A new United Nations report from its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published on 13 April 2015. The document is the latest in a long series, but it is striking that Mitigation of Climate Change received far more publicity than most of its predecessors. In part this reflects the fact that the evidence of climate change is becoming ever clearer, indeed overwhelming. Thus, the denial community is finding its reality increasingly difficult to counter.
The formidable resources devoted to organising denial stretch from fossil-fuel producing companies and states to a wider network of free-market think-tanks. All are impelled by their financial and ideological interests to oppose vigorously both recognition of and action on climate change. Since markets cannot operate fast enough to counter climate disruption, effective policy requires considerable governmental (and intergovernmental) action, including major changes in economic planning and management. This is anathema to free-market thinking; its proponents therefore argue that climate change cannot be happening.
The denialists' stance here resembles the tobacco industry’s decades-long fight against the medical experts who said that smoking kills. The industry mounted intensive campaigns to counter any moves towards limiting smoking; then, when the latter proved unsuccessful, it redoubled efforts to exploit new markets in the global south with little or no regulation. In turn, a very similar approach was pursued by some of the agro-chemical giants that promoted organophosphate pesticides in the tropics in the 1960s, when these were being banned in many western countries.
Much of the pressure on the climate denialists comes from the repeated instances of extreme weather now inflicting damage across the world. In themselves, extreme-weather events are familiar; but their frequency and intensity is new, as is the way that they are starting to affect wealthier regions (extensive flooding in prosperous parts of the Thames valley, west of London, is an example) (see "A flooded future: Essex to the world", 20 February 2014)
The problems are so great that almost any conceivable responses will, in the short term, be inadequate. Moreover, political leadership is lacking in most countries. At the same time, a wider range of channels of action is emerging. But these factors - the very scale of the task, and the authorities' incapacity or unwillingness to act - force social engagement with the issue into new and creative channels. A good way of looking at this phenomenon is via the odd but useful definition of prophecy as “suggesting the possible”: that is, proposing well-crafted recommendations that show how positive things can be done.
Some of the best work here is the product of the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales. An best example is its Zero Carbon Britain programme, which seeks to show how the country could revolutionise its use of energy by replacing fossil fuels through a combination of renewables, storage, energy conservation and - less obvious but interesting - alterations in land use. All of this could be done by 2030, though the programme does not claim that it will be easy or straightforward. Indeed, there may be many other ways to achieve the same result; but the point about Zero Carbon Britain is that it "suggests the possible" - and thereby empowers people to think in just that way.
The Mitigation of Climate Change report focuses similarly on achieving a rapid decarbonising of the world’s advanced industrial economies. A vital part of this is to ensure that global-south economies can become more emancipated and sustainable. Here, too, a huge amount of work going on, some in the field of higher education and applied research.
Here are two examples among many. The first is the MSc in renewable-energy management at the University of the West Indies, supported by two forward-thinking groups at universities in Flensburg, in northern Germany. This provides a professional education in relevant disciplines that enables people in many areas of economic life to integrate renewable and energy conservation into their particular areas of work.
The second is the spread of lighting devices that combine a small solar panel with rechargeable battery and efficient LED lighting. The smallest versions are designed to replace kerosene lamps, and provide ample hours of light after dark. These began to sold only in 2010, and are marketed so far in just four African countries (by the marketing group, Sunny Money - though expansion in others is planned. The speed of take-up has been so fast that the company sold its millionth product in early 2014; it has gained more than half of all its sales so far in the past year alone.
A wealth of comparable innovations is underway, though they too often overshadowed by an unbalanced emphasis on the experience of the wealthy in the global north. The two dimensions need to meet via far closer cooperation. Here, much more support from northern development agencies would be very welcome, as a briefing from the Oxford Research Group argues (see Responding to Climate Change - Developing the Agenda, February 2014).
Making a difference
Climate change and its hugely dangerous consequences are becoming clearer. There is an unavoidable need to decarbonise the major carbon-emitters and adapt to already inevitable climate disruption. What is still missing is a longer-term recognition that relatively low-carbon economies have a right to develop in entirely new ways, maintaining low-carbon outputs while hugely improving life-chances and standards of living.
There are many routes to progress, as the cases cited above indicate. There are many others finding their way. But there is an urgent need to acknowledge and support such efforts. Development assistance from the global north could go a very long way to secure measurable improvements that then achieve real synergy. If the UK's department for international development (DfID) and its equivalents engage in this agenda, they could well be astonished by the results. The stakes are high, but so is the potential reward.