Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Climate Change: a symptom not a sickness

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It is no secret that ‘good governance’ and democratisation are top priorities of development agendas in the Pacific region. While numerous Pacific nations have made the transition to ‘democracy’, at least in technical terms, its realities have proved less than ideal and far from participatory. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the histories of colonisation, unrest and intervention, many Pacific governments lack the capacity to adequately respond to climate change. Although the enigma of ‘good governance’ is widely regarded as the panacea, elsewhere observers are asking whether ‘democracy’ and, in the context of the Majority World, ‘democratisation’ in fact impedes national efforts to respond to climate change. Considering that parts of the Pacific are already experiencing its consequences, is it time the region’s development priorities are revisited?

Battle stations!

Likening climate change to war, renowned scientist Professor James Lovelock has called for democracy to be ‘put on hold’ to make way for the drastic measures needed to combat climate change. Scholar Peter Burnell similarly suggests that democratisation may halt states’ capacities to take appropriate action to reduce emissions. While democracies typically require popular support for major policy decisions and are presumably accountable to civil society, one party states like China may simply impose policy and be done with it. Thus, he argues, providing incentives for governments to implement effective policy should be prioritised over ‘democratisation’.

In the context of the Pacific, this question is as interesting as it is pertinent. These islands are already on the sharp end of climate change; with numerous communities already experiencing the trauma of rising tides.

Getting things done

While the Pacific’s greenhouse gas (GHG) contribution is small in comparison with other states, the region is experiencing uncontrolled destruction of forests by both legal and illegal logging and mining. These very forests are among the last and most pristine biodiversity and carbon sequestration hotspots. Their loss directly intensifies global climate change, while simultaneously undermining local populations of culture and livelihood.

China’s recent ban on plastic bags, which required no public approval and received no union backlash after the closure of several factories, is cited as a case for arguments such as Lovelock’s. However, is it really so simple? And are citizens really the ones in need of discipline? Moreover, who will provide these incentives and by what standards shall they be awarded?

In the Pacific, I would be tempted to put more faith in people than in governments. Take, for example, the Solomon Islands. Recent governments have allowed over one million cubic metres worth of logs to be felled each year since 2004, around four times over its sustainable yield. Moreover, the government, when not directly involved, has stood by and watched as the natural wealth of this archipelago is plundered.

Given the lucrative benefits of brokering natural resources and the poor example set by the rest of the world, the ‘incentives’ of which Brunel speaks would need to be extremely appealing indeed.

On the other side of the coin, we have Solomon Islanders. A diverse collection of cultural groups, they maintain one of the world’s lowest carbon footprints, averaging 0.4 tonnes per capita compared to 28.1 of the average Australian. Around 85 percent of Islanders live a subsistence-based lifestyle (albeit often with a supplementary remittance income), based on what they catch, grow or forage. Their primary currency – reciprocity.

The right questions?

Of course the matter of GHG emissions is largely out of the hands of Pacific governments; this responsibility lies predominately with high polluters, such as the United States, China and Russia. Here, arguments of Lovelock and Burnell could certainly be applied; and indeed the possibilities for what could be achieved are endless.

However, what these arguments fail to recognise is that ‘climate change’ per se is not the problem; it is a symptom of complex social, political and historical phenomena that cannot be remedied with policy alone. While policy is critical, the underlying drivers of climate change must first be addressed. At the level of government, this is the preoccupation with economic growth and a failure to consider alternative systems. At the social level, it is our addiction to stuff that has permeated our very identities and sense of worth.

It is certainly true that democratic governments are limited by particular vices; however, it is equally true that most people are already excluded from decision-making, thus obscuring the dichotomy between autocracy and democracy created by these arguments. In the case of the Pacific, where most people sustainably, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that their knowledge and expertise in doing so should play a far greater role in policy-making, not less. Moreover, given semi-autocratic power, would governments really implement the necessary policies? In respect to ‘incentives’; where exactly do they come from? Call me cynical, but any institute with the capacity is likely to lack the will. Perhaps these arguments, while indeed raising valid points, are too narrow for issues so complex and may in fact function to deny the possibility of more effective alternatives.

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