The “Saving of Humanity” Framed by “Sinking of the Titanic”
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 21 Dec 2015
Rising Sea of Discontent Engendered by Warming Climate of Opinion
The COP21 agreement reached at the UN Climate Change Conference (Paris, 2015) constituted the epitome of authoritarian excellence and expertise — like the RMS Titanic in 1912. It was witness to gatherings of the best, the brightest and the most wealthy — as with the first class passengers on the Titanic. It was also witness to a high degree of exclusivism — as with the lower classes in steerage on the Titanic — despite claims of a unique particpatory process (Akshat Rathi, This simple negotiation tactic brought 195 countries to consensus, Quartz, 12 December 2015).
The unprecedented agreement in Paris has been the subject of widespread commentary on its remarkable achievement — again recalling that with respect to the Titanic. Examples include:
- Peter H. Gleick: The Historic, Unprecedented, Landmark Climate Agreement, The Huffington Post, 15 December 2015
- Fiona Harvey: Paris climate change agreement: the world’s greatest diplomatic success, The Guardian, 14 December 2015
- Jeffrey Sachs: Let’s hail the Paris climate change agreement and get to work, The Financial Times, 13 December 2015
- Coral Davenport: Nations Approve Landmark Climate Accord in Paris, The New York Times, 12 December 2015
- Joby Warrick and Chris Mooney: 196 countries approve historic climate agreement, The Washington Post, 12 December 2015
- COP21: UN chief hails new climate change agreement as ‘monumental triumph’, UN News Centre, 12 December 2015
- The Paris agreement marks an unprecedented political recognition of the risks of climate change, The Economist, 12 December 2015
The question here is whether there is more to be learned from comparison with the RMS Titanic, most notably with respect to the tragic failure to recognize the risks to its ability to survive on the high seas when faced with an unexpected iceberg (Jasper Copping, The 30 seconds that sank the Titanic: fatal delay in order to change course doomed liner, The Telegraph, 4 December 2011; Samuel Halpern, She Turned Two Points In 37 Seconds).
Does the focus on climate change, as conventionally understood, obscure recognition of related issues, most notably the changing climate of opinion and the rising sea of discontent? The latter was exemplified in Paris by the unprecedented security measures which provided the context for the negotiations — and by the unprecedented prohibition of popular demonstration on that occasion. Ironically many of these measures naturally remained invisible to participants and observers — for security reasons in relation to undeclared threats (Optimal measures for ensuring the security of COP21, Gouvernement.fr, 26 November 2015).
From this perspective climate change merits consideration as a metaphor, as suggested on the occasion of the earlier COP14 summit in Poznan (Climate Change as a Metaphor of Social Change: systemic implications of emissions, ozone, sunlight, greenhouse and overheating, 2008; Climate of Change Misrepresented as Climate Change: insights from metaphorical confusion, 2008).
Exploring the parallels
Hailed by the UN Secretary General as uniquely critical to “saving humanity” — if not “saving the planet for humanity” — its participants seemed blithely unaware of the efficacy of the conditions of governance of such an enterprise, as evidenced by past experience. As with the Titanic there was considerable arrogance and blinkered awareness of the surprises potentially offered by the immediate future. The collective confidence lay in the unquestionable belief that the quality and integrity of the construction of the agreement was guarantee against any foreseeable failure. The Titanic was held to be unsinkable for analogous reasons. Fundamental design flaws were only subsequently recognized.
The emphasis on the Titanic, as the largest passenger ship ever constructed, is curiously reminiscent of claims regarding the Climate Change agreement as constituting the largest global consensus ever achieved. Given the preoccupation of the Paris summit with combustion of coal, this is furthered echoed by the dependency of the Titanic on use of 600 tonnes of coal per day — hand shovelled into its furnaces by a team of 176 men. Some 100 tonnes of ash were ejected into the sea each day.
As its most distinguished passengers celebrated their self-appreciation in luxury with an 11-course dinner, the Titanic struck an unforeseen iceberg with unforeseen consequences. The magnificent consensus on climate change may well be expected to strike an iceberg of popular discontent and fury, frozen or otherwise — effectively emerging from the night of systemic negligence. The unprecedented security provisions at the Paris conference venue implied just such a potential threat.
Unknown to most, such threats may even be an indication that the integrity of the vessel of consensus had already been breached and was in a dangerous condition of vulnerability to the sea — despite the unquestionable assurances to the contrary. Curiously the security threats associated with climate change, as previously noted, were not a feature of the COP21 discussions (Center for Climate and Security, OSCE Climate and Security Event: Unprecedented Impacts, Unpredictable Risks, 17 September 2015; Suzanne Goldenberg, Climate change a threat to security, food and humankind – IPCC report, The Guardian, 31 March 2014; Climate Change and International Security: paper from the High Representative and the European Commission to the European Council, 14 March 2008).
Focused as the conference was on rising sea levels around the world as a consequence of global warming, the participants were effectively blind to the rising sea of social unrest around the world as a consequence of increasingly heated social interaction — partially marked by the security provisions in Paris in relation to popular protest. Global civilization is “warming” in ways which are as readily disputed as global warming has proven to be over past decades. Reference to so-called anthropogenic warming lends itself to an alternative interpretation.
The seemingly deliberate blindness of the UN Conference, as evident from the focus of the final agreement, offers extraordinary parallels to the much-cited tale of the heroic Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Copenhagen (1801). He raised the telescope to his blind eye, and declared: I only have one eye — I have the right to be blind sometimes. I really do not see the signal. Curiously it might be said that the processes in Paris were determined to a high degree by the failure of the previous summit in Copenhagen in 2009, as previously described (Insights for the Future from the Change of Climate in Copenhagen, 2010).
From a systemic perspective, could it be understood that the UN Conference was effectively blind in one eye and refused even to use its healthy eye to detect problematic signals. Most notably these relate to population overshoot, with the calls anticipated by developing countries on energy resources and their consequences for global warming. Do the Paris negotiations offer a classic example of tunnel vision as reinforced by an information silo? Does this suggest that the heroic success of the Paris negotiations may come to be recognized as a Pyrrhic victory?
Under a cover title, The Climate Deal’s Contradictions, commentary on the agreement was introduced by The Economist in the following terms:
The test of a first rate intelligence… is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. By this standard the 195 countries that gathered outside Paris… to negotiate a new agreement on climate change have to be counted very bright indeed. It is vital, they declared, that the world’s temperature does not climb much more than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels; and yet they simultaneously celebrated a new climate agreement that got nowhere close to preventing such a rise (Hopelessness and Determination, 19 December 2015).
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Dec 2015.
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