A view From the Bridge

Five books for the COP negotiator

city-cars-traffic-eiffel-tower 3George Orwell, author of dystopian classics Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, was a political animal par excellence. He understood how the language of politics could give “an appearance of solidity to pure wind”, as he put it in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Those words should blast right through the miasmas forming over Paris as COP21 enters its second week.

Happily, 65 years after Orwell’s death, there is no shortage of miasma-busters out there, and I’ve assembled five books to prove it. But first, a closer look at the fog itself.

After decades of COP-watching, I remain as astonished by the halting nature of progress as I am by the number of spanners in their works. National politics and regional-bloc agendas are only some of the impedimenta. There are now, increasingly, external pressures such as corporate lobbying and well-meaning but often disruptive parallel actions by billionaire philanthropists. The whole looks, and often is, a hopelessly unwieldy form of decision-by-committee.

More, the COPs have accreted a culture that, like many variants of the UN model, might leave an ethnographer bemused. There are, for instance, the agreement rollouts that are vague, stretch decades into the future, or both. Climate policy analyst Oliver Geden has called the tendency “kicking the can down the road” — the “modus operandi of UN climate policy”. That pattern also popped up in Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s announcement last week of a solar alliance involving 120 countries, including France.  India’s big date is 2030, by which time it plans to draw 40% of its energy needs from renewables — even as it formulates equally ambitious plans for its coal. France, meanwhile, currently gets 75% of its energy from nuclear, and that is only due to be reduced by 2025. Ambitious transitions, or a prime example of Orwellian doublethink (and can-kicking)?

French climate-change ambassador Laurence Tubiana, however, dubbed the solar alliance “a true game-changer”. That brings me to another staple of COP culture: hyperbole, deployed to give a sense of dynamism to the often seemingly imperceptible advance of climate decision-making. Yet a clear critique of proposed solutions is as important as sticking to the science on climate change: the facts are alarming enough.

Despite all, solutions need to emerge from the psychological push and pull of the negotiating room. On to the books that in my view could move mountains, or indeed miasmas.

Guru Madhavan’s Applied Minds: How Engineers Think (W.W. Norton, 2015) is by and about the pragmatic tribe who craft the made world (reviewed here). If it seems whimsical to imagine an engineer’s experience might translate to the delicate calibrations and manoeuvrings of negotiation, read on. Their mindset, as Madhavan shows, is focused totally on solutions. Trained in ‘modular systems thinking’, engineers handle complexity by considering the components, the interdependencies and the totality of problems. Engineers are, moreover, deft operators under constraints such as time, finance, physics and human behaviour. Finally, they have a nuanced grasp of tradeoffs and can weed out weak from strong goals. To me, pragmatic, time-sensitive grappling with multidimensional problems doesn’t seem alien in the context of the COPs, which are, after all, attempts to construct a framework. And in a broader sense, systems-thinking seems key to achieving sustainability in an inherited cascade of environmental problems.

History, by deepening our understanding of how today’s looming issues have evolved, can give some insight into solutions. Janet Biehl’s Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (Oxford University Press, 2015), reviewed here, reminds how 50 years ago, important thinking on climate change was already very much out there. Bookchin, an independent radical ecologist, revealed a rare grasp of the global scale of environmental problems in books such as the 1965 Crisis in Our Cities, in which he wrote: “Theoretically, after several centuries of fossil-fuel combustion, the increased heat of the atmosphere could even melt the polar ice caps”. Bookchin’s solutions to the crisis were as prescient, not least in integrating social with environmental elements. Working from a vision of urban ecotopias, he inspired and championed community-centred, solar-powered, closed-loop food production as early as the 1970s.

David Rieff’s The Reproach of Hunger (Simon and Schuster, 2015), reviewed here, is about the global food crisis, a challenge intimately linked with climate change and like it, human-driven. Rieff, a veteran writer on aid and development issues, spent six years researching this study, and it shows. It is perhaps most acute, and balanced, on why the current melee of international policy bodies, the private sector, “philanthrocapitalists” and technophiles is failing to find viable solutions to hunger. Rieff points to the greater context: a globalised, neoliberal economic system which — as others such as economist Joseph Stiglitz have pointed out — drives the inequities behind global problems, not least the wealth of a tiny minority. I commend this book to my hypothetical negotiator as a salient reminder of the politics infusing global challenges.

In Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (Princeton University Press, 2015), reviewed here, economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman deliver a stinging slap to the reluctant or somnolent negotiator. They creatively reframe climate change as a risk management issue — asking why, if there is a 10% chance that climate change will lead to catastrophe, we are not girding ourselves through ‘insurance’, such as pushing industry and policymakers to get on with the transition. They marshall excellent evidence to show that the longer the world waits to act, the likelier it will be that extreme events will happen. A welcome reminder that we must avoid becoming lobsters dawdling at the bottom of a slowly boiling pot.

And finally, a primer on what is at the bottom of all the horror and hoopla — fossil fuels. Two years ago I extolled The Burning Question by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark (Profile Books, 2013). It is even more relevant now. They lay out the maths, showing that we have “five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think it is safe to burn”. Yet we are planning to burn it, because fossil-fuel companies treat underground reserves as an existing asset. If the stuff stayed in the ground, they note, it would be goodbye to trillions — but a real commitment to carbon curbing. At a COP partly sponsored by oil interests, my putative negotiator might want to mull over the real costs of a carbon economy.

We refer to the COPs as ‘talks’, and the negotiations themselves do proceed in a soup of arcane UN-speak. Outside those established constraints, the players in this global endeavour need to think deeply about language. It is a shaper of reality. As Orwell noted, the use of a hackneyed phrase “anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain”. By contrast, lucid and original language and the independent thinking it fosters — as seen in these five exemplary books — are a “necessary first step towards political regeneration” and some dispelling of the murk.


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