Climate change: time to get real
by Tom Burke
re-published courtesy of openDemocracy.net
The science is clear, the technology is available. To meet the challenge of "the most serious threat to humanity since the invention of nuclear weapons," climate-change campaigners now need to win the political argument, says Tom Burke of E3G.
The public argument on climate change has been transformed by a series of recent interventions by scientists. First, James E Hansen, the global doyen of climate scientists, announced that the world has only ten years in which to take decisive action on the climate. "I think we have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change ... no longer than a decade, at the most," he told the Climate Change Research Conference in
Second, John P Holdren, the incoming president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in his inaugural address that the world is already experiencing dangerous climate change.
We are much more accustomed to scientists entering the public debate about risk to say that our fears are exaggerated. There is no precedent for the kind of interventions we are now witnessing. They are a mark of the growing panic within the scientific community at the deepening abyss between what they know about the climate and what governments are doing.
Two things are now becoming clear. The climate is changing faster, and the impacts of this change are going to be nastier, than we first thought.
The hole we're in
But other, more hopeful, things are also becoming clearer. We may no longer be able to avoid dangerous climate change, but we can avoid catastrophic climate change. We already have the technologies we need to keep the eventual temperature rise to around two degrees Centigrade. But we need to deploy them with great urgency.
We also know that we can afford to do so. Economic analyses of the cost of tackling climate change suggest that it will require the equivalent of around 1% of GDP. This is well within the margin of error of these figures and would simply delay the arrival of the same level of wealth by a few months. Estimates of the economic damage resulting from a rapidly changing climate are often five times as much. It will not cost the earth to prevent catastrophic climate change, but it will cost the earth not to do so.
The problem is neither the economics nor the technology: it's the politics. Preventing catastrophic climate change requires nothing less than the complete transformation of the global energy system in the next forty years. We must both reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and stop the carbon from the fossil fuels we do use from entering the atmosphere.
We currently add about seven billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere each year. If we continue to fuel our expanding economy as we do today this will become fourteen billion tonnes a year by 2050. Agriculture adds another two-and-a-half billion tonnes that cannot easily be removed. The oceans and plants annually absorb some five billion tonnes of that carbon. By 2050, therefore, we must remove eleven-and-a-half billion tonnes of carbon a year from our economy, emitting close to zero from our energy use. Then we have to keep it there, effectively for ever.
This is certainly a daunting prospect. But the consequences of failure are terrifying. In the face of such difficulty there is much glib talk about adaptation. Some suggest that instead of trying to meet such a difficult challenge, we should concentrate our efforts on learning to live with a changing climate. This is a shallow and deceitful proposal.
It is a fantasy to expect already fragile governments in the poorest parts of Africa and
Some adaptation will be inevitable, as the climate is already changing. We who live in the rich world must be willing to help the poorest among us to deal with the consequences of climate change; this is an additional and obligatory, not a discretionary, responsibility for the industrialised nations that have benefited most from the profligate use of fossil fuels.
Since adaptation is not an option, we must address head on the difficult politics of prevention. The first step is to recognise that climate change is not just another environmental problem. It is a fundamental threat to prosperity and security. An unstable climate threatens the social and political stability on which all prosperity depends. Equity will suffer as the poorest are hit first and worst.
Politics is often referred to as the art of the possible. Meeting the climate challenge means expanding the realm of the possible dramatically. David King, chief scientific advisor to
The way out
It is time for those engaged in the battle for a stable climate to get real. Political battles are essentially battles for resources.
We face a shared dilemma. To ensure wellbeing for a growing population with unfulfilled needs and rising expectations we must grow our economies. Should we fail, conflict and insecurity will be the result. To grow our economies we must continue to use more energy. Much of that energy will be in the form of fossil fuels. If we use more fossil fuels we will accelerate climate change. If the climate changes rapidly we will destroy the very prosperity and security we are trying to build.
There is a way out from this narrow ground between rock and hard place. It involves the very rapid expansion of energy efficiency, of biofuels and other renewables and of carbon capture and storage. Left to itself, the $17 trillion that will be invested in energy technologies by 2050 will add the other seven billion tonnes of carbon a year to the atmosphere. To keep our climate stable we are going to have spend enough public money to make those technologies carbon-neutral.
This will be easier than many think. A relatively small carbon tax will yield vast amounts of revenue. That revenue can be dedicated to paying the difference between carbon-intensive technologies and those which are carbon-neutral. As the switch is made, the need for the revenue will decline and the tax can be reduced.
Successful campaigning requires the relentless hammering away at a deliverable goal that can easily be understood. The present cacophony of ideas coming from climate campaigners simply confuses the public and lets governments off the hook. Good campaigning builds public awareness and then leverages it to compel specific actions. There is no shortage of public awareness about the threat to the climate. But this has not yet been leveraged by the campaigners. It is now time they focused that awareness on three simple questions: how much governments need to spend, on what, and by when.
This article is re- published with permission of the author Tom Burke, and openDemocracy.net. under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines.