01.02.2010

The Path from Copenhagen

After the failure of Copenhagen, awareness of our global "oneness" has never been more important, says Adrian Glamorgan

After the failure of Copenhagen, awareness of our global "oneness" has never been more important, says Adrian Glamorgan

If the growing number of reports about rising global temperatures are right, we live in dangerous times, as dark as any threat we felt during the Cold War. But in the darkest moments of the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed to be moments of trust and goodwill, not fear and blame, which helped us out of that thermonuclear mess. So, too, trust and goodwill may take us away from last December's climate-lite Copenhagen debacle to a genuine path of sustainability, giving true accountability and determined action.

But we will need to call a spade a spade. Copenhagen failed, when much more was needed. There were no legally binding targets. At first it looked like Britain and United States had ducked their responsibilities, selfishly exposing developing countries to disaster. But then Mark Lynas, climate author and Maldives delegate in the room, published his eyewitness account, noticed around the world, arguing China masterfully sabotaged the whole process. Lynas cited, for example, how China's representative insisted the promise by industrialised countries to cut emissions 80% by 2050 should be removed from the agreement. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was confounded why she couldn't even mention her own country's targets; Australian PM Kevin Rudd banged on his microphone. But China insisted; Merkel relented; and the backroom meetings and the absence of targets and accountability became the glaring flaw in the accord.

The dilemma has been developing countries blaming industrialised nations' prodigious carbon pollution over the last 200 years; and developed countries warning of the dire effects of Chinese and Indian development, if they follow the same path. This time round, China effectively stitched up Obama and rich countries to look like the climate perpetrators, while avoiding any targets or accountability themselves. The plot to undermine a climate treaty thickens.

Yet it is difficult to reduce the failure of Copenhagen to particular countries. Climate change scientists have been relatively conservative about the dire consequences ahead, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to not sound a louder alarm, and it covers the globe, not one part of it. We will all lose out with that lack of trust. There are spectres of a Saharan Spain, a drowned Bangladesh, an Australia with bushfire seasons extended to half a year, an icecap free planet, and hundreds of millions left hungry, homeless and thirsty in a world which has only a third of its current freshwater by 2100. We are all in this together.

Yet the best the media can do is foreground climate sceptics and the nuclear lobby, whose greenhouse record with waste and plant building is carefully overlooked.

Our own country's laughable target of reducing emissions by 5% by 2020 shows a disturbing level of delusion, unreported and under-analysed by the national press, with major parties effectively offering to pay polluters billions of dollars' subsidy to keep polluting. We will change the way we do things, the major parties keep saying, only once every one else overseas does. It is against our interest.

We cannot wait for the other to act well before we act well ourselves. It is a time for risking trust and goodwill, for offering up virtuous actions in the face of danger. To risk doing what is right, because it is right, knowing it inspires others and because it sets the tone for what humanity needs as a whole.

During the Cold War, people of goodwill from all sides made such choices regularly, thus avoiding a nuclear war. So, too, now people of goodwill from China, Europe, the United States, Australia, and developing and island countries need to regularly and immediately find ways to solve the dawning threats of climate change by taking unilateral actions for sustainability. We may stand out to begin, but that's what it may take.

In October 1962, a nuclear world war seemed distinctly imminent. Said Arthur Schlesinger Jnr: "This was not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War. It was the most dangerous moment in human history." With the Soviet Union placing nuclear missiles in Cuba, only five minutes' trajectory from continental United States, the Pentagon urged President John F Kennedy to go to war, pre-emptively. The whole world held its breath.

Instead, Kennedy chose to enforce a naval quarantine blockading all offensive weapons from Cuba. It bought time, and the chance for cooler minds and warmer hearts to prevail. Yet Kennedy knew any forced exchange between his own American ships and a Russian vessel could easily spark growing retaliations from both sides, ending with hundreds of cities incinerated, hundreds of millions of people dead, and our planet irradiated and uninhabitable. Then, as now, the future of the planet relied on taking risks by trusting people different from us, by making noble choices.

The quarantine seemed to work, as it desperately needed to. But on October 27, the USS Beale detected a Soviet submarine, tracked it, dropping depth charges as a signal to the commander to come up. Depth charges banged on the hull for four hours. There were 12 American warships surrounding the submarine. Below surface, the submariners only had a little air left, the temperature was 49 degrees, and the captain Valentin Savitsky was on the edge of his nerves. This Captain Savitsky guessed, understandably enough, World War III had already commenced. Hell had to be unleashed. "We will die, but we will sink them all. We will not disgrace our navy," he is supposed to have said. Ordering the nuclear torpedo ready, he had the agreement of his onboard political officer, but not the second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov to fire: and all three had to agree. And so an argument broke out. Outnumbered two to one against him, Arkhipov stood firm against retribution for world war. He calmed down his captain, persuaded him to retract the order to ready the nuclear torpedo, and to surface his submarine to talk to Moscow. They did. A nuclear war was avoided. Next day, the two sides worked out a deal. Kennedy and Khruschev both trusted people of goodwill on all sides: and Arkhipov was one of them. That's why you and I are here now.

When much is at stake, the boundaries of countries matter much less than the calibre of each person who lives and breathes and makes choices. There are those playing politics with the planet's futures in many places.

Equally there are friends in Beijing, Washington, and Canberra, and in your hometown, and next door to you, and in New Delhi, and Cape Town and Port Moresby and Djakarta and Shanghai.

Pope Benedict XVI said to Vatican diplomats last month, "To cultivate peace, one must protect creation." He described this as "a moral need". He criticised world leaders for their "economic and political resistance" leading to their failure to reach agreement at Copenhagen.

We failed - but it was all of us who failed, not just the world leaders. All of us must take responsibility. The path from Copenhagen is paved by choices we make each hour and every day. In what we do, in where and how we travel, what we consume, what we strive for, whom we vote for, whether we keep in touch with our elected representatives in between elections, what we dare to hope, whether we sign up for slogans of fear and hate and misunderstandings, or choose trust and goodwill, as well as forgiveness. The path to sustainability may well turn out to be as much a journey of living these noble virtues as it is the rising temperatures that drove us to take the first step.

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