Bolivia stirs up politics of climate change

Unable to fly, it’s now impossible to escape the boredom of the UK general election.

It’s this timing that convinces me. The revenge motif of the ancient Icelandic sagas lives on in the molten sulphur of the volcano. Hell hath no fury like a Viking spurned by British creditors.

So little divides the UK political parties on policy that the contest has been dumbed down to a leadership personality trial by television. We’ll get the president we deserve.

Let’s be thankful for the politics of climate change. The spectrum of opinion is wider even than the old class divisions that used to dominate British elections.

On the far right we have the ostrich party. It believes that scientific consensus on the warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions can be dismantled by posting chat-board comments rather than doing science.

On the far left we have the Latin American radicals who demand reparations for the theft by rich countries of the safe environmental space for carbon dioxide emissions. They speak the voice of the poor in asserting that the earth can be protected from further abuse only by an end to capitalism.

In the centre the UN establishment does its best to cajole international agreement through compromise. This involves ignoring the advice of its own scientists, not to speak of condemning the most vulnerable countries to potential oblivion.

This moderate faction had its chance at Copenhagen but produced only the worthless Accord. Since then the sceptics have leapt into the vacuum, aided by exposure of minor scratches in the scientific case.

Now it’s the turn of the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth starting in Cochabamba on Tuesday. The agenda is dominated by innovative ideas that the moderates agree with but are afraid to endorse.

Bolivia is the ideal venue in that its much lamented Chacaltaya glacier enshrines the ambiguities that contribute to divisive climate politics.

Chacaltaya has become one of the recognised global symbols of the devastating impact of climate change. Until very recently a popular ski resort, the glacier is now a pile of rocks.

Yet a World Bank policy research working paper published towards the end of 2009 presents an alternative view. Whilst not questioning the core science of climate change, it suggests that recent highland temperatures have not been rising and that Chacaltaya has been retreating “since the Little Ice Age (about 1550 to 1850)…. and it is normal for melting to accelerate towards the end (just like a small ice cube melts faster than a big ice cube).”

Where next? The history of polarised politics suggests a knock-out victory for one extreme or the other is the likely initial outcome. This is hard to contemplate on the climate change battlefield.

The current stalemate in international negotiations is almost as damaging. A spirit of reconciliation might be the wiser path, however improbable.

The sceptics must surely begin to raise the quality of their science to that which they criticise. The UN too should pour resources into the IPCC process so that it can hack away at all those niggling uncertainties. President Morales and his buddies could try harder to acknowledge the power of private capital to make things happen.

Floating about is the international NGO movement, lacking the ruthless organisation to combat the sceptics whilst equally lacking the courage to openly endorse the radical agenda.

The conference this week offers the chance to put some heads above the parapet.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK