With Warsaw now a fading memory and the meager outcome still cause for concern that there really isn’t enough substance to build a robust global agreement upon, I signed up for The Radical Emission Reduction Conference at the Royal Society. This was held in London and put on by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Given the academic reputation of the Tyndall Centre and of course the credentials of the Royal Society, I was hoping for a useful discussion on rapid deployment of technologies such as CCS, how the world might breathe new life into nuclear and other such topics, but this was far from the content of the sessions that I was able to attend.

Rather, this was a room of catastrophists (as in “catastrophic global warming”), with the prevailing view, at least to my ears, that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems, with the latter moving to one of state control and regulated consumerism. There would be no room for “ruthless individualism” in such a world.  The posters that dotted the lecture theatre lobby area covered topics as diverse as vegan diets to an eventual return to low technology hunter-gatherer societies (but thankfully there was one CCS poster in the middle of all this).

Much to my surprise I was not really at an emission reduction conference (despite the label saying I was), but a political ideology conference. Although I have been involved in the climate change issue for over a decade, I had not heard this set of views on the issue voiced so consistently in one place. This was a room where there was a round of applause when one audience member asked how LNG and coal exporters in Australia might be “annihilated” following their (supposed) support for the repeal of the carbon tax in that country. A few of the key points coming from both the speakers and audience in the sessions I was able to stay for were;

  • The human impact of development is a function of three variables; population, technology and affluence (another version of the Kaya Identity), which therefore argued for affluence to be reduced, given that population couldn’t be and technology was in a progression of its own.
  • The recent World Trade Agreement in Bali was anti-climate in that the removal of further trade barriers would simply offer more opportunity for consumerism and therefore more emissions. This was cited as a “neo-liberal elitist trade agenda”.
  • The current energy system is “a lousy way of powering our economy”.
  • A climate movement is rapidly evolving and could be likened to the global anti-apartheid movement that developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This includes the current fossil fuel divestment advocates.
  • Markets would not and could not deliver the necessary changes to the current energy system, even with the introduction of carbon pricing.
  • Small and renewable is good. Even large scale renewable projects run by major utilities are seemingly unacceptable – local community generated renewable electricity is the only answer.

Another feature of the discussion was the view that like apartheid or the Berlin Wall, the change from the current state of the energy system to a zero emissions one (there is no 40% or 50% or even 80% reduction talk here) can happen overnight and be triggered in a similar way, i.e. a popular but peaceful uprising, hence the talk of a rapidly evolving “climate movement”.

The above is a flavour of the sentiment and there was plenty more, all articulated with great passion and deep concern. This is all very well and of course this group have every right to express their view, but for me the event highlighted one of the real problems associated with climate change; that it is an issue with a chasm between the two ends of the spectrum and the rest of us are left in the middle watching the exchange. Problematically, the chasm is a deeply rooted political one which questions the very role of government and the economic structure of society. Could anything be more difficult to arbitrate? Thinking back to Warsaw and although the UNFCCC is a more contained (and constrained) stage, elements of this divide play out there as well, which perhaps speaks to why there has been such limited progress.

None of this need be the case, which is probably why I felt a level of discomfort in the conference and why the UNFCCC process feels frustrating. Carbon pricing can make the difference, but we need to see it evolve and mature without the systematic attack it has endured to date (from all sides). Technology does have a key role to play, but it will take time for deployment on the scale necessary and both ends of that spectrum are essential – CCS on one side and zero carbon fossil fuel alternatives on the other. Finance is important, but big energy projects have attracted capital for decades so we shouldn’t position a required change in this as the critical enabler for success. Finally, patience is a virtue, like it or not this is now a project for the whole of the 21st century.