The downfall of a Civilisation

STANDING TALL: Nohoch Mul, which translates into 'large hill', is located at Cobá, is 42 meters tall and the tallest Mayan building on the Yucatan peninsula. Photo: Trym O. Sonstad


Before ‘Circus Climate Change Conference’ moves on from Copenhagen to Cancún this December, it could be clever to take a close look at that region’s ancient Maya history; and maybe to learn a thing or two from it, too.

But first, the good news: the world isn’t going to end in 2012 (no matter what happens at the conference later this year). This post is hence not about the speculations around a Mayan Judgement Day in 2012, as shown in the “2012″ movie. That is nonsense. What is true, is that a Mayan calendar ends on the 21th of December that year. But, to everyone’s relief: the Mayans did always plan to replace their first 5125 years old long-count calendar with a new one in 2012. If only their civilisation had survived to see that date …

Two years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the remains of their society, an extraordinarily advanced society that may have been established as early as 2000 years BC. The Maya civilisation was featured by advanced building techniques, astronomy, calendars and an astonishing modern and urban style, with densely populated cities (really fascinating, read about it!). But by 900 AD it was all abandoned and in ruins.

Recent NASA research has shed some new light on this mystery. The Maya Empire was ahead of its time and, in many ways, resembled our own modern world. Exactly this may have been what brought it down.
“They had to burn 20 trees to heat the limestone for making just 1 square meter of the lime plaster they used to build their tremendous temples, reservoirs, and monuments,” explains Dr. Tom Sever, NASA’s only archeologist.

Due to the cutting down of trees,

HIGH ABOVE: The crucial rainforest as seen from the top of Nohoch Mul. Photo: Therese Bongard (the blogger is afraid of heights)

the Mayans caused severe soil erosion and temperatures that increased up to six degrees, as well as changing rainfall patterns. And as every agronomist will tell you, the catastrophic consequence of this is that it becomes complicated to grow crops and food.

“Archeologists used to argue about whether the downfall of the Maya was due to drought or warfare or disease, or a number of other possibilities such as political instability. Now we think that all these things played a role, but that they were only symptoms. The root cause was a chronic food and water shortage, due to some combination of natural drought and deforestation by humans,” says Dr. Sever.

It is always hard to predict the future. And no matter how sophisticated climate change models become, there will always be doubt that strong groups can use to oil the wheels that serve their own interests. That is why our leaders haven’t taken the precautionary measures that are needed. What is harder to deny, however, is what has already happened in the past; Civilisations have already collapsed due to man-made changes in their natural environments.

“By learning what the Mayans did right and what they did wrong, maybe we can help local people find sustainable ways to farm the land while stopping short of the excesses that doomed the Maya,” says Dr. Sever, with reference to the current population growth and cutting down of rain forest on old Mayan territory in Mexico and Guatamala.

I would add to this that we should at the same time try to learn how we can help the locals and how we can avoid a similar disaster at a global scale.

“They did it to themselves,” concludes Dr. Sever, quite harshly, considering that the Mayans probably didn’t know what was going on before it was to late. Today we are constantly warned by science that the climate is changing, and that these changes are most probably partly man-made. The big question is whether we are going to do anything about it. This is the question that our modern civilisation’s leaders will have to answer in December – and they will have to answer it from Cancún, from the midst of the old Maya Empire.

And so, as they will be in the area anyway, the COP16 delegates should at least for one day move their suits from Cancún’s fabulous beaches to the old ruins of the lost Maya civilisation.

MESSAGE FROM THE PAST: Actors reproduce a Maya parade. Little did they know of what was going to happen.

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One reason not to fly “Norwegian”

I know this might seem like I’ve let advertisers into my blog. Well, I haven’t (and I doubt any airlines would be interested in advertising here anyway).

I reproduce the advert from the airline “Norwegian” as a starting point for my first blog since COP15 because the text translates into: “All climate scientists agree upon one thing. You’ll find Mediterranean climate on Malta. Malta, from 349,- (£39) one way.” Maybe it’s supposed to be funny, and if it was, I would easily just laugh and leave it. But as it stands, it seems more like an attempt at jumping on the bandwagon of unimpressive climate change denials.

One thing is that the overwhelming majority of serious climate scientists do also agree on that the climate is changing and that this change is at least partly man-made (and not just that Malta is in the Mediterranean). Another thing is that Malta is an island-state (dependent on tourism) and hence vulnerable to climate change. It is in this light that the advert is disrespectful. And that it comes from a company that cooperates with Unicef (according to the not very extensive social corporate responsibility section of its web pages) and claims to care about the future of children in developing countries that will be worst hit by climate change, makes it even worse.

To put it bluntly:
As CEO of a company that has earned all its money from offering flights at a price-level far below what it would be if the society calculated the long-term environmental consequences into it – shouldn’t you really step a bit more carefully Bjørn Kjos?

That being said, all are of course free to be skeptical about anything they want – even, or especially, an overwhelming consensus from a scientific board with a mandate from the United Nations (although that could seem to be the closest we get to “truth” and “neutral” today). Still, however much you want to deny that climate change is happening or that it is man-made, there is a chance that you are wrong, no? Interesting to note here is that most deniers are actually much more cemented in their positions than the scientists they’re suspicious of; Because all they have said is that there is more than a 90 percent chance for that climate change is man-made. A small digression here is that if there were a 90 percent, or even 10 percent chance, of my “Norwegian” plane crash-landing en route to destination, I would of course not board it (Now, the advert has made me doubt whether I will again anyway, but that’s a different matter).

Furthermore, climate change skeptics can’t deny that there is actually a chance that the consequences turn out even more severe than the often-careful science panel has predicted. Just recently, for example, it became clear that the frozen methane below the Arctic is getting increasingly unstable. This is the same methane that is 25 times more harming than carbon dioxide and that, even if feared, was not included in the panel’s predictions due to too little scientific certainty at that stage. Now it seems this uncertainty is about to diminish, and such potential additional damage as well as possible others (such as the Golf stream switching off) could add to the disasterous conditions already predicted.

And so back to “Norwegian” and Mr. Kjos, the man with the “Cheshire Cat smile” – what is he doing in this situation? Well, he is contributing some spare kroners to Unicef to ease his own conscience, while at the same time counteracting the work of those who try warn of potentially catastrophic climate change consequenses for these same Unicef children (and the rest of us, for that matter).

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The Copenhagen Outcome

‘While the reality of climate change is not in doubt, our ability to take collective action hangs in the balance’.

These were Barack Obama’s words during his first of two speeches in Copenhagen yesterday. When he entered the stage again later it became clear to everyone that the so-called ‘Copenhagen outcome’ was hugely disappointing – hopefully more disappointing to the President than when he visited the Danish capital last month and Chicago lost their bid to host the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro. The consequences this time are of course far more severe, but the US alone shouldn’t be blamed. So, why did it end up as it did? The problems are indeed, as Obama said, collective action problems: most countries gain more (in the short-term) from exploiting natural resources than from restricting the use of it in the interest of the common good and coming generations.

Developed countries, most notably the US, aren’t willing to contribute their fair share (not first and foremost because of President Obama – he’s right not to promise more than he can keep due to other forces in US politics). At the other hand, big developing economies, like China, aren’t willing to include enough transparency control mechanisms as part of an agreement. In a single word, what is blocking a better result is selfishness – unwillingness to make sacrifice. It is taking care of own, rather than collective interests.

I want to take a look at my own country’s guilt in all this. Norway receives a lot of praise for its contributions, but Norway doesn’t deserve all this praise. True, Norway has provided big money to e.g. the UN’s rainforest fund REDD. It has also been willing to make big cuts in emissions over the coming years. But providing money isn’t really a big sacrifice if very few citizens share huge funds, which are there because of decades of oil and gas recovery – and which is now partly invested in dirty business such as the oil sand projects in Canada. That also means that you have some moral obligation to clean up the mess you’ve been earning money by creating. Furthermore, Norway made its pledges about cuts in emissions while not meeting its Kyoto obligations – and the most ambitious new pledges were only to be implemented if COP15 resulted in an ambitious climate agreement.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy to do the right thing if you are in a extremely priviledged position, even if many doesn’t do it even when in such situations. Norway is willing to help combat climate change, but mainly in rainforests far away – which in itself is a good thing. But most of the measures are taken far away from our own comfortable beds and cars. What would be more difficult and more praiseworthy would be to also make real sacrifices at home, even if they didn’t matter much in the big picture.

We now know that we didn’t get the ambitious agreement we need. But this shouldn’t prevent Norway from implementing extremely ambitious emissions cuts in the coming decades. Moreover, it shouldn’t prevent Norway and other countries from helping developing countries that are actually making real sacrifices, like Brazil. Or the African countries and other poor countries where some families are trying to change their daily lives into a more sustainable fashion, helped by local NGOs. They or their country haven’t contributed much to the climate change, still they are to be much affected by it. Those families are changing their daily lives to contribute – most Norwegians do not/are not willing to do that.

The COP15 farce shouldn’t prevent Norway from implementing measures that would actually make its citizens have to change into a bit less comfortable but more sustainable way of living. I’m not talking about the most extreme and hence impossible measures available on the menu – rather measures such as making it more expensive to use cars and less expensive to use public transportation in cities. That would be a small, but actual sacrifice of comfort; That kind of measures would be something that actually deserved praise (more than the compulsory UN patting of each other’s back). But as in most other countries, the Norwegian politicians wouldn’t dare to do this, which do of course come back to big proportions of the people not being willing to accept it in the next election. This will all probably appear extremely selfish in the light of history.

And to conclude, if not even a rich, stable, small, and well-off country like Norway, built on money from fossil fuels, is willing to make real sacrifices at home, could we really expect of anyone else (like the developing China or the heavily indebted USA) to save the day?

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C-Day in Copenhagen

The climate inside and around Bella Center has changed dramatically during this second week of the conference – and by that I don’t mean the snow and the cold weather. Those are the good news. Over the previous five days it has gradually become clearer that the negotiations are in serious trouble. Or as a Tuvaluan negotiator put it during one session: ‘I have the feeling of being onboard the sinking Titanic, and we can’t launch the life boats because some of the crew members can’t agree among themselves on whether we are sinking or not’.

The comment is expecially interesting considering that the state of Tuvalu is in real danger of submerging into the sea.

After the sessions I’ve attended this week I’m left with the same feeling as the envoy from the small endangered island state, except one thing: Agreeing on that the ship is sinking isn’t really the problem. There is no lack of delegates with serious faces who want to express their concerns. The problem is rather that some of the crew-members still don’t want to unload some of the heavy jewelries they’re wearing in order to help keeping the ship floating. At a US press conference yesterday I heard the American delegation saying that ‘It’s important that every country do its fair share of what it can do’. That is a good idea.

It’s now up to the Western high-level delegates to sacrifice more on behalf of their well-fed citizens to secure a deal. As Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said today, his main goal when he took office was to ensure food for all Brazilians. But Brazil is still willing to sacrifice more (in addition to what it is already doing with its scarce resources) to combat climate change. That was probably meant to put pressure on the next speaker, US President Barack Obama, but he didn’t bring anything new to the table in his long-awaited speech. It can’t be repeated too often that it is the developed world, by developing, that have caused the climate crisis, while the poor world will suffer the worst consequenses from it (At least in the relative short-term. I attended a lecture by US scientists on climate change impacts on the US, and it didn’t look all that bright). Still, big developing economies, like China, should give in to the demands from the US and accept more control mechanisms as part of an agreement.

Another problem during this conference has been that too much time has been wasted on procedural discussions. The Danish hosts have been blamed for much of it, and many developing countries have raised they voices against an ‘undemocratic’ and ‘non-transparent’ process. The accusations have been that the Danes, after consultations with other industrialized countries, have tried to impose texts from above instead of proceeding with negotiated drafts. The problem with some of these drafts are that they are very unclear (full of disclaimers due to disagreements, or what the negotiators here call ‘bracketed text’). The hosts, responsible for ensuring progress, may at some stages during this conference have been too eager to drive the struggling process by offering alternative solutions.

After President Barack Obama’s arrival in Copenhagen today it remains to see whether the US is willing to take the lead. I’m sure that the President would love to do that, but everyone knows the political reality restricting him at home. Sweden’s Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren said on Wednesday on behalf of the EU that the world leaders should really stay in Copenhagen until they strike a good deal. That’s of course not going to happen, especially as they world community has been negotiating this for two years already. Still, the rumours now are that President Obama is willing to postpone his departure if that is what is needed to ensure a deal. To end this blog on a somewhat dramatic note: The remaining hours of this day may prove to be more decisive than any other hours in history so far.

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The magical negotiation moment

It feels a bit geeky to write this (it might be the LSE spirit influencing me), but I find this video-clip below as interesting as anything available on YouTube. This clip, from the COP13 Conference on Bali in 2007, shows two things. 1: The UNFCCC executive secretary Yvo de Boer’s breakdown shows how exhausting it can be to be in the middle of such complex negotiations as the ones taking place in Copenhagen right now, and 2: One single, well-timed comment from one single delegation, no matter how small, can sometimes make a big difference in the overall game of power.

A short introduction: In my blog yesterday I mentioned the high-profile Papua New Guinea envoy Kevin Conrad, who has already left his mark on COP15 in Copenhagen. And he certainly did so on Bali two years ago:

But, as often in UN negotiations, things aren’t just as simple as they seem to be. Conrad has later admitted that both the US and the EU were set up. But while the EU saw were it was all heading and accepted the text as it was, the US didn’t. Not until after the embarrassment. And, of course, Papua New Guinea was backed by e.g. China and India in their demand. But at least this somewhat famous episode shows that the US’s structural leadership isn’t the only thing that matters in these negotiations.

The general divide in the negotiations runs between developed and developing countries, and this divide has become very clear since a draft from the Danish hosts were leaked to The Guardian on Tuesday. The proposed agreement, which can be read in full here, caused outrage among the G77 nations, who accused the host-nation of favouring the interest of the richer parts of the world.

‘Your prime minister have chosen to protect the rich countries. This is not ok. One should listen to every country. That’s what democracy is about’, said the G77 chairman Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping to the Danish newspaper Politiken. According to the leaked draft the developing countries should commit themselves to more emission reductions, and at the same time the controversial World Bank should replace the UN in controlling the money-flows from rich to poor countries.

The leaked draft seems more than anything to be an attempt at finding a compromise between the two biggest rich players, the EU and the US – a US that never signed the Kyoto protocol but remains necessary to get on board because of its 5,994 million tons of CO2-emissions a year. But getting the US on board won’t help much in the long-term if the hosts lose big developing countries like India and China in the process.

That being said, the leaked draft is probably just one of several drafts made by the Danes for this conference. If they take their role as hosts seriously, they should put several possible solutions on the table (UPDATE: The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet has today gotten access to another draft – and this draft suggests that industrialized countries should cut as much as 90 percent in its emissions within 2050, compared to 1990-level. The US is, not surprisingly, reported to be critical). But still, the G77 is of course in their full right to criticize the fact that they were not consulted in the work with the first particular draft.

Before I end for now, I just want to draw your attention to this link. Please study this Guardian carbon atlas thorough. This is the best map I’ve seen of this kind. Understanding this map is to understand much of the challenges that the negotiators face in Copenhagen. The short version of it is that the developed US and developing China is emitting quite a similar amount of CO2. However, the average American is emitting 19,8 tons while the average Chinese is emitting 4,6 tons of CO2 a year. And this is the overall pattern when looking at developing and developed countries.

And considering that the developed countries are to blame for the climate change in the first place – how much should the developing countries be asked to offer in terms of cutting down on emissions? Furthermore, how much and what should the rich world offer to the poorer countries as compensation?

Find a well-balanced solution to this and I know at least a couple of people in Copenhagen who would like to speak with you.

Best wishes,
Trym

PS: Tuesday my Russian-American fellow blogger Mark Sleboda wrote about his disappointment that Russia seemed to send only their 1st deputy prime minister, Igor Shuvalov, to Copenhagen. But now Kremlin has announced that president Dmitry Medvedev will join the 110 other heads of states during the final days of the conference next week. великолепный.

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Hi everyone,

Welcome to my new blog! What has made me create this blog is that I’m given the privilege to follow the ongoing Climate Change Conference closely as an observer from the LSE; First from London, and then, during the second week, from Copenhagen.

And my first observation would be that while the Londoners are getting into a Christmassy mood, Santa Claus has yet to be spotted in the Bella Center in Copenhagen. Only the coming two weeks will show whether the negotiators can unwrap the gifts that many have wished for – and this is what I’ll comment on in this blog.

The conference started with the usual media reports, originating from the Telegraph and reported in e.g. Dagbladet, on all the limos and private jets that seem to be necessary to transport the climate VIPs from A to B. Not the biggest problem, ok – but still a good point from any journalist’s point of view. It does bring back memories of the GM, Ford, and Chrysler CEOs who flew private jets across the US to beg for money to save the business that they’d driven into the ditch. This certainly isn’t leading by example, one type of leadership I plan to discuss in a later blog.

And also: We didn’t need to wait any longer than until the first session to get the first introduction to why the UN negotiations are said to be inefficient. Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) high-profile envoy Kevin Conrad asked for the floor nothing less than three times in a row to protest against a technical detail in the session rules – and to stress the importance of the conference. Annoying. But also understandable. PNG is one of the countries that has already started to feel some possible consequences of climate change.

But despite the UN’s much-criticized and well-known slowness, it should be possible to get quite a lot out of the talks this time. If not for any of the many other good reasons, then because more and more states are becoming aware of the possible economic costs of not taking action. Interestingly enough, the insurance industry is already bracing itself and taking action. And this is not to save endangered species, unless you count their money in that category.

For state- and business leaders under pressure it can be useful to think in economic terms, something that the Stern review has tried to help with. Nicholas Stern’s calculations show that the costs of the consequences of climate change can be compared to the costs of the two World Wars and the Great Depression. Stern himself is in Copenhagen to remind the negotiators of this.

But a complete economic understanding shouldn’t really end there, as Raj Patel recently pointed out in a public lecture at the LSE. We do need to start understanding the full value of things that we consume, because what they’re worth isn’t always reflected in the price tags. To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Patel’s main point in his lecture (Podcast) was that: If the beef that went into making a normal Big Mac were raised on land that used to be rainforest, the actual value of that burger could be translated into nearly, say, 200 USD.

If you now think I’ll go on to argue that burgers should cost you 200 dollars (121 pounds), please lower your axe. My point is simply that it’s interesting to see the value of rainforest translated into the price of a familiar product, like a Big Mac. And if we don’t start realizing the full value of such things as green house gas-absorbing rainforest now (e.g. by preserving it), then it’s possible that our descendants and we will have to pay the full price later – with interest rates.

Just ask someone from Papua New Guinea.

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