As COP15 comes to a close without a clear path forward forward from Kyoto, it is difficult not to become dismayed at the growing gulf between the urgency of climate science and the pace of international negotiations. While it provides little solace, there is little doubt that the economic calamities of the past two years played a significant role in the ultimate fate of the conference. Out of fear that we were on the precipice of another Great Depression, economic and social concerns have been the primary focus of many of the world’s legislatures, particularly countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States. Considering that the swift response to the failure of the banks last fall seems to have averted the worst of these fears from being realized, it is hard to argue with this approach.
At the same time, when historians reflect upon the three year process which culminated in COP 15, I feel many may see another connection between these two events: a similar inability to understand complexity, a propensity to discount the future, and an failure to properly value risk. One can only hope that we don’t need to have the ecological equivalent of the collapse of Lehman Brothers to drive us to act.
Our world is complex, and we better get used to it.
The roots of the economic meltdown can be found in the increasingly complex instruments created to diversify risk. While these instruments succeeded in diversifying risk, they also created numerous negative feedback loops. These unintended consequences weren’t seen by these best and brightness in the financial industry, let alone those whose jobs it was to regulate them.
The complexity of the challenges posed by climate change makes the financial crisis look like child’s play in comparison. For example, the underlying science requires modeling on some of the most sophisticated machines ever developed by man, and laying the ground work for a low carbon economy will require the most coordinated global political interaction humanity has ever attempted. These political decisions will impact nearly every aspect of our daily lives as individuals and the global economy as a whole.
I feel that it is this degree of complexity and challenge that makes the issue so difficult for the majority of people to truly appreciate. As a species, we have spent the vast majority of our evolutionary history evolving to address the threats which were most immediately pressing: those posed by the our local surroundings in the immediate future. Contemplating, appreciating, responding, and yes, sacrificing, to avoid a global threat which will play out over decades is unfortunately not something we have the coding for.
While the United States and other developed countries have come a long way in protecting our planet since the birth of the environmental a half century ago, it is nearly impossible to cite an example of legislation which was passed prior to a major catastrophe such as Love Canal, Bhopal, or the discovery of a giant hole in the ozone. In each case, the complex chemicals we created caused unforeseen consequences which had to be redressed after serious harm was done.Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, we don’t have a chance to “fix it after breaking it” like we have in these other cases.
I’ll take my cake today, even if it means I starve tomorrow.
Discounting, the theory that a dollar today is worth more today than a dollar tomorrow, is well established. For most of our history as a species, this approach served us well: when we were worried about where our next meal would come from, it would have been a mistake to worry about dinner three weeks in the future. However, since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have been discounting the future at an increasingly significant rate.
To understand the degree to which our current lifestyles discount the future, one need only look at the most recent climate science. According to a recent report from the Hadley Center in Britain, we will likely be unable to reverse the complete collapse of the Amazon rainforest should global temperatures increase more than 3 degrees Celsius. Not only will the collapse of the rainforest wipe out the greatest concentration of biodiversity on the planet, it will eliminate the most significant carbon sink on the planet.
As others have noted in this blog, the worlds oceans won’t fair much better in a world with elevated GHG concentrations. As they continue to absorb the toxic swill produced by modern industrial society, they are becoming acidic. The oceans have not seen a similar increase in acidity since the age of the dinosaurs. Given the slow underlying rate of natural evolution to combat these changes, the growing acidity will begin to wipe out the bottom of the marine food chain within a few decades.
These are just two examples, but the story is the same: as we in the developed world continue to drive to drive our SUV’s from our suburban McMansions to the grocery store to purchase water shipped from Fiji and meat raised in New Zealand, we are discounting the future to a greater extent than ever.
I don’t believe there is anything such as fire, so why should I buy homeowners insurance?
Imagine if courts required irrefutable video evidence to convict someone of murder. No matter how much evidence was found at the scene, the only evidence that would be considered is on celluloid. While OJ might like such a proposal the majority of sane would likely find such a proposal pretty absurd, if not carelessly dangerous.
To look at it another way, most people don’t assume that they are going to get into a car accident when they drive to work in the morning, or that their house is going to burn to the ground while they are out running errands. Despite the very slim chance of these occurrences happening, most people have homeowners and car insurance.
Unfortunately, it seems we look at climate in a different way than either of these examples. Despite the observed global retreat in glaciers, the observed changes in temperatures on land and in the ocean, the observed modifications in migratory patters, etc. politicians and the skeptics all too frequently cite that we don’t have enough “concrete evidence.”
Now I, and any reputable climate scientist, would acknowledge that we do not know for sure what will happen at the different levels of warming, whether we see 2 degrees celsius or four degrees Celsius: there is a range of impacts, and these go from moderately inconvenient to the global equivalent of a burglar breaking into your house, stealing everything and burning it to the ground.
To put this in the simplest of terms, the average American spends about $1,000 a year on car insurance despite the fact that there is less than a 1% chance of an accident (assuming the driver is sober.) As noted above, there is a 50/50 chance of a significantly altered world with the climate change we are already committed to. I’m not sure about you, but I’d be willing to spend a little on insurance to reduce the risk of a significantly altered world.
From here to….where?
Now I am by no means an atmospheric scientist. At the same time, I have been involved in climate science long enough to know that the observed changes are almost always outpacing what was predicted. In addition, I know enough about how groups work together to have the sense that the recommendations of the IPCC, a consensus document created through the work of thousands of scientists and approved by the governments of the world, are conservative in nature.
So with that said, what do these scientists say we need to do? In short, to reduce (but by no means eliminate) the chance of catastrophic climate change, we need to basically go cold turkey, peaking emissions of GHG’s by 2016, and reduce aggregate emissions by 80% by 2050. To put that in perspective, in a little more than forty years, the average citizen in the United States has to have an annual carbon footprint lower than his fellow citizen helping to rebuild the country following the Civil War.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a near term substitute for our insatiable demand for energy. That said, there are small glimmers of hope, such as the recent announcement by American Electric Power that their carbon capture and sequestration project in West Virginia has come in far below expectation (about 4 cents a Kwh). While there are those purists who feel that CSS, or nuclear or anything other than wind, solar and other “clean” forms of energy are not an option, this argument is nearly as destructive as those which deny climate change exists in the first place. Given the grip of our addiction, this is not the time to limit our treatment options.
In the past year, geoengineering has also begun to step out of the shadows and be proposed as a way to reduce some of the risks associated with runaway climate change. Geoengineering is by no means a panacea, and it may introduce as many risks as it addresses. It is also not a long term solution, as many of the approaches, particularly those which involve albedo modification, do nothing to address the combined threats posed by ocean acidification. However, considering that the aforementioned need to reduce emissions by 80% gives us only a 50/50 chance of averting catastrophic climate change, it could be a deadly mistake to not continue research into the area.
For better or worse, climate change is not an issue we can address over the next forty years, it is the issue we must address. Fighting poverty, or hunger, or disease or the myriad of other threats that face humanity are all important, but there is no sustainable solution to any of these issues should we not have a stable climate.
While there are those that still claim that there is significant scientific disagreement regarding climate change, the reality is that the urgency to address it has largely been resolved from a scientific perspective. The roadblocks are now translating the scientifically based reality into political action. Without the clear and present danger which mobilized over 20 million people to march on the first Earth Day in 1970, it is reasonable to question wether the world’s governments have the capability to adequately address climate. Governments have a difficult time addressing complicated issues involving intrenched interests when the public is calling out for change. In the case of climate change, the world’s governments must lead the majority of people who are currently unwilling to sacrifice their suburban lifestyle fueled by cheap energy.
At the the same time, the night is darkest just before the sun rises. The lack of a clear path forward out of Copenhagen casts a forbidding shadow on our ability to learn from our collective mistakes and adequately address the risks climate. For the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and the human race itself, lets hope this shadow is a result of the newly rising sun.