Davos considers the options
Guest Column: Climate scientist V. Balaji reminds us that before Davos, there was Bandung. While the captains of the industrialized world claim a monopoly on policy ideas for responding to global warming, they are clearly unable to deal with the crisis. Perhaps they ought to recognize that there are voices outside the citadel with something to say about climate change.
From Bandung to Davos — and Back?
By V. Balaji
Readers of a certain age and inclination might remember a sometimes-incendiary, often-provocative, most-always-interesting television show on the UK’s Channel Four called Bandung File. Channel Four came to prominence in that brief hundred-flowers spring moment in the Britain of the 70s and early 80s, when Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, was still ‘Red’ Ken, and the Greater London Council had money to spend on any number of beautiful community-driven efforts, from the Southall Black Sisters to water resources planning for the next century. Bandung File, produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe, labelled itself an African-Asian news and current affairs programme. What made it quite unique was that its stated purpose was to canvas opinion from the public and policy-makers in those continents: Its topics were not just what was being done to people of color in the UK, nor even the history of colonial injustice. Instead, it focused on the current concerns of Africans and Asians — its issues ranged from apartheid to street crime in Jamaica and corruption in a Kenyan hospital. With a muckraking exuberance and flair, Bandung File drove the blade in to the hilt. And what made it such refreshing television was it was never dominated by experts from the North; instead it gave free rein to the eloquence of its Southern subjects, whether corrupt politicians or enraged citizens or passionate radicals.
It’s an odd place to begin talking about the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, as Tony asked me to do for Rootless Cosmopolitan, but bear with me. Bandung File was named for a now rather obscure mountain town in Java: a favoured “hill station” to which British, and later brown, sahibs would retire to escape Indonesian summers. This little resort town once took centre stage in world history, in 1955, when it was the seat of an extraordinary conference, when representatives of one half of humanity met to proclaim an end to the colonial era. Some of the countries respresented were newly independent, others not yet quite so; but it was clear that the end of direct colonial rule was near, and this conference of African and Asian people met to ask, what sort of world would follow. We now call this, in an inaccurate Nothern-Hemisphere-centric worldview, the ‘Global South’… but here was born the ‘third world’ — “l’ensemble des peuples d’Asie et d’Afrique qui n’appart[ien]t ni a la Â« noblesse Â» europeenne ni au Â« clerge Â» americain” (all the peoples of Africa and Asia who belong neither to the European aristocracy nor to the American clergy) — beautiful! The term was thus a direct extrapolation from the ‘Third Estate’ of the French Revolution, and had not acquired its current distorted meaning of distended bellies, child soldiers, and retired dictators living in splendid majesty in the homes of their former paymasters in Hawaii or on the Riviera.
It is hard to recall, or imagine now, the intense interest worldwide provoked by the Bandung Conference. The Third World, it appeared, would align neither with anti-communist Washington, nor with “really existing socialist” Moscow; new ideas of equity and governance would emerge from Bandung, and reverberate beyond the South. Nehru was there, and Sukarno; independence movements from North Africa came, Algeria’s FLN and Tunisia’s Istiqlal; Pham Van Dong jostled shoulders with Nasser. A brilliant article in the <i>Monde Diplomatique</i> [April 2005: English version not online] evokes the Bandung moment on its 50th anniversary, and the reactions in the Northern press, labour, academic, and mainstream. A world exhausted by war and its aftermath, and living in nuclear dread as the bipolar world took shape, confronted its own intellectual fatigue and looked southward for a fresh start.
Chou en-Lai and Nehru chat at Bandung
Bandung now is nothing but a memory of a failed spring, and the very idea that we would ask the global south for ideas on how to tackle our most intractable problems seems quaint. Empires have given way to Empire, and it alone controls the means of production of meaning. A superclass decides what humanity’s most pressing challenges are, and how to meet them. “World opinion,” such as is transmitted in the information sphere owned by that same superclass, rarely emerges from beyond the ramparts. To the extent that they are to be heard, those outside must find a patron on the inside — as in the days when royalty would emerge from the castle gates and walk, heavily guarded, among the people for a day as perspiring masses would throw chits at their feet, and a passing queen would pick up this one or that, read a plea for justice, and with a wave of a gloved hand, make it so. Today’s equivalent is Davos, the high-class Swiss resort town that hosts the annual shindig of the self-styled World Economic Forum — the must-have invitation of the year for members of the global power elite. Proclamations of the rulers emerge from its tea-parties, and the world’s press dutifully pores over the tea-leaves for clues to the next year’s doings. If Sharon Stone pledges $10,000 to buy mosquito nets for Africa and challenges equally wealthy conference goers to do the same, it makes global headlines. If Bandung was the birthplace of the Third World, Davos was where the rock star Bono was anointed as its champion.
Global climate change is an issue that has hovered on the edges of the world’s consciousness for many years now. Island nations have been for a long time now warning of the risk they face from rising sea levels; stark pictures of receding glaciers remind us that large populations depend upon snowpack melt for their fresh water; large chunks of Antarctic and Greenland ice fall into the sea; the Northwest Passage is open for shipping, raising a fine point of international law: is formerly sovereign Canadian land which has now become sea international waters, or do the borders stay the same? These stories have been with us for at least a few decades now: the IPCC reports are issued every six years, and the 2007 report was the fourth. As the science became clearer over time, the press continued to frame it as a controversy. (There were some who stridently rejected the science: but the fact of the matter is that not everyone who opposes a majority scientific opinion is a Galileo. Most people who challenge widely accepted science are either wrong, cranks, or paid to hold a contrary opinion.) Climate scientists were publicly accused of many things, of being apparatchiks, hewers to a party line, stoners of witches, crooks. Channel Four of Bandung File fame showed how completely it had shed its Bandung skin to emerge in fresh Davos scales, by running a scurrilous “expose” called “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, complete with cleverly edited quotes-out-of-context to make some talking heads seem to be saying the opposite of what they really meant.
Taken aback by having science vetted in the mass media, and not by peer review, many scientists waded into the arena of public communication of a kind where they had little experience, and the tools of their trade had little traction. Science is inherently based on uncertainty, qualified assertions, frequent making and unmaking of claims: picture an edifice being built by dozens of masons with their own bricks and mortar, coming at it from all sides, uncoordinated, feverishly slapping on cement, removing bricks already in place to replace them with others with a slightly better fit, until slowly a structure reveals itself. That’s how it works, ‘consensus’ is something that may emerge, but is never explicitly sought. But it’s not how you make the world pay attention. So the IPCC process was born — an explicit attempt to come up with statements that scientists could stand by and policy-makers could live with. Many of my friends and colleagues who have participated in their marathon wordsmithing sessions confess to having lived through something quite unique and previously unknown to them, and have come away with an increased understanding and respect for nuances of language and tone.
What changed in 2007, that now even the NYT fashion pages carry stories on global warming? (Never mind floods, plagues, storms and droughts… what about them cashmere sweaters???) The Oslo Nobel committee says it all. It’s not just the IPCC, but the IPCC and Al Gore. (Very tellingly, most of the mainstream press changed the order from the award, to “Al Gore and the IPCC”.)
Al Gore is the very personification of the Davos man. From the palace a figure has emerged, able to hear the pleas coming from the Maldives barely rising above sea level and from the permafrost villages of the Inuit sinking in the mud. He masters the science and brings it to the multiplex. President-elect for some hours or days, Oscar winner, and now a Nobel laureate. No wonder the “debate is finally over” and global warming is now accepted. Except of course, that’s still not how science works: those subordinate clauses are still there on the results. The facts of human-caused global warming themselves are beyond reasonable (though not unreasonable) dispute, but there is residual uncertainty about local and regional effects and causes, and the consequences of any particular large-scale policy responses.
Not only is the science now deemed settled, but that set of technical and policy responses is also now fast gaining acceptance. A story about a scientific controversy has now changed into one where the white-coated scientist, against long odds, has finally isolated the serum that will save the remote village from the mysterious disease that has laid it low, and now our heroes are in a desperate race against time to save the dying villagers. That, at least, seems to be the message of this week’s CNN special (which I confess I haven’t seen, but for which I had glossy promotional material delivered in my mailbox). Many of the stories center on remote places dealing with environmental catastrophes of various kinds, which are explained by metropolitan scientists, along with proposed solutions. Sanjay Gupta, part of CNN’s team, makes it very explicit on his blog that noone, including the victims of climate change, are expecting anything less: the lead quote, from a Chadian fisherman on the shores of that disappearing lake, has it that “the white man will brings us water. Only, the white man has power.” Is global warming then the white man’s burden this century? Sure enough, many of the solutions currently being touted, involve exotic new technologies, advanced ‘green’ materials, planetary-scale geo-engineering, and the like, which only the advanced industrial nations could possibly provide.
The world of the Bandung conference is quite remote now, and Bandung itself a victim of climate change. Yet it’s possible to imagine that Davos does not have a monopoly on ideas, and perhaps we should acknowledge that we don’t fully understand what’s happening to the planet, and perhaps there are people outside the fortress walls who might have something to say. After all there are places which have achieved literacy/fertility/longevity statistics comparable to the North on 1/70 the per capita energy consumption; places that have health indices comparable to the North on 1/100 the health spending, places that have a revolution and then offer the ousted oppressors truth and reconciliation, not revenge. Why not look outside the palace walls for answers on climate change?
At first glance, there is not much reason for hope. The leaders of the erstwhile Third World now jostle for seats at the Davos banquet. Stalwarts of the traditional left have delivered embarrassingly ignorant attacks on the science itself, rather than on how the facts and choices are being framed. Even more disturbing, a recent survey shows that climate change is not even on the public radar in much of the global south. In this climate, where is there cause to talk about a new Bandung?
Yet, there are signs, here and there. The Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi has had an admirable history of reasoned and literate public advocacy that has been transformative in India, forcing, or shaming, India’s judiciary into taking action on issues as diverse as pesticides in Pepsi and urban air pollution. (On the last, I can testify that between two visits, Delhi’s distinctive yellow-brown sky turned blue again!) Similar efforts are emerging in Brazil, such as the Social Movements Forum for Environment and Development. What distinguishes groups such as these is that they neither turn their backs on the science, nor do they frame their policy responses only as twiddling a few regulatory knobs, or as new business opportunities. Just browsing the titles of some of their policy documents — ‘Global Warming in an Unequal World’, ‘Global Environmental Governance’ — suggest that there is new thinking going on. Encouraging these voices — maybe even listening! — may be something to consider at a time that seems desperately short of new ideas.