Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Surviving climate chaos at CoP 26 and the demonstrations outside

Julian Caldecott

by Julian Caldecott (7 Nov 2021)

A step-change in the volume of public financing for an effective emergency climate response is clearly needed, and most of the world is willing. According to one Danish NGO observer, Jakob Kronik of Forests of the World (www.forestsoftheworld.org), who is at CoP 26 in Glasgow to support Bolivian and other Latin American forest conservation proposals, there is a sombre spirit of intention among delegates at this CoP that was missing at others. ‘Everyone seems to know that this is now very serious,’ he says, ‘that people are dying and fleeing from climate change, that party time is over.’ Then we continued marching, between the Scottish Greens and children with a ‘save the world’ banner in Gaelic, and just in front of an Extinction Rebellion drumming band. We were in the midst of an ocean of people, some on stilts to speak for Poseidon, some bearing a whale skeleton on behalf of mass extinction, many creatively decorated, and all determined on real change.

Activism by people in developed countries is a potent driver of new climate investment by governments and corporations. Easy political and financial gains are available to them by putting money into low-emission energy, transport and insulation systems. Hence, despite desperate appeals for money with which to adapt to climate change, and despite the ethical case for this kind of help, developing counties have always seen the lion’s share of climate investment going into mitigation rather than adaptation. This distortion remains real. ‘Rich countries publicly claim they care about adaptation but inside the talks most of the money goes on emission reductions and they undermine efforts to prioritise the adaptation needs of vulnerable nations,’ said Mohamed Adow, from the Power Shift Africa organisation, an observer at CoP 26. (www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-59193769).

To solve the imbalance between mitigation and adaptation, five things are needed, supported by new kinds of informed reasoning. And second, to recruit the full weight of private investment a much more collegiate approach is needed. Therefore:

  • Governments should correct market conditions to ensure rewards for private safeguarding investments – ecological, social and physical interventions that strengthen whole systems against climate chaos.
  • Insurance and reinsurance companies should learn more about systemic risk from ecological, social and biophysical vulnerabilities, and co-venture with public and private investors to reduce collective risks through safeguarding investments.
  • Public and private investors should seek bundled co-benefits, where system-level emission reductions and adaptive strengthening depend on each other, and safeguarding investments can yield diverse rewards in varied forms for many different stakeholders.
  • Governments should support one another in strengthening local governance and environmental education, so that local ecosystems can be protected, restored and used for local benefit while contributing to national adaption and environmental security.
  • Governments should support precautionary measures to safeguard and restore the whole biosphere at huge scale, in all countries, and in international space, and support effective systems to manage knowledge and promote learning and replication.

Meanwhile, the algorithms of capital are doing good work on energy systems. Al Gore predicted that the Glasgow CoP will be seen as the ‘inflection point’ of the global energy transition. Fossil energy is now obviously an investment trap where wealth can only be stranded and destroyed, while renewables is where fear and greed are headed. So governments should stop protecting obsolete and dirty parts of the energy system, remove perverse incentives and other blockages, facilitate the discovery and flow of new knowledge, and protect the vulnerable from collateral damage. This is now the easy part of the equation. Next up are other relatively easy tasks like improving energy efficiency through better insulation, and low-carbon transport through electric vehicles and public transport systems. But there are many aspects of the climate and ecological emergency that private money cannot easily reach. The biosphere is the most complex system in the known universe, and we’ve been battering it with blunt instruments for centuries. Its destabilisation is even more dangerous and immediate than we thought, and solving this demands far more than the baby-steps of the recent past.

It’s clean-up time, thanks be to Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion. In the 1950s the post-war boom started to do life-threatening damage to the biosphere. We half woke up in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, but each time we went back to sleep. In the 2010s the alarm got us up, but we calmed down by signing the Paris Agreement. We were just starting to doze again when millions of people started marching to demand truth and action. And all the predictions of fire and flood, starvation and migration, volatility and violence, started to come true. Distracting people with MAGA and Brexit were tried but are not working. Everything has changed. Our fate now is to live and deliver hard and expensive action for the rest of our lives. No more rest, no more war on nature. As Christiana Figueres observed (https://www.tbmacaulaylecture.co.uk), only a public-interest policy-led revolution can save us and the rest of nature. We need to think in new ways about nature-based and community-based solutions, and about carbon-negative and nature-positive investments.

First, we FORGOT nature-based and community-based solutions. We’ve known for decades how valuable these can be, both for mitigating climate change by conserving carbon-rich ecosystems like forests and soils, and for adapting to it by protecting and restoring ecosystem services like preventing floods and supplying water. And we’ve known for even longer about how they can promote biodiversity conservation, prevent poverty, and build local accountability, participation and benefit sharing. These solutions tend to be cheap and empowering as well as carbon-negative and nature-positive. But all this is easily forgotten in the rush for high-tech fixes that look good on spreadsheets and TV. So this forgetfulness is where we are now, and the collapse of climate and nature are the consequences, along with the ruination of poor and indigenous peoples, mass extinction, and the onset of deadly tipping points in global systems.

Second, we must now REMEMBER nature-based and community-based solutions. Faced with system collapse, governments are starting to look urgently for cost-effective, quick-acting carbon-negative and nature-positive investments. Not destroying carbon-rich ecosystems is the first thing to do, since every tonne of carbon not released and every species saved is a gain for the world. Effective conservation can save tens of millions of tonnes and many species in each forest or peatland. But you can’t just magic effective conservation by an agreement at CoP 26. It has to be built in partnership with local peoples their institutions, informed by science, and with a careful sharing of benefits and knowledge among everyone involved. You have to remember how to do it right. So technical bureaucracies have to re-learn how to do and replicate this kind of work. It must now be rolled out, not like putting tarmac on a road but in a global wave of wise and powerful reform, informed by those who never forgot how to do these things.

And third, CARBON-NEGATIVE and NATURE-POSITIVE investments are king. Major systems like the Arctic, ocean currents and tropical forests are wobbling, and climate collapse is now quite possible in mid-century. We need to do a lot more than trust to models built on dodgy promises and assumptions about the behaviour of an an Earth system that we do not understand. We must all get precautionary: we should judge every proposed investment against the ideal that it should quickly slash GHG emissions by meaningful amounts in real time, while conserving and restoring nature, and not treading on human rights. Some careful planning is OK, so that investments can take a few years to transform whole national systems in a low-carbon, biodiversity-friendly direction, but only if urgent improvements are also being made. There is no time left to neglect biophysical deadlines, and not enough nature left to do anything other than protect and restore ecosystems alongside everything else we do

Surviving Climate Chaos by Julian Caldecott

Title: Surviving Climate Chaos by Strengthening Communities and Ecosystems

Author: Julian Caldecott

Paperback ISBN: 9781108793780

Hardback ISBN: 9781108840125

About The Author

Julian Caldecott

Julian Caldecott is Director of Creatura Ltd, an environmental consultancy, and has a background in wildlife research and conservation in tropical rainforests. Since 2000 he has le...

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