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January 19, 2010

Local solutions offer best hope of progress

A persistent theme in many of the postscripts to the failed Copenhagen summit has been that it was completely unrealistic ever to expect the world’s major powers to deliver what was needed. In this article, Richard Heinberg sets out very clearly why he believes that despite the undeniable need for global solutions, our best bet now is to focus on what communities can achieve

Copenhagen failed to deliver – where does that leave us?

Copenhagen was a watershed event. Climate change has become, in many people’s minds, the central survival issue for our species, and the Copenhagen talks provided a pivotal moment for addressing that issue. The fact that the talks failed to produce a binding agreement is therefore of some significance.

The next opportunity to forge a binding global climate treaty will be the 2010 U.N. climate conference in Mexico City. Many see this as a chance to achieve what proved elusive in Copenhagen. But the same challenges will face leaders there. And if the global economy relapses in the meantime, national politicians may be even more reluctant to take bold action to limit fossil fuel consumption, as they’ll want to keep all their economic options open. Indeed, it seems likely that for the foreseeable future economic implosion will be sucking the air from any room in which heads of state are gathered.

So, international policies are needed if we are to deal with a potentially game-ending global issue like climate change, yet there is now convincing evidence that national and supra-national institutions are incapable of producing effective climate policies.

The same could be said for other crises mentioned above. It’s not enough that national governments can’t get together to solve climate change. They can’t solve economic meltdown, peak oil, water scarcity, soil erosion, or overpopulation either. Yes, there are individual nations like Tuvalu that can muster a decent policy on one issue or another. Denmark is probably the shining example among industrial nations: it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 14 percent since 1990 while maintaining constant energy consumption and growing its GDP by more than 40 percent. But these are the rare exceptions, and apparently destined to stay that way. We have no global means of dealing with the toxic debt that is strangling the world economy. We have no agreements in place to prevent the death of the oceans. There is no global policy to avert economic impacts from fossil fuel depletion. There is no worldwide protocol to protect the precious layer of living topsoil that is all that separates us from famine. There is no effective global convention on fresh water conservation.

This is not to say there is nothing that can be done about these problems. In fact, there are organizations and communities in many nations doing path-breaking work to address each and every one of them. Some examples:
• Agronomists at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, led by Wes Jackson, have for years been patiently developing perennial grain crops capable of feeding billions without destroying topsoil.
• The city of Zurich has decided through popular vote to become a 2000-Watt society. This means cutting energy consumption from the current 6000 Watts per person to one-third that amount over the next three or four decades. This was evidently a response both to climate change and the problem of energy security.
• Here in Sonoma County, California, a Go Local Co-op has formed; it’s an extension of the national organization, Business Alliance for a Living Local Economy (BALLE). One of its projects is “Sustaining Capital”—a community cooperative capital formation model that, if successful and replicated widely, could end local economies’ dependence on Wall Street banks.
• At Sunga in Madhyapur Thimi, Nepal, a community-supported project has built a water treatment plant based on reed-bed constructed wetlands that also serves as the main source of irrigation for farmers in the region.

These are just a few items out of hundreds, maybe thousands that could be cited. But, in aggregate, are they enough? Obviously not—even in the estimation of the folks who are doing this admirable work. Some problems are more easily tackled at the local level than others (local efforts can help maintain biodiversity, but without international agreements it’s not obvious how the oceans could be rescued). And many local success stories actually depend on global systems of finance and provisioning (for example, the Nepalese water treatment plant mentioned above was built with financial support from the United Nations Human Settlements Program, U.N.-Habitat’s Water for Asian Cities Program, the Asian Development Bank, and Water Aid, and received technical support from the Environment and Public Health Organization).

Discouraging? Of course. But absent global agreements, local efforts are what we’ve got, and we will simply have to make the most of them that we can.

Meanwhile, given the amount of carbon emissions already in the atmosphere, climate impacts are in store no matter what happens at the U.N. negotiations in Mexico City. Something similar could be said with regard to all the other problems mentioned: even if strong policies could somehow be forged tomorrow, serious challenges will arise in the years ahead with regard to water, food, energy, and the economy.

If such impacts are unquestionably coming, then we should be doing something to prepare. Since we don’t know exactly what the impacts will be, or when or where they will land, the most sensible strategy is simply to build resilience throughout the system. Resilience implies dispersed control points and dispersed inventories, and hence regional self-sufficiency—the opposite of economic efficiency, the central rationale for globalization—and so it needs to be organized primarily at the local level.

To summarize: three factors—the need for resilience, the lack of effective policy at national and global levels, and the tendency of the best responses to emerge regionally and at a small scale—argue for dealing with the crushing crises of the new century locally, even though there is still undeniable need for larger-scale, global solutions.
Does this mean we should give up even trying to work at the national and global levels? Each person will have to make up her or his own mind on that one. To my thinking, Copenhagen is something of a last straw. I have no interest in trying to discourage anyone from undertaking national or global activism. Indeed, there is a danger in taking attention away from national and international affairs: policy could get hijacked not just by parties even less competent than those currently in command, but by ones that are just plain evil. Nevertheless, this writer is finally convinced that, with whatever energies for positive change may be available to us, we are likely to accomplish the most by working locally and on a small scale, while sharing information about successes and failures as widely as possible.

A final note: As 2010 begins we are about to enter the second decade of the 21st century. Historians often remark that the character of a new century doesn’t make itself apparent until its second decade (think World War I). Perhaps peak oil, the global financial crash, and the failure of Copenhagen are the signal events that will propel us into the Century of Decline. If these events are indeed indicative, it will be a century of economic contraction rather than growth; a century less about warnings of environmental constraints and consequences than about the fulfillment of past warnings; and a century of local action rather than grand global schemes.

I suspect that things are going to be noticeably different from now on.

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