Monday, December 07, 2009

A climate of regret

An older, sadder Barack Obama looks back on the Copenhagen climate conference

Today marks the beginning of the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, COP 15. As delegates and media converge on the Danish capital, they are being greeted at the airport by a strange sight: environmental advocacy groups Greenpeace and TckTckTck have created a series of billboards depicting various world leaders ruefully looking back from the year 02020, having not seized their opportunity in 02009 to commit to decisive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Old, sad French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sad and old German Chancellor Angela Merkel

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Only older. And sadder.

Each is emblazoned with the same message. "I'm sorry. We could have stopped catastrophic climate change. We didn't."

In case you haven't been following the news (say, you're writing a doctoral dissertation or something), Planet Green has posted a helpful, brief overview of what's at stake in Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Greenpeace Climate Rescue Weblog explains this last-minute campaign to engage the emotions of decision-makers:

We're hoping these ads predict the wrong future -- the one where world leaders look back with a "coulda, shoulda, woulda" attitude at a Copenhagen climate summit which failed. There's still time to change the future. Our recipe for world leader regret-avoidance is simple: agree a fair, ambitious, and legally binding deal to save the climate.

(Er, save the climate?)

Anyway. While it is not clear to me whether the busy itineraries of all or any of the high-profile individuals concerned will afford them a glimpse of their future selves -- which would make this really interesting -- over 15,000 people are expected to attend (source: CNN), and no doubt many of those will be passing through Copenhagen Airport.

So it's an ingenious and valiant attempt to make the climate message personal; here's hoping it makes some difference.

[[All images from Greenpeace, via Osocio; see also COP 15 set at Greenpeace's Flickr photostream. Sad, old versions of the leaders of Russia, Poland, Brazil, Spain, and Canada are also part of the set.]]

Related posts:
> Ignore global warming (an acerbic climate-themed campaign by the World Wildlife Fund)
> Future shock hits San Francisco (an outdoor site-specific billboard that gave Market Street an earthquake makeover)
> Climate change for fun and profit (Diesel's commerce-friendly take on rising seas)
> Facing future (evidence that artificial aging is hit and miss)
> Future news-flash: your vote counts (pre-'08 election videos activating anticipatory remorse for U.S. non-voters)

(Thanks, Dad.)


Wes Hammond said...

a lot of people are complaining about the visual quality of the Greenpeace's ads, but the fact that they are getting so much feedback is an indication that these ads are succeeding at least on some level

Stuart Candy said...

Hi Wes, it would be interesting to know where you're tracking these complaints and other feedback. Also, to what extent do they succeed for you (or not)?

Russ Nelson said...

What if it turns out that humans didn't really cause global warming, and we spent all that money for nothing? How will we help the low-lying peoples relocate?

Stuart Candy said...

Russ, for me the key issue is not whether humans are causing climate change or not. (Like most people, I'm not a climatologist. But from what I know about the science, and about history, it seems extremely likely to me.) Even so, let's suppose, as you suggest, that the changes we're seeing are not in fact anthropogenic. My take is that the real issue, from a futures and systems thinking perspective, lies elsewhere.

Climate change belongs in a category of issue which we (human beings) have not yet learned to think or talk about responsibly. We barely have the language to identify and discuss, let alone actually tame, the long-term, incremental, emergent consequences of our collective behaviours.

The fact that we have managed, without exercising any real foresight, to permanently change the face of the planet in the course of a few hundred years, wipe out countless species, etc, is a giant signpost to the fact that we have been experimenting with phenomena of a complexity way, way beyond our understanding. Many of the consequences were perhaps unintended. But that isn't a defence; it's further evidence of the problem I'm describing.

Any argument that this process has been wholly or even largely "for the best" across the board is a purely ideological assertion; there are many millions of people (and animals) whose misery in life and death are testimony to the vacuity of that notion. (I am not, by the way, arguing the exact opposite -- that it's been all bad -- just that, good or bad, it has all tended to happen a bit mindlessly.)

When you worry about "all that money" being spent, it is unclear to me whether you are referring to the expense of the advertisements described above, or of staging the Copenhagen conference overall, or of the presumed economic costs generally of a program for reducing emissions.

But at all these levels, efforts to step up to the plate on climate change are part of a slow, clunky, and evidently painful, but to my mind ultimately necessary, coming of age for our species. The very possibility that we could be doing this to ourselves clinches the point, regardless of the actual causes and consequences of climate change. (Those certainly matter too, but there are plenty of other blogs where you can have that conversation.)

All that being said; given our still very primitive, individual representative-based political systems, to try to tie those leaders' emotions to the downside of the risk we face seems to me both legitimate and clever as a way to encourage greater wisdom, starting with greater responsibility. And I know of no good argument whatsoever for failing to channel all the ingenuity as we can muster into treading more lightly on the planet, which is all this is about.