Climate and the Invisible Hand

Global Editor’s Forum: Covering global warming needs to be more that just crying wolf

News | Dardis McNamee | December 2009 / January 2010

The Global Editor’s Forum in Copenhagen opened Oct. 9, just as the Bangkok Climate Change Talks concluded in a tangle to frustration: polar positions on environmental safeguards – central to any meaningful agreements – had paralysed the discussions. Emotions were heated and tempers flared.

"The whole discussion had the feeling of setting up a safety net above your head, while balancing on a tightrope," wrote one discouraged participant from the Center for People and Forests, "always aware that the ground beneath your feet is not dependable, and always facing the ever-present danger of slipping."

So when the experts and editors – 300 in all from 119 countries – arrived in the Danish capital later that day, just six weeks before the UN Climate Change Conference Dec. 7-18, many were already convinced that the process had already foundered irretrievably.  Perhaps surprisingly, there were very few Americans, perhaps one more indication of the U.S. economic and political resistance to taking climate change seriously. Or was it simply a reflection of a relentless downward spiral in American media? Whatever the case, these were not questions that slowed down the rest of the world’s news organisations.

"Today, climate change has moved to the front page," declared Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen. And in recognition of this fact, the massive multinational congregation had traveled all this way to learn as much as possible in three days.

In a way, climate change makes great copy: natural disasters, economic impact, world-wide relevance; local everywhere. There are even a few celebrity advocates.

Still, with all this drama, it can be hard to figure out how to cover it.

"How do you present the issue without crying wolf one time too many?" Rasmussen had wondered. But he saw little choice. "Can we lean back and let national actions unfold? We are still only half way there. We need new global ground."

The Global Editor’s Forum was hoping to provide this ground. It wasn’t a new mission, exactly: Project Syndicate had from its beginnings been dedicated to explaining economic change with a progressive twist – "we thought of it as ‘capitalism with a comrade’s face’," Andrej Radczynski remembered. Headquartered in Prague, with the Austrian daily Der Standard among the first member publications, it had been born as a bridge between East and West across what had been the Iron Curtain. But their reach has expanded dramatically to an association of 431 newspapers in 150 countries, comprising what they will proudly tell you is the "world’s largest opinion syndicate."

Behind it all, one could feel the invisible hand of George Soros, who had been the initial sponsor of Project Syndicate. Soros considers himself a latecomer to the issue of climate change.

"I actually avoided environmental issues," he told the editors at a dinner at the Copenhagen City Hall on the second evening. "So I am not an expert on global warming, just a concerned citizen, and not even that long." Al Gore had convinced it was "an existential issue," fundamentally political rather than scientific. That it took him that long, helped convince Soros he needed to do something to convince others.

"I am not an ordinary citizen," Soros readily admitted. "I have made more money than most, and spent more money on philanthropic causes. So that is what I could do."

In 2009, Project Syndicate has become largely self-sufficient, Radczynski has said on more than one occasion, funded primarily by its prosperous member papers in advanced countries. While the Open Society Institute is still listed as a sponsor along with the Danish Politiken Foundation, it no longer depends on him for its essential funding.

It remains a Soros project in spirit none-the-less, with an implied mission of strengthening open societies and public dialogue, as well as supporting democratic movements and a free press. What was needed, Soros told Al Gore, were not more paid political announcements, but some intellectual "grass roots mobilising," because "we were coming to the crunch."

The richness and intensity of the discussion in Copenhagen in October is difficult to reproduce in a short space. Saturday morning exploded with a keynote speech by Indian Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, who reversed the widespread impression that India expected initiatives to come mainly from the high-consumption West.

Ramesh brought a very different message.

"India is coming to Copenhagen as a deal maker, to sign an agreement," he announced. "With 65% of employment in agriculture, the Monsoon is very important to India," he observed, a ritual flooding easily disturbed by shifts in weather patterns. With a fossil fuel dependent economy, the country’s essential forests are at risk. And some 300 million Indians are dependent for their livelihood on coastal activities, so vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Among other things, he proposed mandatory fuel efficiency standards and internal targets "enshrined in law," and specific technological goals, including a jump from 8% solar to 20% by 2020.

"Don’t let ‘the perfect’ be the enemy of ‘the good’," Ramesh said, a phrase that was picked up by others as discussions proceeded.

Repeatedly over the three days, we heard evidence that was overwhelming: Had we begun making meaningful reductions 20 years ago, it would have been quite manageable to limit the increase in global warming to 2%. By waiting so long, we have at best a 50/50 chance, according to Jules Kortenhorst of the EU Climate Foundation. "The maximum impact of all current proposals will achieve only half of what’s required."

Yes, but how do we pay for what’s needed, questioners asked over and over?

Here too, we heard extraordinary answers.

"The tools are already there," insisted economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz. "We now live in a world of excess capacity. This is the crisis after the crisis." Governments are afraid to spend on fundamentals – on job creation, infrastructure or education. "These idle resources should be used to address climate change, which could easily be done within existing arrangements – for example, IMF financing going to countries fulfilling climate change commitments. In this way we could address the financial crisis and climate change at the same time."

Politics can seem like an endless agenda of formal dinners and dinner speakers. Generally, not a lot gets said. Or maybe after the second glass of wine, it seems as if couldn’t matter less.

On that Saturday night, it couldn’t have mattered more. As George Soros had said, he is not an ordinary citizen, and when he decides he wants to do something about a problem, he doesn’t do it in an ordinary way.

In face of the reality of global warming, he said, he would establish a Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), "to protect the public interest against special interests." Ideas matter, and without the research and the articulated objectives, without the guiding principles for concerted action, "the special interests tend to shape the regulations and interfere with achieving those objectives," he said.

His new CPI would be funded with "$10 Million a year for 10 years." For a split second, no one reacted. $100 million to guide the debate. Like all Soros gestures, it was astonishing, timely, and very real. When the applause came, it came in waves.

As promised that night, the CPI was launched in Berlin on Nov. 11, along with a series of fellowships and training courses, and an additional – perhaps even more important – $1 Billion to invest in alternative energy technologies.

"We are running out of fossil fuels, and there is no magic bullet," Soros said. But often, as with clean coal, "the technology will have to be retrofitted."

So once again George Soros was willing to put his money where he thinks it would do the most good.

With just over a week to go, the prospects for a Climate Change Treaty seem mixed. President Obama announced he would go to Copenhagen, but at the beginning of the conference, not in the final days when Danish Prime Minister Rasmussen and European Commission President Barroso agree it would be most helpful. In another twist, in effect acknowledging irreconcilable differences, world leaders meeting Nov. 15 in Singapore settled for a far more modest goal, a non-binding pact that would call for reductions in emissions and aid for developing nations to adapt to a changing climate. While this theoretically leaves more time to work out a binding agreement in 2010, with firm emission targets, enforcement mechanisms and specifics of financial aid to poorer nations, it will take sustained pressure – perhaps from the editors of Project Syndicate, perhaps from the scientists and scholars of CPI – to keep up the momentum, after the energy of Copenhagen has come and gone.

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    the vienna review December 2009 / January 2010