The ghost of Gleneagles

Myles Allen
30 June 2005

No country-house party is complete without something in the basement that no one wants to talk about, but which gives everyone the creeps. At the G8 summit in Gleneagles, what the leaders will not be discussing is a solution to the problem of climate change – even though it could have far more impact than any conceivable political negotiations. The solution already exists, and requires nothing more of the politicians than that they simply get out of the way. No, it is not a whizz-bang new energy technology or crunchy lifestyle change, but something much uglier: impact liability.

Right now, it looks unlikely the G8 leaders will make more than a token reference to what was meant to be (after African poverty) the second great theme of the meeting. They may agree climate change is a problem, bringing us more or less to where we were at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But with so little to show for more than a decade of effort, is it time to encourage the politicians to redirect their energies elsewhere? By continuing to pretend they will eventually come up with a solution, might they be doing more harm than good?

Myles Allen specialises in the science of causal attribution of weather events to climate change at Oxford University. He has written two chapters, on attribution and liability, in the forthcoming book (edited by Kenny Tang) The Finance of Climate Change: a guide for governments, corporations and investors (Risk Books, 2005).

But, environmentalists will protest, politicians have to come up with the solution, because this is a collective problem requiring collective action. Campaigners – particularly those who were none too comfortable with markets in the first place – often cite climate change as an example of market failure. Conversely, free-market enthusiasts find themselves denying the need for any action over climate change at all, like the church denying the discoveries of Galileo’s telescope, because anything so inimical to their worldview cannot possibly exist.

International negotiations to steer us towards a greener future do indeed sound horribly reminiscent of central planning. Ironically, the United States administration’s government-funded research into alternative-energy technologies sounds equally 1950s. People have learned that governments don’t have a great record in developing or delivering consumer goods.

Is politics the problem?

It is time for a fundamental rethink. This is not a lifestyle issue requiring detailed intervention in every aspect of our behaviour. It is a simple problem of waste disposal. The fossil-fuel industry has yet to implement an effective method of disposing of their key waste product, the carbon dioxide generated by the stuff they sell. As long as dumping it in the atmosphere was apparently harmless, it would have been a waste of their shareholders’ money for them to do so. But as the impacts of climate change become steadily more obvious, that situation is changing.

Past emissions of greenhouse gases, easily traceable to products sold or used by only a couple of dozen major corporations, very likely increased the risk of that heatwave by at least a factor of two, and probably more like a factor between six and ten. The factor of two is significant: that is the level at which a court might conclude that the victims were entitled to compensation from those responsible. If this had been a toxic chemical spill or an unexpected by-product of a drug, the courts would surely already be involved, even in litigation-shy Europe. Unlike most victims of smoking, it would be hard to argue that many victims of climate change had much choice in the matter.

Europe will be better prepared for the next heatwave, whether it comes this summer or not; but it cannot prepare for every storm-surge, flood or other hazard that climate change rolls its way. Rhetoric about safeguarding the planet for all our common futures cunningly obscures the all-too-tangible costs it is imposing on some of us right now. If you own a property in a floodplain in northwest Europe, your personal wealth may be depreciating by several thousand euro per year as a direct side-effect of what is officially recognised as the most profitable legal activity mankind has ever come up with. How do you feel about this?

A number of lawsuits have already been filed against greenhouse-gas emitters, but none has yet grasped the nettle of demanding compensation for damage. As the signal strengthens and the science of attribution matures, this is surely on the way. Emitters have responded by arguing that this is a matter for government regulation, not for the courts (ironically, the same voices argue elsewhere against any form of greenhouse-gas regulation).

This is why the politicians may have become part of the problem. A flaccid regulation regime that pre-empts any claims for compensation is the worst of all possible worlds. If you lose money because of climate change, you want to take your case to the richest corporations in the world, not some World Bank-administered compensation fund that will ask intrusive questions about what you will do with your settlement.

Is law the answer?

If only some of the G8 leaders had the nerve to admit defeat, stand aside, refuse to limit their own emitters’ liability and force their trading partners to do the same – then the entire complexion of the problem would change overnight.

openDemocracy’s debate on the politics of climate change addresses the science, energy policy, environmental impacts and human experience of this major global issue.

It includes contributions from Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben, Fred Pearce and a host of others. A good introduction is Caspar Henderson’s “debate guide”.

A few emitters might decide to tough it out (as the tobacco companies did in comparable circumstances), accepting the occasional settlement as part of the price of staying in a profitable business. But more might look at current estimates of smokestack sequestration costs of possibly as little as $10 per barrel of oil equivalent, and conclude their safest strategy would be to bury the equivalent carbon of whatever fossil fuels they sell rather than face a potential lawsuit whenever the weather turned nasty anywhere in the world over the next century.

With joint and several liability enshrined in American tort law, no one would want to be the last one selling “hot” (un-sequestered) carbon. Some could even decide to bury 10% more carbon than the content of the fuel they sell, so SUV drivers in the Sierra Club could once again hold their heads high.

Of course, environmentalists would hate this, since it would take away their biggest stick to persuade us to do all sorts of things they would like us to do anyway, like riding bicycles or turning vegetarian. They grumble that you need to burn more carbon to bury it, particularly once you run out of smokestacks and have to resort to growing bio-fuels or scrubbing it out of thin air.

But so what? If people want to buy oil at $50 per barrel and companies can come up with carbon-neutral ways of producing it while still making a profit, only the most curmudgeonly central planner would stand in the way. Perhaps this is why the politicians won’t be talking about this at Gleneagles: suddenly, their summit meetings would look less essential to saving the planet.

Understanding detection and attribution

By Dáithí Stone

By the mid 1990s climate change scientists were able to say with confidence that it was possible to detect climate change. That is, the observations were inconsistent with what climate models said would happen in the absence of any external influences.

By around 2000 scientists became confident that it was possible to attribute the change. That is, the observations were consistent with model simulations if and only if all suspected major external influences were included in the models.

Since then, the progress has been towards attributing changes to different individual external forcings, such as greenhouse gas emissions from human activities and natural changes in the solar luminosity. And whereas previous detection and attribution statements were qualitative, scientists are now able to make robust quantitative statements about the various contributions.

These developments are allowing climate scientists to move beyond examining global average temperature to assessing the attribution of quantities of more immediate concern such as the risk of certain weather events that impact people at a regional level.

For example, it can now be said with a high degree of confidence that anthropogenic (manmade) emissions of greenhouse gases (albeit partly and temporarily mitigated by sulphate aerosols) increased the risk of the European heatwave in the summer of 2003 by at least a factor of two and probably more like six or ten times. Further, even on the most sceptical projections, the heatwave of 2003 will be an average summer within 40-60 years if emissions continue to rise on the "business as usual" path.

Further Links:

Human contribution to the European Heatwave of 2003, Peter A. Stott et al, Nature Vol. 423, 2 Dec 2004

More on detection and attribution:

On climate and law:

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