Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Martin Wolf in today’s FT decries the absence of any debate on climate change in the US presidential campaign. Given the general level of argument in that campaign, those of us who care about the future should perhaps be grateful for that, since it is hard to envisage anything useful being added. Part of the explanation is that US society is now so polarised that almost every issue has a predictable division into deeply divided constituencies. “Guns, coal and freedom”, freedom including freedom to own guns and burn coal, is a slogan that leads to predictable views on climate science, which are likely to become even more entrenched in a bitter political struggle. But there are also other profound reasons why climate change creates such a perfect storm for humanity.

The first factor is that the problem is essentially global, as gases, and climate, are not contained within national or regional boundaries.  Collective agreement and action is therefore a fundamental precondition for any effective policy. As with other much less dangerous issues, collective agreements are often hard to achieve nationally. They are even harder to achieve on a global scale, and in relation to commodities of huge economic importance associated with substantial vested interests of all kinds. Action on climate may be in everyone’s collective interest but it is in no-one’s individual interest. 

The second factor is the long time lag between cause and effect. Thermal inertia means that even the “first round” and more predictable consequences of a given increase in GHG are only fully worked through over periods measured in decades, with consequential effects such as rising sea levels that will continue over much longer periods and are not reversible other than on geological timescales, even if atmospheric CO2   concentrations are stabilised or brought down.  This naturally conflicts with the myopic nature of much political debate and our ingrained human tendencies to ignore or play down risks that currently seem quite distant in time.

It also serves to introduce the third factor, the irreversibility of current emissions of CO2, which does not decay in the atmosphere and is only removed very slowly, if at all, in the natural carbon cycle. It is the equivalent of a centrally heated room where the radiator can only be turned up, not down, but the room temperature responds only slowly to changes in the radiator setting.  We currently have no known means of extracting CO2 at reasonable cost (the artificial “carbon tree”), nor can we have any confidence that such a technology can or will be developed.  In the absence of low cost extraction, this means that fuel choices made now have irreversible consequences. Without action to curtail CO2 emissions, there is an alarming prospect that, by the time we observe actual warming, we will already have baked in a much larger amount of unavoidable future warming and associated climatic change. At a recent presentation in Oxford, Thomas Stocker of the Physics Institute, University of Bern, and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), estimated that committed peak warming rises 3 to 8 times faster than observed warming.

A fourth factor is the nature of the risks and uncertainties involved in any attempt to anticipate the future.  A common observation of human psychology is that most of us find it difficult to make rational and consistent decisions between different types of risk, even if the risks themselves are in principle well understood.  From a rational perspective, the long term threat from climate change is orders of magnitude worse than that of an accident in civil nuclear power, but that has not prevented a German government, with Green support, from calling a nuclear moratorium and building new coal-fired stations, the worst possible option in relation to CO2 emissions.

In the case of climate science, and even though the fundamental influences on climate are increasingly well understood, there have been enough uncertainties relating to specific details and consequences to allow sceptics, without real evidence, to create the impression that the science is of dubious reliability as a basis for policy. So this fourth deadly ingredient is perhaps our inadequate grasp of risk and uncertainty, or at least our collective inability to comprehend the reality of what the climate science is with confidence describing, and failure, in the eyes of some people at least, of the science to provide a sufficiently clear and convincing narrative around a very complex problem.

Finally these problems are compounded both by the nature of the particular vested interests threatened by any action aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuel, and by the central role of energy in the production and consumption enjoyed by modern economies.  Some vested interests are obvious. In the USA many states have sizeable coal (and oil and gas) industries. Nations rich in fossil fuel reserves, especially oil, have a clear incentive to deny the problem.  Distinguished Oxford climate scientist Sir John Houghton, a former Oxford professor of atmospheric physics, co-chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) scientific assessment working group, and lead editor of first three IPCC reports, describes this very clearly in his autobiography.  Saudi and Kuwaiti representatives in the IPCC went to great lengths in their efforts to weaken the conclusions of the IPCC Second Report, and to attribute or exaggerate uncertainty at every opportunity. Sir John also details a variety of dirty tricks, dishonesty and sophistry deployed by other parties with a major vested interest in denying the reality of the climate science.

And of course as energy consumers or as taxpayers we have own vested interests in not changing our habits of energy use, and in avoiding some of the short term costs of mitigating future problems, even if these are relatively small in relation to the scale of the dangers they aim to mitigate. The US has long been the world’s most profligate user of oil, coal and gas, and has in the past shown a corresponding reluctance to recognise the issue. China, for whom even the per capita carbon footprint now exceeds the European average, has taken a path of rapid coal fuelled economic expansion as it strives to develop.

These five factors are mutually reinforcing.  Vested interests have proved anxious to encourage or exploit any perception of uncertainty in the science, even if this largely relates to the quantum of damage rather than to fundamental understanding of the physical processes and the risk. The long time delays between cause and effect made it easier for sceptics to suggest that the science was mistaken or at least that the risks are exaggerated.  The dependence on global agreement, and action by all, is a disincentive to unilateral action within one country, or even within such a block as the EU.  Long time lags encourage us to dismiss seemingly distant risks, and make us reluctant to incur current costs for future protection.  Irreversibility amplifies all the dangers of delay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Given that warming is out of control and that as matters stand we are now warming at >0.3C pa in the Northern Hemisphere which we share with 88% of the global population and given that no 'energy miracle' will do but one that won't disturb the status quo - so nothing that might put coal, oil and gas out of business so it follows that no solution is ever going to be funded, and given that 7.8C is 'unlivable(sic UNIPCC)and we in the UK are now above the 2081 expectation of 1.6C then who is to do what to avoid our extinction sometime within [7.8 - 1.5 = 6.3/0.3 = 20] 20 years.

Without a 'Holy Shit' (to coin a Whitehouse phrase) very soon even if we do make war on global warming it will be too late. It is not that we can't make war. The 'energy miracle' is simply on the shelf waiting to be deployed but it is wholly disruptive so it is not what anyone wants - so we are blinding ourselves to reality.

I have the technology (the EIB says it may take 7 years to bring on stream - but India got to Mars in 15 months) but when will you want to use it?
John Bruce