Friday, January 16, 2009

Where There Is No Vision, the People Will Refuse to Perish--But Do-Nothing Institutions Very Well Might

Center for Global Development

Posted by David Wheeler

It's been a busy year for citizen action on carbon emissions. On September 11, a UK jury considered charges against six Greenpeace activists who tried to shut down the Kingsnorth power station in Kent, UK. Kingsnorth emits 12.8 million tons of CO2 annually -- among the top 150 of over 50,000 plants worldwide in our CARMA database. It will vault much higher in the rankings after its planned expansion increases its emissions to 24.8 million tons. The Greenpeace defense rested on preventing climate change that would cause greater damage to property around the world. The court heard from a variety of witnesses, including Jim Hansen, NASA's top climate scientist, who has repeatedly warned that more CO2 emissions pose a deadly threat.

The jury sided with Greenpeace, in a landmark decision that may have far-reaching implications for citizen action in the UK. In the aftermath, the Guardian reports that the UK Environment Agency has told the government that construction of more coal-fired power plants must be banned unless they include carbon capture and sequestration.

In the US, Reuters reports that Al Gore struck a similar note to loud applause at a Clinton Global Initiative gathering:

"If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration."

Just nine days before, eleven young environmental activists were arrested after blocking access to a coal-fired power plant being built by Dominion Virginia Power that will emit 5 million tons of CO2 annually.

On March 2, 2009, the new administration and Congress will receive a much louder message from a coalition that includes Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, the Ruckus Society, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and other organizations. According to an announcement, on It's Getting Hot in Here, the groups are planning "a mass non-violent civil disobedience, with a goal of organizing over 1,000 people, to cross the line and sit-in at the Capital Coal Plant." which provides provides heat, steam and refrigeration to the Capitol Complex, including Congress.

Meanwhile, complacency reigns at institutions on the front lines of world power investment. The CEO's of America's two highest-emitting power companies have used news of an impending recession to predict that the tortoise-like pace of U.S. action on carbon regulation will actually slow further (see Bloomberg), despite the fact that a recession is the perfect time to begin pricing carbon emissions.

If their self-interested prognostications prove right, U.S. recalcitrance will almost certainly sink the UN's Copenhagen conference next year. Fortunately, president-elect Obama's appointments to key energy and climate positions suggest that they're dead wrong (see WaPo reports here and here and my own analysis of the appointments here).

At the World Bank, meanwhile, the Executive Board recently approved a so-called "climate change framework" that completely ignores carbon accounting and allows for more investments in coal-fired power plants. The Asian Development Bank is going down the same track, joining the World Bank in helping to finance India's Tata Ultra Mega, a massive plant that would import coal from Indonesia, and tentative plans to finance yet another huge coal-fired plant in India.

Of course, many people in the multilateral development banks would like to move faster -- but they can't make headway against entrenched high-level resistance. At a recent CGD meeting, a senior World Bank official who is pushing hard for change offered this perspective from the next generation:

I went home and my kids asked, "What are you doing [at work]?" So I explained to them what's at stake and the timeframe and the kinds of changes that need to take place. And there was this pregnant pause at the dinner table, when one of my kids looked up at me and said: "Don't screw up, Dad."

For the next generation, that may well be the mantra -- and a warning to recalcitrant CEO's and Executive Boards. As I learned at Al Gore's Climate Solutions Summit last May, the tide of popular resistance to the institutional status quo is steadily rising.

Al Gore reinforced this view at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting:

I believe for a carbon company to spend money convincing the stock-buying public that the risk from the global climate crisis is not that great represents a form of stock fraud because they are misrepresenting a material fact. I hope these state attorney generals around the country will take some action on that.

The message here is clear: The confrontation between complacent institutions and alarmed citizens is escalating, and threatens to become a collision. The surest sign of this is the election of Barack Obama. During his campaign, Obama repeatedly cited the threat of climate change and promoted clean energy as his top priority.

To the CEO's and Boards of do-nothing institutions, I can only recommend attention to the words of a great religious figure whose birth will be marked this week: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

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