Canadian investigative journalist William Marsden doesn’t hide his anguish or his anger as he reports the maddening incapacity of political leaders and negotiators to come to terms with climate change. Nor should he. It’s a sorry story he has to tell in his new book Fools Rule: Inside the Failed Politics of Climate Change. Marsden’s book treats three sobering realities. One is the science. He writes of the utter desperation of scientists “as they pile proof upon proof only to see it disappear into the smoke of denial or crash against the excuse of political and economic expediency”. He fully grasps the scientific picture and the mounting threats it points to. Regarding the work of glaciologists as fundamental to understanding climate change, he has buttressed his acquaintance with the science by spending time with working scientists in the Canadian Arctic. Last year glaciologist Martin Sharp agreed to Marsden tagging along with his team working on the Devon Island ice cap. Consequently the book includes a lively narrative of the conditions under which those scientists work when on the ice. He leaves the reader in no doubt that the science is “overwhelming and frightening”.
The second reality is that the nations of the world in a position to profit financially from continuing development of fossil fuels seem determined to carry on doing so, in spite of any lip service they pay to combating climate change. Indeed, if the enticements look right they’ll back away from tackling climate change in any meaningful way as Marsden’s own country Canada has done under the leadership of Stephen Harper. Marsden is scathing of Harper’s retreat from what once looked like a promising start to the transformation of the energy grid to clean technology under the Liberals.
Nowhere is the determination to carry on with the exploitation of fossil fuel resources more apparent than in the deliberations of the Arctic Five – Canada, Russia, the US, Norway and Denmark – over the possibilities opened up by a warmer Arctic. Marsden points out that they could pledge to chart a new course for the world that steers away from further polluting the atmospheric space. But there is no sign that such a possibility has even entered their heads. They remain consumed by “the cosmic wheel of materialistic self-interest, personal wealth accumulation, and economic competition. They feel these are forces they cannot stop even if they wanted to”. These nations are not alone in looking to the continued exploitation of fossil fuel resources. Australia plans to double coal exports at the same time as undertaking a modest reduction of emissions by 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020. Marsden doesn’t cover New Zealand, but our government, similarly modest in its emission reduction targets, loudly proclaims its intention to prospect for and develop fossil fuel sources as a means of increasing our national prosperity.
Marsden doesn’t exempt China or India from responsibility in this matter. “The point is, there are no good guys in this story. We all ultimately have to be held accountable. No country gets a pass.” But he immediately acknowledges that this doesn’t absolve us of a moral responsibility to look to the welfare of poorer countries.
In the light of the widespread intention to continue in the discovery and use of fossil fuels it’s not surprising that the third reality Marsden highlights is that international negotiations are going nowhere. The science is not totally ignored by the nations of the world. Indeed by the most threatened among them it is all too apparent that its warnings are already being realised. But they are not big players on the international negotiating scene and can be bullied into the appearance of acquiescence in agreements which take little account of their plight. International negotiations are presented as a response to the science of climate change, but as Marsden has seen in his attendance at international meetings since 2009 many participants are so absorbed in the protection of what they see as their national economic interests that it seems almost impossible that anything can come of all the talk.
When you are at the table and you are negotiating a bit more tons, or a bit less, it’s insignificant compared with what you would need to do if you believe all these scientists
Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh was quite explicit: “I went to Copenhagen not to save the world. I went to Copenhagen to protect India’s national interest… India’s right to foster economic growth.” Marsden reports US negotiator Jonathan Pershing’s obsessive focus on what he regards as the politically possible, never mind that climate change is, in Marsden’s words, “a rising sea, a tsunami, an earthquake, a hurricane, a flood, a drought that sweeps away society’s backup plans”. The gap between what is required and what is regarded as possible is very wide. A former Canadian environment minister said to Marsden “When you are at the table and you are negotiating a bit more tons, or a bit less, it’s insignificant compared with what you would need to do if you believe all these scientists”.
Marsden was at Copenhagen and Cancún and some of the in-between meetings. He exposes the Copenhagen Accord for the face-saving expedient it was and concludes of Cancún: “In a world smothered in lies, Cancún bamboozled with the best.” His reportage of the details of the conferences builds an ample foundation for such judgements. It’s a sad chronicle of avoidance and delay in the face of inexorably advancing climate change, and it is the powerful countries which are most responsible. American intransigence is highlighted, “leading everyone in a race to the bottom”, partly because they know they could never get a climate change treaty through the Senate.
The domestic scenes in the US and Canada receive special attention in the course of the book. The failure of the American climate bill to proceed in the Senate showed that oil, coal and gas companies were the masters of the senate. For a time it also looked as if they would succeed in their support of Proposition 23 in California which would have effectively put a stop to California’s legislative attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Marsden tells the story of their campaign, with their failure one of the few bright spots in the generally grim picture his book paints. In Canada fossil fuel interests have successfully thwarted effective emission reduction regulations with unrelenting lobby pressure. The massive tar sands projects has led the government to make the unproven technology of carbon capture and storage a cornerstone of its carbon reduction strategy in a country with ideal resources for renewable energy.
Climate change “is poised to roll over our capitalist world with a furious vengeance”
The three contradictory realities surrounding climate change cannot continue to co-exist. Marsden in conclusion points out that climate change “is poised to roll over our capitalist world with a furious vengeance”. We have so far met it with a monumental political failure. We have allowed our political system to be “hijacked by corporations and run by liars and propagandists”. It may be a lame hope to imagine the same politicians awarding legitimacy to scientific and technical experts and framing a new world vision accordingly. But it’s the only hope we have, and our brains do have an amazing ability to chart new courses, if we will use them.
If an appeal to human intelligence is all we have left Marsden is certainly a worthy advocate. His book is a thorough journalistic exposure of the denial which currently undermines our political negotiations and an affirmation of the primacy of the science which points to inescapable climate change.