Thursday, July 2, 2015

Climate Changes again

It is incontrovertible that the climate is changing, and the cause seems clear- emissions of greenhouse gasses due to human activities including burning fossil fuels. However the scale, nature and pace of the changes, and their likely specific local impacts, are still  uncertain.  Changes continues around the world, but global average temperature rises have slowed over the last decade or so, leading some to doubt that the accuracy of the computer models, which predicted continuing increases. Revisions to the models have offered a variety of explanations for the ‘pause’, of varying degrees of plausibility, one being that the heat has gone into the depths of the seas.

Most contrarians are unconvinced by these explanations, and by the models in general, and the media has often amplified their doubts, adding to a sense of uncertainly. Certainly the possibility that bad impacts will be slowed has made it harder to maintain wide support for a sense of urgency when it comes to radical climate action. A delay in significant response could be tragic, if the overall models are right, since, whatever the cause of the pause, once it ends, they imply that we can expect rapid ‘catch up’ temperature rises and massive impacts.   But that is not certain.

So for some, climate change is a busted flush- not something that needs urgent attention, for others it remains a central concern, with any doubts balanced by a commitment to the precautionary principle: if a threat is large it is wise to take it seriously. Somewhere in between these two views are the various allegedly ‘least regrets’ pragmatic approaches. Prepare for the worst by investing in simple local adaptation measures, and /or in low cost low carbon energy supply/energy saving, but not in major costly technology or policy changes. If climate change turns out not to be significant, then we will not have wasted a lot of money, or set off on a costly path of unnecessary radical change.
There are problems with this. Will adaptation be enough and will it be cheaper than major mitigation measures? Far from new energy technologies like renewables being expensive, in fact they are getting cheaper, even leaving climate impacts out of the assessment. Delaying serious responses may end up costing a lot more, if climate impacts do turn out to be serious. So it may not actually be a ‘least regrets’ policy.

However there is another, arguably more nuanced approach- don't rely just on concerns about climate change to promote the development of clean green energy options. There are other drivers, including the huge and costly health impacts of burning fossil fuel. That’s not far off, it’s now, and very visible in terms of poor air quality, especially in newly industrialising countries like China.  Moreover, even without taking those costs into account, many renewables are now getting competitive with fossil fuel on their own merits; the green path can sell itself.  Will that happen fast enough to deal with climate change?  Probably not, if just left to market pressures. But, with pollution issues being very immediate, governments can impose regulator pressures which may also help with  subsequent climate problems. Very much a middle-way approach.

A much broader and more radical alternative approach is to link climate and pollution issues into a wider political campaign against globalization and capitalism- along the lines adopted by Naomi Klein in her new book ‘This changes everything’.  To some extent she has updated the old Marxist view that capitalism was fundamentally flawed and would come up against a final existential crisis. For Marxists it was the need to increase profits and expand markets, while lowering wages to maintain competition, a conflict which (to summarise awfully) was partly deflected by the advent of more productive technologies and a bit of ‘trickle down’ of affluence to some participants.   But that process led to ever-increasing exploitation of the natural environment. So the new crisis is climate change, and the wider attack on nature, as well as the continuing exploitation of labour globally, as markets grow and production expands. Which means that the poor, low paid workers, the dispossessed, and other politically excluded and marginalised communities across the world, are all recruited, along with the greens, to the struggle. Eco-socialist ideas have been pushed for some while and, with the global economy in a mess, they may now become more relevant, but, with capitalism still dominant globally and powerful culturally, locking aspirant communities into consumerism, an effective challenge to it seems a long shot.

More likely we will see a mix of all the above approaches being adopted, resistance and and denial, reforms and revolutions, unevenly in various parts of the world. Most of the  ‘old’ industrial countries have adopted quite radical long term climate targets: the UK and Germany aim for a 80% GHG cut by 2050, France now has a 75% cut by 2050 target, the US is working on it!  But now has a 26-28% emissions cut by 2025 target. Australia and Canada may be heading the other way, but China is taking it seriously, at least medium term (an emission cap by 2030). So far most of this has come from the top, technocratically, but it’s buttressed increasingly by grass roots pressure. Who knows, we may yet see radical change in the political climate in response to the threat of radical changes to the planetary climate.

The EU has set a ‘40% by 2030’ GHG reduction target, conditional on other countries coming up with similar goals at the upcoming Paris UNFCCC Climate negotiations- COP 21.  That sadly may be yet another COP-out, and even if not, the momentum of and likely wider support for policy change will depend on whether climate change is taken seriously across the world.  That is not certain. So maybe it is wise to add some other policy drivers.  Can renewables be sold as simply a better set of less polluting, more socially appropriate and economically cheaper options?   That case gets stronger by the day, quite apart from the climate issues. There may of course be short-term reversals- fossil fuel prices are currently falling. But, longer-term, fossil fuels are bound to become scarcer and more expensive and, whatever the direct costs, the health impact of using them will continue to impose increasing social costs.  In my next post, I will look at the situation in the developing world, where pollution impacts are already significant and the climate impacts are likely to become even more so. And where, thankfully, renewables are expanding rapidly.