Climate change: time to get real

About the author
Tom Burke is a founding director 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 Sacramento, California.

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.

Third, Britain's national academy of science, the Royal Society, sent a letter to the oil company ExxonMobil asking it to stop supporting organisations that were deliberately distorting the science of 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.

Tom Burke is a visiting professor at Imperial and University Colleges, London and a co-founder of Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G)

Also by Tom Burke on openDemocracy:

"Three pinches of salt" (6 September 2001) – a critique of Bjorn Lomborg

"Masters of the universe? " (10 April 2003) – part of a roundtable on corporate power and responsibility

"Climate change and global security" (17 May 2005) – with John Ashton

"The G8 and climate change: a campaigners' scorecard" (13 July 2005) – a roundtable on the outcome of the G8 summit in Gleneagles

"Capitalism, the environment, and sustainable development" (6 December 2005) – a roundtable on Jonathon Porritt's book Capitalism As If the World Matters

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 Asia to peacefully manage and adapt to the disruption (including migration) caused by climate change. The politics of insecurity in countries affected there will erupt into factionalism and conflict; Darfur is already one stark example of this reality. Californians may be able to adapt to the loss of melt waters from the Sierra Nevada by building hugely expensive, and energy-intensive, desalination plants. But that option will not be available to the hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis who depend on Himalayan melt waters.

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. Opportunity will contract rather than expand as the stresses of a rapidly changing climate divide rather than unite nations and communities.

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 Britain's prime minister, is right to say that climate change is a bigger problem than global terrorism. In fact, it is the most serious threat to humanity since the invention of nuclear weapons. In developing and responding to that threat the world has invested many trillions of pounds over the past sixty years. To respond to climate change, we have yet to invest more than a few billion.

 

Also in openDemocracy's "The politics of climate change" debate:

Ian Christie, "When the levee breaks" (5 September 2005)

Simon Retallack, "Ankelohe and beyond: communicating climate change" (17 May 2006)

Camilla Toulmin, "Climate change, global justice: letter to Al Gore" (27 July 2006)

Lutz Kleveman, "Ankelohe: time to think" (18 May 2006)

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.

Europe currently spends 46% of its annual budget on a problem it has already solved: food security. It spends practically nothing on a problem that threatens the livelihoods and wellbeing of every single citizen in the union: climate security. It is time to look to the future rather than remain trapped in the past. That means a radical reallocation of European funds from the common agricultural policy into a climate security fund. Some of this can, of course, be spent to enhance the role farmers can play in preventing climate change.

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.