Thursday, February 16, 2006

Summer of Reckless Denial

It’s nearly ten years since I first wrote a column on climate change. It was on the publication in 1995 of the second report to the UN by the International Panel on Climate Change. That too was full of what White House aides would now call “speculative musings”.
It warned that human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, was increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses. This would lead to changes in temperature and sea level, and create instability. The result would likely be more storms, floods, droughts. Urgent action would be needed to prevent climate change becoming irreversible.
Well, the musings turned out to be rather more than speculative. As the United States Academy of Sciences confirmed last week, those IPCC forecasts were almost entirely correct. Temperatures have risen, along with concentrations of atmospheric CO2. There have indeed been more storms, droughts, glacial retreats, forest fires in places like Siberia. Scientists are warning signs that climate change could be accelerating.
Well, we can’t say we weren’t warned. But the warnings weren’t taken seriously and still aren’t, in America at least. Our system of liberal democracy has prevailed over the 20th Century alternatives, but it remains stubbornly resistant to long-term policy-making. We need to understand why this culture of denial is so deeply ingrained, because we are living though a time unique in history when the decisions taken today could quite literally cost the earth.
There are, of course, still substantial numbers of people who don’t believe that climate change is a problem. I well recall the way the IPCC was attacked in 1995 for being unscientific, politically-motivated, anti-American.
I can also remember the fatuous reaction of the media to the IPPC’s findings. The newspaper ran forecasts of how the South of England would become like Tuscany, and how vineyards would be grown in Leeds and Bradford. Only the British press could reduce what is potentially the greatest man-made catastrophe in history to a story about the English weather.
My own view was rather different, though perhaps equally self-centred. I had recently become a father, my column speculated on how I would explain to him in twenty years why we allowed this to happen, just so that we could drive bigger and faster cars. My son is 11 now, and he is beginning to understand global warming. In a few years, his generation are going to be asking pretty awkward questions about why, in the decade after IPCC, we indulged in the greatest shopping boom in history instead of conserving precious fossil fuels and securing the future.
So, we’ll shake our heads and say the problem was just too big for most of us to take in. I mean, people were too busy managing their own lives, the school run, foreign holidays, moving house. Politicians? Governments deal with short four year political cycles, you can’t expect them to look ahead beyond the next election. Anyway, the science was so complex, most of us couldn’t begin to understand it.
There remain a number of highly influential sceptics who continue to get coverage out of all proportion to their scientific authority. Until recently, the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomberg , and the TV environmental celebrity, David Bellamy, were given greater prominence than real authorities like like Lord May, the President of the Royal Society, or the government’s chief scientist Lord King. A number of groups, even some on the left, argued that global warming was just global alarmism from extreme ecological groups who wanted to return us to a pre-industrial nirvana.
At first, scientists weren’t sure whether global warming wasn’t part of some natural cycle, rather than the result of human agency. There have been other great fluctuations in the climate over the last few hundred thousand years. How could we be sure that it is our greenhouse gasses that is causing this present period of high temperature?
There will always will be an element of doubt because science doesn’t deal in absolutes. However, there has developed recently such a critical mass of scientific opinion that it is simply impossible any longer to ignore the evidence that climate change is a reality, and that we have a lot to do with it. Last week, the national academies of science of all the G8 industrialised nations AND China , India and Brazil, made an appeal to world leaders to take climate change seriously.
And for once, I think they will. Ten years after, I am becoming less of a pessimist on climate change. Tony Blair may have returned from America empty handed last week, but I think this G8 round will coincide with a change in the intellectual climate.
Even George W, Bush, an oilman whose idea of environmental improvement is to start drilling in Alaska, is changing his tune. He is still muttering about needing more information about climate change, but the Republican White House is no longer attempting to argue that climae change is a myth, or that there is nothing we can do about it.
I would like to think that this change is wholly the result of the pressure from environmentalists and the global scientific community. But I suspect the reason is more base. There is money to be made from climate change, and there is money to be lost from ignoring it.
Formidable economic interests are beginning to shift and prepare for what they now increasingly realise is the inevitable. On Friday, 23 of the world’s leading companies including Ford, British Airways, HSBC, delivered a call for immediate action by both government and the private sector. BP now calls itself “Beyond Petroleum”. Honda and Toyota are vying to be the most environmentally friendly car companies.
These guys aren’t stupid. The corporations don’t want to be in the firing line when the next generation of political leaders starts looking around for people to blame for the crisis. If companies continue to promote fossil fuel technology, knowing the science on climate change, they could find themselves in the dock of history, much as the tobacco manufacturers are today.
But what is perhaps more important is that American foreign policy and environmental policy could also coincide. The US strategic analysts are increasingly alarmed at the industrial might of the emerging nations, India and China. Crudely, the US would like to see a brake on industrialism to keep the upstart countries in check for a generation. Imposing environmental restrictions on fossil fuel is one way of doing that.
You see, the American economy has matured beyond metal-bashing and toy manufacture, and is increasingly moving into what has been called the “weightless” economy of computer design, high-value electronics, services and finance. It is not inconceivable that, in a few years, America could be in the lead in the planning of a new kind of fuel-efficient economy which would also free the US from dependence on Arab oil.
Last week. the Republican governor of the most technologically advanced state on the planet, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, astonished the world by declaring that California will be leading the drive to combat global warming. “We know the science, we see the threat and we know the time for action is now” he said.
It’s not clear yet whether the Gubernator has got rid of his fleet of gas-guzzling Hummers, but this is a remarkable change of heart for a politicians who only a couple of years ago was said in his election campaign: “Don’t worry about it”.
I don’t want to make too much of this. But there is a chance that Bush’s claim that America could contribute more by technological solutions to CO2 than by actually cutting it’s own consumption to Kyoto levels, may not entirely be hot air.
I’m not saying that Bush is becoming an environmentalist. He is an oil man through and through, in hock to petroleum and auto conglomerates who bankrolled his campaign. America produces 25% of the world’s carbon emissions with only 2% of its population. Actual reduction must be part of America’s response. The people of the United States will have to learn to do without their cars and find alternative means of transport.
However, no one should underestimate the US capacity for innovation, and its ability to see commercial opportunity. The US digital economy could be ideally placed to dominate a new world economy based, not on mass consumption, but on mass substitutionism - the replacement for the old fossil economy. Clean coal, carbon storage, production design, nuclear fission, microelectronics, computers etc..all play their part.
Gleneagles could mark the end of the beginning on climate change. Once America is persuaded - and I think that point is near - then things might change very fast. A year ago, the writer Ian McEwen asked. “Are we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of international cooperation, or are we living in an Edwardian summer of reckless denial?” I may be naive, but I think the summer is over.

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