Five moments from 2012 that could spell change for the planet

2012 brought home some hard truths about the difficulty of building a fairer, more sustainable future. But there are some glints of sun shining through the sombre grey sky. Here’s my pick of the big events and non-events from this last year that could have long-term repercussions on the sustainable development of our planet.

Camilla Toulmin's picture
Insight by 
Camilla Toulmin
07 January 2013
A pick up truck lies mostly submerged under a water in a flooded street.

How many hurricanes like Sandy will it take to build a groundswell for change in US climate policy? Photo: CasualCapture

1. Hurricane Sandy. With the tragic loss of more than a hundred people, and damage running at over US$30 billion, how many hurricanes like Sandy will it take to build a groundswell for change in US climate policy? Some pundits tell us that there was a significant shift in opinion in the days following the hurricane, but such new perceptions tend to flag once the TV no longer shows the battered homes and devastated neighbourhoods.

Did the mid-west drought that cut harvests by a third in 2012 help change minds, and encourage North Americans to understand that global warming brings powerful and uncertain weather patterns? Some say that attitudes are formed less from evidence and far more from what your friends and neighbours believe, which suggests that it won't be hurricanes or droughts alone that help change minds.

While homes around the world are vulnerable to climate change, if you’re homeless through flooding you’ll do better  in America, with budgets of US$60 billion offered to help compensate for the damage to property and to build new flood defences. It’s a very different story if you're from Bangladesh arguing for compensation for loss and damage from global warming caused by others.  

And what about the UK? Will the exceptionally wet weather over the last 9 months help shift mind sets as well? Most parts of England had the wettest year on record, and damage runs into billions of pounds. As I write, some parts of the country are still knee-deep in flood water. At some point, I hope, people will see the rising costs of doing nothing to cut greenhouse emissions, and will press government to cut carbon from our systems.

2. The Chinese leadership handover. Even for novice China-watchers, it has been a fascinating time observing the dance of political princelings and populists as they seek to hold centre-stage. Maintaining a polite façade, there’s been a fight in the wings between the main factions, from which Xi and Li have emerged the winners. As Isabel Hilton notes, we’re almost back to the 1970s, when unfortunate politicians disappear and get air-brushed out of the official record.

What difference will it make for China’s willingness to address environmental and social issues domestically? As Selena Wang Thomas outlines, we’re unlikely to see a big shift in direction from the new leadership. After a decade of rapid economic growth, accompanied by increasing inequity and damage to the nation’s ecological integrity, there’s room for a major change in direction. But with Xi in charge, given his reputation for caution, that’s unlikely to happen. This means that change must come from people at the bottom demanding greater accountability from politicians, bureaucrats and business leaders. The growth of NGOs, social media and protest groups could offer the means to call for it.

3. The successful elections in Senegal. After fourteen years of President Abdoulaye Wade, the overwhelming vote for Macky Sall was a “great victory for democracy in Africa”. Why is this so important? At 50 he is relatively young and the first West African born after colonialism to be elected into office. Sall has offered a very welcome contrast to Wade. Rather than seeking to extend his power further (as Wade had tried to do, through arguing for a third term), Sall has cut the presidential term from 7 years to 5 years, and seeks to re-establish an accountable state that works for the people. 

The country’s stability and peaceful electoral transition contrast sadly with the lack of good governance and conflicts plaguing many other neighbours in West Africa. For example, Guinea-Bissau, which has historically been plagued by coups, experienced another in April 2012. It resulted in a takeover by the military, a sizable increase in drug trafficking and disruptions to the country’s cashew nut trade, which is hitting farmers hard.  

For Senegal’s eastern neighbour Mali, 2012 has also been, according to Malian politician and mediator Tiébilé Dramé, a true annus horribilis. The south of the country is stuck in a vacuum, with a weak government and meddling military, while tenacious jihadists in the north impose sharia law on a suffering people. Half a million people have fled the conflict into refugee camps in neighbouring countries. It seems likely that 2013 will bring a UN military intervention to dislodge the Islamists, but, given the size of the country and its huge open spaces and frontiers, many people fear Mali could become the next Afghanistan.

4.  Obama’s re-election. While Romney and his Republican backers would have been terrible for the environment, many environmentalists are disillusioned with Obama’s lack of action on climate change. However, nominating John Kerry as Secretary of State indicates he might be getting more serious about climate change. In a strong speech before the Rio+20 summit, Kerry contrasts the vision and energy shown twenty years ago by the then US President Bush senior, with today’s paralysis:“How dramatic and sad it is that twenty years later, shockingly, we find ourselves in a strange and dangerous place on this issue — a place this former President wouldn’t even recognize. When it comes to the challenge of climate change, the falsehood of today’s naysayers is only matched by the complacency of our political system...We should be compelled to fight today’s insidious conspiracy of silence on climate change — a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail.” With Kerry supporting a much more visible and engaged climate change policy, perhaps we can build momentum into the currently moribund global process.

5. The non-events:  hot air global summits. We’ve seen several global summits during the past twelve months that have generated lots of hot air but no significant progress — such as the Rio summit in June, and the COP18 climate talks at Doha in December. A ray of hope for the poorest countries most vulnerable to climate change was outlined by Saleemul Huq, IIED’s Senior Fellow with the climate change group: it was agreed to look at setting up an international mechanism that would compensate vulnerable communities for the loss and damage caused by the effects of climate change in future. 

But it has become clear that most governments are run by people with little appetite for collective global action. The financial and economic crisis has exhausted whatever political energy and capital they had in store. Senior climate researchers in Germany argue that we should abandon a process which delivers nothing other than an agreement to keep talking. But if we’re not going to make progress through a UN-convened COP, what other arenas remain, in which rich and poor nations can seek collective solutions? Our work has shown that members of parliament — country by country — can help to break the international stalemate on climate change action by using national legislation, and we are carrying out long-term capacity-building programmes to catalyse these processes.

At IIED, we’ll be carrying out important work such as this, and finding answers to these and other dilemmas over 2013.

Best wishes to you and yours for a productive and transformative 2013 from all of us at IIED.

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