Last month, a group of climate scientists released a paper arguing that pretty much everything we’ve been doing to get action on climate change is wrong. It didn’t get much media attention, but the Hartwell Paper is an important contribution to the debate about where next after Copenhagen.

Climate - gas flareFor the authors of the Hartwell Paper, what they call ‘the crash of 2009’ was made up of the twin disasters of the surge in climate denial around the emails hacked from UEA, and the failure of the Copenhagen climate talks.

They have left current approaches to climate change so discredited that climate campaigns are left without political traction, simply ‘spinning our wheels’.

In particular, the paper argues that the cap and trade approach to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, on which the Kyoto Protocol and the subsequent talks were based, is doomed.

They may well be right, although this isn’t purely because of Copenhagen. The use of market mechanisms to reduce emissions has looked pretty hollow since the economic crisis began.

In their place, the paper calls for an approach to climate changed based not on sacrifice but on human dignity.

So, for example, rather than envisaging a future where ordinary people would have their access to power reduced, the Hartwell Paper argues that all policies for reducing GHG emissions from power generation have to provide for access to low-cost energy for the entire global population.

It’s an excellent ambition. But as a guide to shaping our approach to climate change, the paper is not without its problems.

Despite the paper’s dislike of emissions trading and carbon pricing, when it comes down to it, it effectively agrees with the proponents of market mechanisms that there are no other ways to reduce emissions. For the Hartwell authors, the failure of Copenhagen means that we can’t tackle climate change head on.

All we are left with, they argue, is the method used by Capability Brown in his garden designs of ‘drawing nigh obliquely’. We can’t fight for action on climate change, but what we could do is find things which would be good to do for other reasons but which would also, as a side benefit, reduce GHG emissions.

This isn’t an unfamiliar argument. There may be a perception that the green movement is all about ordinary people sacrificing their living standards to save the planet, but for most of us, it’s obvious that the measures we want to deal with climate change would be beneficial anyway.

Whether it’s the jobs that would be created by building a green infrastructure, or the sort of cheap, reliable, extensive public transport system that could replace private car use, it’s a principle at the heart of much climate campaigning. In the Hartwell paper, however, the alternative to the sacrifice agenda seems to be something slightly different.

For the Hartwell authors, there aren’t sufficient side benefits to reducing CO2 emissions to make it politically possible to do so. What we have to do is give up on CO2 and concentrate on other greenhouse gases. The advantage here is that they are either emitted by industry (the case study in the report is on the Japanese steel industry), so companies could be persuaded to maximise their profits through efficiency measures, or are known to cause other problems, like air pollution.

There is a specific argument about the possible role played by black soot, emitted from cooking fires across the developing world, in Arctic warming, and the paper points out that the soot is also a considerable threat to people’s health.

Tackling black soot and air pollution generally is clearly important, but it’s worth noting that the effect of this proposed change in strategy would be to shift attention from emissions from the developed to the developing world, with the exceptions of companies in specific industries who could be helped to make more money. This might well be an easier argument to win with Western governments, but whether it really would be the best strategy for dealing with climate change is more debatable.

2009 was clearly not a good year for the authors of the Hartwell paper, and for all its talk of human dignity and universal cheap energy, it is a pessimistic document. People in the West are only concerned about the size of their fuel bills; we can’t reduce Western emissions for the foreseeable future and probably shouldn’t even try. This is the message they take from Copenhagen and climate change denial, but it isn’t the only possible one.

Copenhagen didn’t show that we can’t get action on climate change. It certainly didn’t show that Western consumer capitalism is so unassailable that we can’t hope for anything but the most minor changes in the way it destroys the world. What Copenhagen showed is just the fallacy of the old argument that the elites would have to stop climate change because it’s their planet too, and we already knew that.

It’s noticeable how, while following the course of the Copenhagen talks via the media was a depressing experience, those who went on the protests at Copenhagen came back fired up with the possibilities of building a bigger, better, more united movement for climate justice worldwide. It’s difficult to argue that many of the specific measures called for in the Hartwell paper are a bad idea in themselves. But overall, it’s a ‘what next?’ paper for the aftermath of a major defeat, and we aren’t beaten yet.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.