Turkey still in denial about climate change

Last Monday, Sheila Sitalsing, a highly acclaimed columnist with the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, used an old Belgian TV program about the Molenbeek neighborhood in Brussels to make that point. In 1987, several people knowledgeable about that part of town warned reporters that, at some point in the future, migrants living there in appalling circumstances would revolt against the society that was neglecting them. They described the youngsters as “time bombs” that would “explode” one day. At the time, nobody took that forecast very seriously.

After the Paris suicide attacks of two weeks ago, it turned out that several of the terrorists had been living in Molenbeek for some time, making use of the resentment and Islamist networks in the quarter to hide and prepare their vicious acts without being noticed.

According to Sitalsing, the same denialist mechanism is also affecting our ability to deal with climate change. Despite all the global summits, detailed scenarios and alarming predictions by respected academicians, the gradual rise in temperature seems unable to produce the sense of urgency that is needed to push people to change their behavior. She quotes a British psychologist who is afraid humans can’t cope with such slow deterioration that will only have a disastrous effect in 20 or 30 years.

I had to think of this human defect when reading about the upcoming summit on climate change that will start in Paris this Monday, and Turkey’s contribution there. It is a crucial meeting where a new agreement should be found to replace the famous Kyoto protocol after 2020. The negotiations will be tough, especially between rich and poor countries, and we will hear a lot next week about how binding the commitments are that countries will sign up to, and, for example, whether there will be effective mechanisms in place to reach the declared targets.

In the run-up to the highly publicized conference where all world leaders will be present, Turkey, for the first time, has presented a national plan to reduce the emissions of green house gasses, the most important cause of climate change. At first sight, it does not look bad, with the Turkish government planning to cut emissions up to 21 percent from business-as-usual levels by 2030. Specialists and activist quickly calculated, however, that in practice this goal would still allow Turkey’s emissions to more than double over the next 15 years. Nobody in Paris will be impressed by this disappointing scenario wherein Turkey will remain part of the problem, rather than the solution. The most important reason? Turkey’s addiction to coal. By doubling its coal power capacity and quadrupling the number of coal-fired power plants in the next few years, Turkey, unlike other countries, is simply destroying any chance to decarbonize its economy.

Is such a low carbon future unattainable for Turkey? No, says a well-documented report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Turkey and the Istanbul Policy Center. Turkey can fulfill its global responsibility — while maintaining its economic growth — if the country is willing to invest in the expansion of renewable energy, increases energy efficiency and introduces a carbon tax.

For years, Turkey has been hiding behind its “special circumstances,” being a developing country that needs to grow and invest in infrastructure, and therefore should be exempted from emissions cuts. When under pressure to follow good examples set by others, Turkish leaders still tend to resort to populist arguments accusing rich countries of using climate change measures to stop the further industrialization of Turkey and other emerging economies.

Two weeks ago in Antalya, Turkey seemed to understand that as a G-20 country it can’t hide anymore, but its isolated performance in Paris shows again how difficult it is to depart from denialism. Very human but also very tragic.


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