Monday, 22 October 2012

The Biggest Elephant – No realistic strategy for climate change

[A version of this post was submitted to Compass in response to its call for essays about the 'elephants in the room'.]

No-one, left, right or centre, has a realistic strategy for climate change.

Of course we think we have a strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change. Our strategy is for all nations to act together to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions before we have driven their levels in the atmosphere so high that catastrophe is inevitable. This, we say, will require some mixture of reduced energy use, decarbonisation of energy supply, lower meat consumption and so on. Associated changes include better building insulation, less driving, less flying and higher fuel prices.

It was a decent strategy when we created it ten years ago. It was affordable and it promised success with only limited cuts in our standard of living. Given good leadership democracies might vote for it. Coercion would not be needed. But I have news for you that isn’t really news.

It’s failed.

Need I prove this? Most nations give this strategy no more than lip service and the biggest polluters – Canada, China and the USA do not even do that. China is increasing its coal use. Canada is mining tar sands. The USA is developing new gas fields.

The UK has the Climate Change Act but Labour planned a third Heathrow runway, the Coalition has trashed the solar panels business and GHG emissions have not been reduced.

Worldwide, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising. In 2009 a group of Nobel Laureates said that GHG emissions need to peak by 2015 and fall rapidly thereafter. Now technically that just might be possible. If the major polluters experienced Damascene conversions and mobilised their economies NOW and if their populations accepted more years of austerity then it might be done. But none of that will happen. The US government is in thrall to Big Oil and frightened by the loony right. The Chinese government has a desperate need to keep delivering growth. And no government could be democratically re-elected if it followed these policies.

Baseline – evasion and catastrophe
So the starting point, the datum line for a realistic strategy, must be the failure of the strategy we do have. Persisting in this strategy will accelerate the existing trends – rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events. These in turn will trigger positive feedback effects such as increased polar warming due to loss of ice cover and release of major deposits of trapped methane. These effects could drive global climate change MUCH faster than the IPCC scenarios, which exclude them, suggest. A timescale of decades not centuries is conceivable.

The effects of accelerated climate change will include floods, droughts, water shortages, starvation and disease. Resource wars – both reactive and pre-emptive – seem certain. In this context almost every evil – from plague to religious fanaticism – becomes entirely plausible.

Because the timescale is so uncertain we can’t be sure whether we will face problems that we can, just, overcome or a catastrophe that cannot be resisted and which only the rich and lucky will survive. The uncertainties are real but even the possibility of the worse case should weigh heavily because the worst case is just so bad.

Therefore we need either a realistic strategy for avoiding catastrophic climate change or a strategy – in fact a set of strategies – for coping with catastrophe. There is no real alternative except the Ostrich gambit – stick head in the sand and hope for the best.

The strategy we need
A realistic strategy must address two questions:

  1. What technical means must be added to those we already support to get GHG levels down?
  2. How will we get the USA and the major developing economies to support those means?
Technical means
The possible technical means fall into the general category of geo-engineering. Many forms of geo-engineering have been proposed and some will doubtless prove impractical. Almost all have serious disadvantages and all risk further undesirable climate changes. They should not be considered unless the alternative is worse.

But the alternative – as I’ve indicated above – IS worse. We just have to find the least bad option. I do not expect to like what we find.

Gaining support
The technical stuff is daunting but the politics is horrendous. I do not see how the US Republicans, the European nations and the Chinese population can be won to the case for change. I do not even see how necessary changes could be imposed on them (supposing that all else had failed and that that was practical and morally defensible).

Nonetheless that must be a key part of out strategy. Perhaps, as the chief executive of a climate change thinktank remarked, we must hope that the USA is struck by a sufficiently severe and unambiguously climate change-driven disaster. It’s not exactly a policy is it?

The failure option

Finally, since success is very far from certain, what should the UK do if catastrophe occurs? How will we cope with rising temperatures, rising sea levels, falling food production, disruption of world trade and vast flows of refugees?

And if we take the steps needed to survive how much of our democracy and human rights will we be able to preserve?

1 comment:

city said...

thanks for sharing.