Published December 13th, 2009
BY PROFESSOR STUART SCHOENFELD, CHAIR OF SOCIOLOGY, GLENDON COLLEGE, YORK UNIVERSITY ( email@example.com)
From one perspective, the climate change conference in Copenhagen looks rational. It’s about science – understanding the implications of the largest scientific project in history – and it’s about deliberation – well briefed representatives of 192 nations brought together to write an international treaty. But the meeting is not so rational. People come to the negotiating table not only with interests, but also with emotions. The negotiators in Copenhagen represent some who feel entitled, others who feel resentful and yet others who feel powerless. This play of emotions seems to be the story of the conference, a global summit of desires, fears, outrage and frustration. Out of this mix of emotions, the challenge is to feel and act on the latent but powerful feeling of mutual responsibility.
The feelings of resentment and powerlessness come into focus when the feelings of entitlement are acknowledged. No leader of any developed country can say to its citizens, “We are not entitled to our way of life.” The point of view is implicit in the language: “we” are developed; those who do not share our prosperity are “developing” or “underdeveloped.” Surely the road ahead, as the international development industry has taught for decades, is for others to model themselves on us, to work hard and succeed, just as we have. “We” can help the underdeveloped. Money is available for assistance in climate adaptation and mitigation. There are intellectual and organizational resources as well to support the transformation of the global energy system.
All this good will does not challenge the feelings of entitlement in developed countries, or even admit that entitlement is an issue. People have become accustomed to - and the economic system dependent on - transportation, food and building practices that are comfortable and satisfying, but unsustainable. Even leisure activities that produce high greenhouse gas emissions – air travel, destination holidays, cruise ships – seem unlikely to change dramatically on a voluntary basis. This sense of entitlement is understandable. Prosperous countries have meaningful historical narratives of hardship, struggle and success.
It is precisely this sense of entitlement that is the focus of the resentments that have surfaced so strongly in Copenhagen. China, India and the others in the G77 use the language of “historical responsibility” - greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere when the West dominated industrial production. The West has been responsible for the problem; the West has the responsibility to clean up the mess. Because the West’s prosperity is based on creating a global crisis, it also has the responsibility to assist others with the clean technologies that the global crisis requires. To do otherwise is to ask the victims to pay for the damages. The resentment gets even stronger. Consider the history of the India textile industry. When India was a colony, village weavers, using low GHG producing hand looms, were driven out of business by the importation of cheap cloth from British coal fired textile mills. Now, India, with its impoverished multitudes, is being asked to restrain low per capita green house gas emissions in order for the West to continue its prosperity and higher per capita GHG emissions! Perhaps the expressions of resentment are partly verbal posturing, intended to produce an agreement more favorable to the interests of the G77 plus China, but the outrage and anger are much more than tactics.
Some other countries, lacking the political leverage of China, India and a handful of others, are the beggars at the banquet. The 39 members of the Alliance of Small Island States are, with the exception of Singapore, low income and vulnerable. They can plead, but their ability to influence is slight. The Alliance includes the most desperate, and the most frustrated.
The outcome at COP15 depends on more than the science, the negotiators’ clarity on national interests, and the skills at compromise. The outcome, and even more the follow through, depend as well on the emotions that come out of the conference. The perpetuation of entitlement, resentment and powerlessness jeopardize global success. Rising to the challenge of climate change requires other emotions, of mutual care and concern, across the globe and across generations. Success will ultimately come from shared personal commitments, and leadership that evokes them.
Stuart is a long-serving member of the IRIS Executive.
Dawn R. Bazely