Last Sunday, Joss Garman of Greenpeace UK offered a gripping analysis of the shifting geopolitics behind the positions of the US, India and what he describes as a “relaxed and confident” China at the recent UNFCCC Ministerial. As we have argued recently, hyping the outcome of Cancun is not a good idea, but it is certainly true that the emerging powers came to Mexico in a constructive mood. Joss argues that:
This fresh approach reflects two recent and important changes in climate geo-politics. Firstly, the failure of US domestic climate legislation means that these countries are not under the same pressure to reduce their own emissions quickly. At the same time, they are increasingly confident that far from losing out by investing in a low-carbon economy, they stand to gain in terms of energy security and export potential. As the president of the threatened Maldives predicted on a recent visit to Britain: soon it will be China pressuring the rest of the world for a strong binding treaty on climate change – both to protect itself from the impacts of a warming world, but also to secure an international market for its vibrant clean technology businesses.
In this context, the defensiveness of the US in Cancun can be understood not as driven by fear of upsetting climate denying Republicans, but rather by a “deep anxiety, not that the Chinese will get away without making emissions cuts – but that the US will be left behind, as the world builds its new economy through investment in smart, low-carbon technologies.”
We have long argued that energy security and low carbon market opportunities are far more powerful drivers of decarbonisation policy, especially in the South but even in the North, than climate change as an environmental problem, and it is clear that this is now becoming widely accepted. We have also argued that an implication of this is that the international process should focus less on targets and more on cooperation in the development and transfer of low carbon technologies. However, as Joss’s account makes clear, this approach is not without its own difficulties, since national competitiveness is at stake. Nevertheless, focusing on low carbon growth opportunities, and making clear this is not a zero-sum game, has to be the main way forward for international processes, whether within the UNFCCC or outside.
The one area where we think Joss has got it wrong is on the politics in the US (and by extension, the EU). Here he reaches for that trusty staple of the environmentalist account of politics – the lobbying force of Big Carbon (“international oil companies and their ilk”). Certainly, some of these companies are still lobbying hard against US climate policy, and their deep pockets undoubtedly play a part in the murky world of political campaign contributions. But all of this glosses over the politically more difficult fact that much of the US public still doesn’t want to pay higher prices to drive, and to heat and cool their homes. Western publics are not simply dupes of Big Oil, nor are they all latent greens, waiting for their true wishes to be realised by environmental campaigners. In our view, they are the biggest part of the problem, and what’s worse, you can’t campaign against them in the way you can against a carbon corporate. They are going to have to see more of an immediately relevant upside to get behind a low carbon transition.
This is what seems to have happened in California, where an attempt to overturn low carbon energy policies was recently defeated 60-40. Joss argues that this attempt was defeated by a counter-lobby to Big Oil from the green industries created by the development of renewables and other low carbon energy industries. But the polling data don’t show a big shift away from a pro-Proposition 23 position to support for an anti-Proposition 23 stance – actually the polls in late October were about the same as they were in July. Most Californians (and it was Californian voters that defeated Proposition 23, not a green industrial lobby) already saw the upside, not least from the jobs and investment that have come from Silicon Valley firms moving into clean energy over the last 10 years.
In other words, the local politics is a lot like the geo-politics.