[In this interview, Dr. Ümit Şahin, an Sabanci University Istanbul Policy Center Senior Scholar and an ecological, anti-nuclear, and human rights activist in Turkey, discusses the politics of climate change in Turkey and the globe. In November 2014, Şahin published a thorough report called “Mapping the Actors of Climate Change Policies in Turkey.” Şahin explicitly states that Turkey’s antidemocratic and neoliberal developmentalist policies are in stark contrast with what is needed to fight climate change. Şahin believes that the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris will be an insufficient, yet crucial step for establishing a legally binding, international agreement to combat climate change. For Şahin, the power of social movements is key to pushing governments to take concrete action. Şahin’s report can be downloaded here.]
Zeynep Oguz (ZO): During his speech at the 2014 UN Climate Summit in New York, President Erdoğan held on to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC). This is usually the equivalent of saying, “we are a developing country and therefore not historically responsible for climate change, which further means we should not be expected to take any meaningful action, such as emission cuts.” Is this still the official stance of Turkey?
Ümit Şahin (ÜŞ): Exactly. Turkey has always been against an international agreement: “if there is one, we do not prefer to be included, but if we must be in it, we should not be obliged to take any responsibility, such as emission reductions.” But recently, Turkey had to acknowledge the fact that it has to adopt an agreement model in which all countries will take responsibility. Erdoğan’s talk indicated that Turkey will be a party to the 2015 Paris agreement and will have to take some concrete action. Erdoğan also claimed in his speech that Turkey has achieved a twenty percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. This bizarre data first appeared in Turkey’s Sustainable Development Report, published right before the 2012 Rio +20 Summit. This calculation does not make sense in terms of recognized emissions reduction methods. But this means that Turkey will follow the reduction from the “business as usual” scenario by aiming for only few percent reduction in emission increase rate. Turkey’s carbon dioxide emissions per capita were three tons in 1990. Today, it is six tons. Turkey is still in denial about any kind of responsibility.
ZO: So Turkey is following an adaptation policy instead of climate change mitigation?
ÜŞ: Correct. Adaptation has especially gained importance since the 2012 Rio +20 Summit. It is claimed that Turkey will not be able to follow an effective greenhouse gas reduction policy since it is a developing country. Turkey is demanding financial assistance to implement such adaptation efforts. But I don’t think Turkey will be able to receive a major amount of financial support, since there are others that urgently need the money before it comes to Turkey. The Turkish government will most probably use this as another excuse for victimization and to avoid emission reductions. This is very ironic, because Turkey is a G-20 country, and that means it has to take responsibility.
ZO: How will climate change affect Turkey?
ÜŞ: Turkey is located in the Mediterranean Basin, so drought will be the first consequence of climate change. Drought will have a negative impact on agricultural lands and hydroelectric energy generation. So water, agriculture, and energy are the three domains that will be primarily affected by climate change in Turkey. The Turkish Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Forestry and Water are still conducting research on the possible impacts on water reserves.
ZO: They must be worried about the future of the hydropower plants they have been building on every drop of water.
ÜŞ: They are! Turkey’s water policy is demand-based. When there is water demand, they build dams. If there is electricity demand, they set up hydroelectric plants on vital water supplies. This perspective is in stark contrast with combatting climate change. Turkey is trying to adopt these two policies at the same time and this is where the tragedy is. On the one hand, they are advocating taking measures against climate change; on the other, they are following a coal-based energy policy. They embrace the climate change adaptation rhetoric and at the same time insist on anti-adaptation technologies such as dams, irrigated farming, and unregulated agriculture. In a nutshell, despite the numerous climate change action plans and strategies it has published, Turkey is not taking any kind of concrete action on adaptation or mitigation.
ZO: Turkey defends a coal-driven energy policy as a way to secure energy self-sufficiency and decrease its dependency on imported oil and natural gas. But is this really the case?
ÜŞ: This is the government’s argument. But in fact, the planned coal plants in Gerze and Bartin that the environmentalists strongly object to are all based on imported coal. Just like the nuclear power plant projects, “energy independency” is nothing but a myth, a rhetorical strategy. The politics of development that Turkey pursues today are diametrically opposed to what is necessary to fight climate change.
ZO: Is the Turkish government’s “economic growth” notion incompatible with climate change mitigation?
ÜŞ: Yes, but one does not even have to give up the idea of growth itself. Although I am not the greatest supporter of it, there exists an approach called Green Growth, for instance. Turkey, on the other hand, intends to push its particular vision of “development” forward as much as it can. Let’s take the government’s 2023 aims that require a nine percent growth per year. This is very high and quite unrealistic. The result is something like this: increase the population, burn coal, build hydroelectric plants on every drop of water, build nuclear power plants at the cost of accident risks and more energy dependency, destroy the most valuable parts of the nature for more construction of residences, airports, highways, and bridges, deregulate agriculture, and pursue a neoliberal approach against any kind of economic regulation hand in hand with authoritarian social engineering. What is ironic is that they are claiming to be taking major steps in policies to combat climate change at the same time.
ZO: Even renewable energy projects are implemented through a similar, authoritarian framework, right? I am thinking of the social opposition against the wind power plant project in Mordogan, Karaburun, for instance.
ÜŞ: No one would object to wind power if things worked through democratic mechanisms. Why would they? Wind is incomparable to coal, a fossil fuel that environmentalists and climate activists will oppose no matter what. Hydroelectric plant projects followed a similar trajectory in Turkey as well. Hydropower, too, is a non-carbon energy technology that if applied in an informative, participatory, democratic manner, and if built as environmentally friendly, could generate energy without dispossessing local people from their land and water resources. But there is not one single case of a hydropower plant project that pursued this path. Therefore, hydropower in Turkey was rightly transformed into a contested, opposed energy technology. This shows that the government’s hyper-developmentalism is against any democratic vision of climate change mitigation and adaptation.
ZO: What do you think about the global climate change mitigation efforts?
ÜŞ: I find them unsuccessful. Yet there has recently been a tendency to change course. Especially after the Obama government’s relatively positive record on climate change policy and EU’s, especially Germany’s, attempts, and even China’s talk about reduction after their agreement with the US. They are all insufficient, but still positive steps. They are not enough to effectively combat climate change, but at least they could trigger and accelerate a global departure from fossil fuels. Think of Germany: after they made the decision to close all nuclear power plants, they were forced to rely on renewable energy. Renewables eventually created their own economy, an economy that keeps expanding and dominating other energy domains in the country.
ZO: How about the upcoming Paris conference?
ÜŞ: An agreement will come out of Paris, but the question is whether that agreement will be able to stop climate change. It probably won’t be able to, but an agreement will at least be able to overcome the current paralysis following the Kyoto Protocol, and open up new possibilities. This is why I think bottom-up solutions are never enough. Only the legally binding agreements of an international mechanism will be able to make a change. This is why Paris is extremely important. Yet whether a proper agreement will come out of Paris depends on the people’s active involvement in the subject. The People’s Climate March in New York was one example. Concrete measures to combat climate change will be taken only if social movements are able to pressure governments and make climate change their main agenda.
ZO: You are stressing the importance of both international bodies and grassroots movements.
ÜŞ: That’s right. In other words, grassroots movements should be able to push international mechanisms, so that those who are trying to block climate change mitigation efforts—such as fossil fuel companies such as Exxon and Shell—will be defeated.
ZO: But those companies are no longer able to deny climate change.
ÜŞ: True, but now they are championing false solutions such as carbon capture and storage, which will end up accomplishing nothing but will stall effective actions to combat climate change. Last year, they came up with this absurdity called “clean coal,” and recently they made up this term called “low-emission fossil fuels.” They are promoting incredibly unrealistic technologies in order to persuade governments that fossil fuels are a solution for climate change. They are not. Governments are already unwilling to take any meaningful action, so fossil fuel companies provide them perfect excuses. Take Japan: they are building a “clean coal” power plant in Indonesia with climate finance! So the primary actors we should be fighting are coal and oil companies.
ZO: How about nuclear power, which is being advertised as a non- or low-carbon energy technology nowadays? The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, was particularly silent about the relationship between nuclear energy and climate change.
ÜŞ: It is still important that nuclear energy was not defined as a “clean energy” in the Kyoto Protocol. Since nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases in theory, nuclear energy could be considered as a Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) just like hydropower plants. In fact, the World Nuclear Association attempted to get nuclear power categorized as a CDM during the Copenhagen Summit, but they couldn’t succeed. I think this is still significant. Because nuclear energy is another false solution to climate change. Since it is dangerous in terms of accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima and in terms of huge amounts of radioactive wastes; it is based on antidemocratic decision making process; and it is so expensive that it is unrealistic to expect that so many (a couple of hundreds) nuclear reactors could be built in order to slow down the emissions.
ZO: What do you think about the social movements against climate change in Turkey and beyond?
ÜŞ: Bill McKibben’s 350.org made a very big impact. After the failure of the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 and the demoralization it led to, the climate change movement in the world had lost its momentum. 350.org managed to create a global movement that is not restricted to the US and became one of the most important actors in the climate change movement. They also have an office in Turkey. Yet I think the ecology movement in Turkey has failed to link climate change politics with local environmental concerns. Also, like Naomi Klein said, climate change is too important to be left to environmentalists alone. Only mass social movements that include workers, students, farmers, unions, academia, and feminists can make a real change by fighting fossil fuel companies and forcing governments to take concrete action.