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Expired · 7th January 2010
Ray Grigg
The environmental Christmas gifts for 2009 have been overwhelming. Of course, they didn't arrive in one huge sack on one particular night but they have been coming in massive quantities throughout the year. Indeed, anyone who has been closely following the environmental news of the last twelve months should be awe by the activity in academia, research, studies, statistics, analysis, innovation and technology. And all of this activity has culminated in a crescendo of focus and pressure at the December United Nations' climate talks in Copenhagen.

As for the year itself, a discernible shift has taken place in global awareness. People are now beginning to think strategically rather than specifically. Individual environmental problems are still of immediate concern but attention is also being given to the systemic failings that are causing these local problems. The global financial crisis of October 2008 echoed throughout 2009 and contributed to a searching analysis of our materialistic way of life. If our monetary institutions can fail, how secure are our environmental foundations? Deep and searching questions became a common subject in the media. How do we create, define and distribute wealth? How sound are our financial and economic systems? What are the ecological costs of making and shipping goods around the planet? What remains of our natural resources such as oil, minerals and forests? How healthy are our oceans and fish stocks? Financial debt, we discovered, can be equated to environmental debt. Our human behaviour is now being framed in the context of these larger perspectives.

This process is both frustrating and illuminating. Individual environmental problems such as species extinction, toxic consumer products, high energy consumption or ecological degradation seem even more difficult to fix because we are beginning to recognize that they are caused by structural faults in the larger system we call modern civilization. The past year exposed our basic values and ethics as human beings to a thorough examination. In the process of discovering the emerging reality of limits, we began to lose our innocence and gain a new maturity.

The sobering sense of reality that came from accumulating and processing massive amounts of information also hinted at corrective measures. Our attitudes, values and assumptions must change. We are being forced to confront and identify our collective human personality. The resulting insights are uncomfortable but absolutely necessary if we are to transform ourselves and – in a brutally honest assessment of looming consequences – even survive with a comfortable semblance of our existing civilization.

Although we have much to identify and reform, we have now started on this arduous and self-searching task. Carbon, the key ingredient causing catastrophic climate change, is the new currency by which all our activities are being measured. Reducing CO2 emissions has become a prime mission. In 2009, for the first time ever, investments in renewable energy such as solar and wind surpassed investments in fossil fuels such as oil and gas. Burning coal, without providing permanent and guaranteed sequestration of its greenhouse gases, is now deemed a travesty. The industrial production of meat, in addition to its profligate use of water and land, is being examined for its excessive generation of greenhouse gases. Air travel, with its high carbon production, is now tinged with a connotation of irresponsibility. The automobile industry is remaking itself with better fuel consumption, with hybrids and even electric vehicles. Since carbon has become a counted commodity, a plethora of new efficiencies have been introduced for lighting, heating, computer chips and food sources. Feverish research is taking place in electrical storage systems such as batteries and capacitors.

A new environmental ethic is evolving. The same carbon-sensitive values that are drumming big SUVs off the highways are also heralding in compact fluorescent lights, LEDs, solar panels, heat pumps, methane collection, recycling and composting. The disquieting experience of identifying more problems than solutions is a sign of promised progress – we must identify problems before we can find solutions.

The science of global climate change is solidifying. The net effect of any remaining skepticism merely serves to refine existing theories, improve modelling, encourage monitoring and accumulate even more data supporting this epochal, planet-altering process. As the scientific evidence mounts, continued denial of climate change seems increasingly perverse, obstinate, self-serving and anachronistic.

Expectations are rising. A sea-change in attitude is directing people to scientists for insights and to politicians for action. Even carbon taxes – taxes, of all things – are being welcomed in many countries as a necessary strategy to combat the carbon emissions that are being recognized and accepted as real and serious threats. This marks a movement beyond self-centred interests toward a considered concern for the lives of children, grandchildren and coming generations. The possibility of a world moving into climate chaos is generating a new ethic in the thoughts and feelings of those people who are thinking of more than just themselves.

These are some of the gifts of 2009 now being unwrapped. And the last gift, at the bottom of the sack, is the agreement just reached at the United Nations' talks in Copenhagen. Two years of hard work and two weeks of intense international negotiations produced the Copenhagen Accord – such as it is, or was, or will be. Each gift will enhance our awareness, change our behaviour and, hopefully, shape a wiser course into an uncertain future.