Al Gore, stay where you are

In his December column for The Guardian, George Monbiot reminds us that Al Gore represented the United States at the Kyoto Protocol talks — you know, the major international summit on governments’ responsibilities to address global warming. The ones before Bali. The first ones that failed to reach any hard goals —

The European Union had asked for greenhouse gas cuts of 15% by 2010. Gore’s team drove them down to 5.2% by 2012. Then it did something worse: it destroyed the whole agreement.

If one considers the Kyoto Protocols a failure, then it is because major polluters like the US didn’t sign on. Instead of going into the Kyoto talks playing fair, ready to own up to our share of the responsibility of global fossil fuel consumption, our corporate government pushed the carbon credit trading system. The US never signed on because it couldn’t convince developing nations to agree to limits on growth.

Brian Tokar explains

[i]n Kyoto in 1997, then-Vice President Al Gore was credited with breaking the first such deadlock in climate negotiations. He promised the assembled delegates that the United States would support mandatory emissions reductions if their implementation were based on a scheme of market based trading of emissions. The concept of “marketable rights to pollute” had been in wide circulation in the United States for nearly a decade, but the Kyoto Protocol was the first time a so-called “cap-and-trade” scheme was to be implemented on a global scale.

Carbon credits and renewable energy certificates (REC) are financial agreements that corporations and governments use to justify claims that they are helping the fight against global warming. Purchasing an REC, in theory, amounts to investing in something that sequesters carbon. Purchase enough of these and, again in theory, you off-set the carbon emissions your company, state, or country is responsible for producing. RECs have two problems. First, as Business Week argues, “the most commonly used RECs, which are supposed to result in a third party’s developing pollution-free power, turn out to be highly dubious.” (citation, citation)

Questionable authenticity, however, is just a symptom of the main problem with RECs and credit trading schemes: that the bottom line by which these programs are evaluated is the bookkeeper’s bottom line. Profitability and environmental responsibility are not incompatible, don’t get me wrong; Chris King has been proving this for years. But when the public’s commitment to environmental change is defined by its breadth rather than its depth, capitalists look for quick fixes to complex problems. They look for ways to make environmentalism a consumer commodity. The rush to repackage products as “green” doesn’t always address the environment’s bottom line.

Nor do REC’s and carbon credit trading give us any real sense of the responsibility we bear. On the international stage, trying to buy our way out of environmental responsibility can make us look like an ass.

I appreciate the new feature in the Independent, Zork Asks, because of what it is designed to do — it takes an outsider’s perspective on something very close to the heart. It’s difficult to step outside of your own culture, to see it as someone outside would see it, but sometimes that perspective is the most revealing.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore addresses the UN climate conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Thursday Dec. 13, 2007. (AP / Dita Alangkara) Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore addresses the UN climate conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Thursday Dec. 13, 2007. (AP / Dita Alangkara)

Monbiot and Zork are alike in that they both take the perspective of an outsider — the latter, though is merely a fictional character, a thought experiment conceived by someone for whom completely adopting the outsider’s perspective is impossible. Monbiot, though not an alien, though not a little green man, though not from another planet, is able to take an outsider’s perspective on U.S. politics because of his nationality. He’s not an Amurican, and that gives him a looking glass with stinging clarity.

“So why, regardless of the character of its leaders, does the United States act this way?,” Monbiot asks. “Because, like several other modern democracies, it is subject to two great corrupting forces — (sic) corporate media and campaign finance.”

Take the corporate perspective out of government, and carbon credit trading doesn’t make any sense. It’s greenwashing, plain and simple: another policy solution that allows us to buy a guilt-free conscience with profits made on coal-fired power plants.

Every time Corporate America uses the word sustainable I can’t help but think that a global system of emissions credit trading is the least sustainable solution to global warming. Given how he is credited with bringing environmentalism to pop-culture, bringing phrases like “climate change” and “carbon neutral” into the popular parlance, Gore makes perhaps a better environmental activist than he was an environment-focused politician.

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