Saturday, December 6, 2008

Crisis! Oh, you mean that crisis

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

-Henry Ford

It must have felt pretty cool being one of the selected few to be among the delegates representing 44 different countries at the Bretton Woods conference in the summer of 1944. Everything about it was planned to ensure that the talks would result in a world economic order that would foster cooperation and prosperity for future generations. The rural location, New Hampshire’s plush Mount Washington Hotel, was chosen so that the delegates would have no distractions, and no pressure from lobbyists or other politicians. While the focus was to establish a stable system of exchange rates, and how to pay for rebuilding the war-damaged economies of Europe, the meetings also led to the creation of the IMF, World Bank and to a lesser extent, the United Nations, the Marshall plan and the International Trade Organization (later GATT and the WTO). A lot has changed since those days when John Maynard Keynes, representing the UK, along with the other delegates hammered out the foundations for the American financial order.

Fast forward to the dying days of 2008 and the world is again in crisis. This time instead of worrying how to rebuild a world in the aftermath of a World War, we’re faced with the aftermath that 65 years of greed has wrought on the world’s economy and the planet. The stock market crash of 1929 and the decade of protectionism that followed was one of the main causes of WWII and the financial aftermath; this time it’s the devastation that has been brought about by the oil based economic model. If only Keynes had got his way back in ‘44 and a world central bank (to be known as bancor) would have been created to reflate the world’s money supply. Instead, it was left to America, who by the mid-70’s gave up the gold standard and switched 100% to the oil standard.

Last week and next, representatives from 190 nations are meeting in my adopted hometown of Poznan, Poland to try to map out a plan to Copenhagen next year, where it is hoped that a new emission protocol to replace Kyoto will be reached. Unfortunately, instead of being a headline event, it’s playing 2nd fiddle to the financial crisis. In the perfect world, the two would be sharing top billing, hand in hand giving policy makers the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. This won’t be the case though as special interests ensure that no compromise will be reached. As one government after another announces trillions of dollars in shock therapies for national economies, the only market that matters, the planet, will be left out in the cold.

Imagine, if you will, a world where greedy bankers actually pay for their lending mistakes. Or car makers are forced to be competitive. Yeah, I know that’s how it’s supposed to work, but it no longer does. I can hear the cries of “the banks need to survive to provide financing for investment”, but who can make rational investment decisions when governments are handing money out for failure? Imagine what could be done with the money if it was spent with the view of improving the world. Instead of delivering a better world, our desperate battle for growth at all costs has put us on a crash course with ecological disaster. The average person works more hours and has less to show for it than 30 years ago. Add to that the crumbling safety nets, such as pension plans and health care coverage and it makes one wonder why we’d want to fix the system at all. Let it crash, we have to start fresh.

What I can’t wrap my head around is the typical response that people have to the proposal of carbon taxes or the likes to try to reduce CO2 emissions. “Don’t spend MY tax dollars on something that might not even exist!” Yet they don’t seem to have any problems with having their tax dollars go to banks, or worse yet, car companies. Whether or not the theory that human activity is causing climate change is eventually proven or disproven should be irrelevant. Dependence on fossil fuels is ridiculous and all our efforts should be focused on lessening this reliance. It’s not a coincidence that oil prices have fallen drastically over the past few months. The world is hostage to the oil supplying nations, yet even those nations know that there is a line that when crossed, will force us to actually change the way the world works and end the reign of oil. Yes, I do realize that forecasts for demand have fallen due to the failing world economy, thus pushing down the price, but it’s more than that as anyone without fossil fuel blinders can see.

There’s a few reasons why the Poznan conference or the meeting to be held next year in Copenhagen won’t come up with an agreement to save the planet. The price of oil dropping to $20 a barrel is the easiest scapegoat, but it’s the public’s perception of the climate change debate that is the most troubling. One of my student’s referral to “that conference, or whatever you call it” causing traffic difficulties is the perfect illustration of how many people have been misinformed and feel there are more important issues to deal with. The developed world won’t tell Asia and Africa to choose poverty, disease, hunger and illiteracy over electricity. Kyoto was a failure, I don’t know of a single region or country that will reach their targets. Dubya made sure the people knew what he thought of it, and while he is Dubya, there are people whose opinions are formed by their president. These CC deniers will fight tooth and nail to defend their right to pay foreign nations huge amounts of money to import fuel in support of big oil companies.

The biggest problem though lies in the complexity of the issue and the way the media has presented it to the people. While the evidence pointing to human activity as the cause for climate change has been slowly solidifying, the media has been bombarding us with other discordant findings. In effect, the media is to blame for obfuscating the issue, creating a breeding ground for apathy. The arctic ice sheets melting, the Brazilian tree frogs disappearance and the hurricane season all might have something to do with climate change, but by hitting the people with these stories in rapid succession and linking them to CC, it’s easy to see why there are still so many skeptics out there. Another brilliant example comes from a Republican presidential debate in Iowa in which the candidates were asked, “How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?”. Here, the mistake of conflating two distinct questions into one only serves to confuse the issue: whether climate change is a ’serious threat’ and whether humans contribute to it. Furthermore, by wording the question in this way, the candidates were given the chance give general responses, without dealing with the issue, such as “I believe that global climate change is serious” (Rudy Giuliani), and “I think that climate change is real” (John McCain).

Poznan ain’t gonna be Bretton Woods. I wonder if the UN was trying to say something by choosing ths city to host the event. Poland burns so much coal that the air is often thick and yellowish while at the same time the government is doing all it can to stymie the implementation of an EU emission standard. The word homogeneous was invented for Poland, where 95% of the population is white and catholic. Real debate is impossible in an environment such as this, where just having a car is considered to be a status symbol. It seems natural to want to live in a cleaner world, so instead of scaring people, we need to focus on showing the benefits that a new way of thinking can achieve. Until the people can be convinced that we’re faced with an opportunity rather than a threat, events such as the Poznan conference will be nothing more than a blip on the media radar.


Michal said...

Good to have you back.

I admire your ability to express your thoughts about this topic. Whenever I start a discussion about it, it goes off on a tangent. It's hard to follow it as it involves so many complex things to which arguments are long and hard to put across. I think i have yet to grow up and organize the way I think . .

Anyway, I had this crazy conspiracy idea the other day, about how this crisis could've been a purposeful move conducted by the western states, which want to achieve a more authoritarian form of government in order to stay competitive to China, blah blah.

Or maybe I was just made to believe in the western liberty, and it hadn't been true all along . . Looking at the USA I see millions of ignorant peasants being taken care of by a handful of smart guys standing behind a couple hundred representatives.

And another thing is - I think that climate change - whether or not it is true/real/serious/happening - is mainly serving as a tool for propaganda rather than being a cause for itself.

And yet another thing that is completely irrelevant but somehow i have to talk about it - what the fuck is wrong with greenpeace? those guys are just the worst idiots you can find. Instead of buying a ton of coal and dumping it on some hotel parking as a sign of protest, they could make a better use of that money, and, say, sponsor free environment-friendly paper bags in all shops in the city. Why do they still fuking exist? Enough about that!

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