush’s first term. It was a bit puzzling why Bush wasn’t a party. He would have felt right at home in the Palais de Congress, where the 11th Conference of the Parties (COP-11) to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change met: It felt more like a business convention than an environmental one. Everywhere one turned, people were striding purposefully toward another side event or delegates’ meeting focused on the topic of buying and selling the latest hot commodity: carbon. Almost everyone, from the environmentalists to government representatives to the overwhelming majority of business groups, was talking in the new, mysterious lexicon of “carbon trading.” Tom Goldtooth, a Diné and Mdewakanton Dakota and director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said: “When I try to explain carbon trading to our elders, they tell me, ‘Tom, if you can’t make sense of it in our Native language, then there is something wrong with it.’ “This isn’t just the case with Native languages. Like most people steeped in climate change issues, I have trouble explaining how carbon trading works, or doesn’t, in simple English. Even if there were some kind of decoder ring that could help the public and media decipher the discussions at meetings such as this, it might not make much difference. There’s an even bigger problem: Reducing fossil fuel consumption, the best and simplest solution for climate change, isn’t on the agenda. Instead, self-professed experts on the “flexible mechanisms” of carbon trading — or “mechs-perts” — who talk with confidence about this entirely experimental market are running the show. Many environmentalists doubt that carbon trading is the best way to slow or reverse global warming. But they fear that opposing this keystone of the Kyoto climate change treaty would be tantamount to endorsing the Bush administration position and so stay mum. Instead, all are urged to unite behind a bizarre, incomprehensible and totally corruptible system of carbon trading if we are to save the planet from an ecosystemic meltdown. Around the world, ancient cultures such as the Diné, the Inuit and the Tibetans have evolved a way of constructing homes, communities and businesses with a respect for nature’s fine line between scarcity and abundance. This is how they have survived in harmony with icy and tropical environments for thousands of years. This brilliance and understanding is being out-shouted at international climate negotiations by carbon traders who are tinkering over a time span of a few years with a system that, if it fails, threatens to undo millennia of social and biological evolution, much of it irreplaceable. And yet environmentalists — wittingly or, more likely, unwittingly, out of sheer intimidation or confusion — are offering their complicity with this dangerous plan. Carbon trading Carbon emissions trading involves the trading of permits to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, calculated in tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. It is one of the ways countries can meet their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. A country (or group of countries) caps its carbon emissions at a certain level — say, 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010 — and then issues permits to industries that grant the firm the right to emit a stated amount of carbon dioxide over a time period. This is known as “cap and trade.” If carbon emissions targets are exceeded, then a country can buy the “right to pollute” beyond its quota from another country.
As the Earth’s temperature rises faster than at any time in the last 10,000 years, the inaction by the Clinton Administration and the resistance by the U.S. Congress to deal with global climate change is isolating the U.S. diplomatically and courting severe warming-driven political, economic, and ecological disruptions.
With our burning of coal and oil, we humans are heating the deep oceans, fracturing Antarctic ice shelves, and fueling more intense El Niños. Glaciers all over the planet are retreating at accelerating rates. Islands are going under from rising sea levels. Plants, fish, birds, and insects are migrating northward. Among the consequences are malaria on Long Island, encephalitis in New York City, and a dramatic increase of tick-borne Lyme disease in New England. Because of the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, we have changed the timing of the seasons; spring now arrives more than a week earlier in the northern hemisphere than it d