Thursday, 8 May 2014

Figueres: The unanswered question

Last night I was at St Paul's Cathedral. No, I have not had a Damascene conversion. I was there to hear Christiana Figueres of the UNFCCC and then to hear the Q&A.

Actually, hearing was hard. In 50 years of attending public meetings these were the worst acoustics I can remember! Still we now have an online recording. Meanwhile I want to comment.

Of course Figueres said much that was sensible, even wise, and happily there was no need to debate the science. That left space for more serious discussion. She said:

"If we are to stay under a 2 degree temperature rise we must peak global emissions in the next 6 to 10 years, and reach carbon-neutrality in the second half of the century, leaving most of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground. A tall order from where we stand today. We already know that the sum total of what countries can currently do does not sum up to the necessary level of emission reductions."

Then she asked a key question:
 "So why are we lagging behind in the timely response? Why are we not using every option to peak global emissions and descend to carbon-neutrality in the second half of the century?"

But she did not answer it.  So I will. There are three reasons.

The first is short-sightedness. We all know that politicians in democracies have to win elections and are therefore focused on the next election. And that is never more than five years away. Climate change, however, is the ultimate long-term issue. Politicians would rather win by promising 'jam now' than lose by honestly explaining the difficult actions needed.

Something similar applies in undemocratic states too (with the possible exception of North Korea!) Even tyrants have to meet the desire of their supporters for food, housing and consumers goods. And if only a few people have to be satisfied then those few will want Rolexes and Mercedes cars. In China, for instance, the Politburo believes that only constant economic growth will buy off mass unrest. "Apres moi; la deluge", as de Gaulle probably didn't say.

And the leaders of major corporations are subject to similar pressures to deliver short-term results. US corporations report results quarterly and nothing but constant increases will satisfy investors and analysts.

Secondly is a kind of ignorance. Of course they know that climate change is real but they see it as just another issue. And issues are addressed by energetic hand-waving in public and negotiation in private. But you cannot negotiate with a flooding river nor does hand-waving have much influence on a drought. Almost all British and American politicians lack solid scientific training and, on an emotional level, just don't understand the cussedness of the physical world.

And third is the powerful vested interests. The fossil fuel companies know the science but to admit the truth about climate change would damage their profits and undermine their share prices. Many firms in other sectors recognise what many climate activists have been slow to accept: That effective action to mitigate climate change will demand a reduction in GDP right across the developed world. They therefore pay journalists, lobbyists, pressure groups and politicians to deny the science and resist effective action.

Since the required action, is in any case, complex, expensive, difficult and uncertain there is no shortage of plausible arguments for inaction. Yet inaction is itself the riskiest choice.

Figueres is smart. She knows how much financial, political and, indeed, emotional capital is invested in our fossil-fueled economy. But perhaps she has not understood just what lengths people will go to to defend their interests and privileges. If any readers are doubtful I suggest they look up the costs of American elections or the track record of corporate meddling in the politics of South America or the oil fields of the Middle East. Or the Iraq War.

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