Matthew’s Glass novel, Ultimatum, has a compellingly plausible premise. It is 2032. Decades of Copenhagen-type negotiations have produced nothing but broken promises. As the seas and storms rise, low-lying areas like Florida and Louisiana become uninsurable, then uninhabitable (not to mention island states and Bangladesh). The new US president must decide whether to keep lying to the public, when he learns that it has become urgent to relocate 40 million Americans. But carbon emissions are still rising, especially in the dominant economy, China.
I won’t spoil the book by telling you more. But it asks a fair question: can we reasonably achieve a UN-type international agreement that would actually keep the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees? For this purpose, let us accept (as I do) that the science of climate change is right, and that climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation. Let us accept (as I do) that our failure to take meaningful action will blight the lives of our children, and maybe our own. Even then?
I confess that I am not optimistic. Not merely because so little happened at Copenhagen, after so much effort. Not merely because the “Copenhagen Accord”, Obama’s brave attempt to rescue the meeting, allowed Canada to further weaken our emissions target. (From 20% reduction by 2020 to 17%, both measured from 2005, not 1990 as in our Kyoto commitment.) Not merely because even a binding international treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, produced no meaningful compliance, especially by Canada. Not merely because of the yawning deficit and political gridlock in our American neighbour. Not merely because of the resignation of the United Nations’ top climate official, Yvo de Boer. And not merely because China swamps modest reductions elsewhere with its new coal plant every week, feels it owes nothing to the rest of the world, and will not tolerate any brakes on its economic and political resurgence.
Harvard Law Professor Dan Shapiro conducted a telling seminar at the Davos World Economic Forum in January – a persuasive demonstration of how easy it is for competition to trump survival.
The participants were divided into four groups. Each group had 20 minutes to develop an (artificial) “national” identity, with national values, a flag, national symbol etc.; then they were to explain themselves to the other groups. The transparent purpose of this exercise was to get the participants to identify with their new groups, as deeply as possible in 20 minutes. An “all-powerful alien” then announced that all humans would be killed unless the participants agreed, within one hour, to all join any one of the existing groups. They had time for three rounds of negotiations before the deadline.
They failed to agree.
This should have been an easy negotiation, infinitely easier than the climate crisis. It was only an exercise, with no real-world consequences. The participants were an extraordinary group of the world’s most brilliant and sophisticated. No one could “attack the science” or otherwise deny the reality and immediacy of the threat. They did not need to justify their decisions to anyone who was not at the table. There were only four groups, they were of equal size and power, they had only 20 minutes’ investment in their separate identities, and their claimed “values” were almost identical. But one group bitterly refused to to give up its separate existence, even at the price of certain “death” for all.
This exercise reinforces my instinct that we will not achieve a binding international agreement, at least until both China and the US decide that it is in their self-interest to have one. But, until then, what is the alternative? How can we prevent, adapt to and cope with climate change, without a Copenhagen-type treaty? Is there any other escape from Gwynne Dyers’ Climate Wars?
In the highly praised book, “Why We Disagree about Climate Change”, Professor Mike Hulme
argues that we will not reach a universal agreement on energy (wealth and status), but also that we may not need to. He thinks that the effort to reach a Copenhagen type treaty is as ambitious and as doomed as the Tower of Babel. Instead, Hulme argues that the five key lessons of climate change are:
1. Climate change is a relative risk, not an absolute one
2. Climate risks are serious, and we should seek to minimise them
… climate risks are serious and tend… to victimise the most vulnerable…
3. Our world has huge unmet development needs
..with existing technologies there can be no meeting of these development aspirations without a significant increase in energy and…carbon…
4. Our current energy portfolio is not sustainable
… our existing energy technology portfolio … will not survive two more generations. …
5. Massive and deliberate geo-engineering of the planet is a dubious practice
… Climate change is not the problem to be solved; climate change is the idea we must use if we are to learn our lessons properly. It is not clear to me that we need an overall global climate governance regime for this to happen; indeed, seeking such a governance regime might be a distraction from taking purposeful action on these five lessons.”
Despite Professor Shapiro, can we agree on this much? We should be taking purposeful action now on the indisputable lessons of climate change, particularly the urgent need for massive improvements in our production and use of energy. We should stop our dependence on hostile foreigners; why doom ourselves to yet more wars in the Middle East? China is building a vast demand for and supply of green technology – are we going to let them own the field? Canada is a world laggard on energy efficiency in buildings – why is that good enough? Professor Paul Ekins showed that shifting taxes from employment (which we want) to carbon emissions (which we don’t) slashes carbon emissions, increases employment and improves air quality, with no damage to productivity. Why would we rather tax employment?
There are lots of things we could and should do about climate change. With or without an international treaty, we should get at them, and soon.
This article appeared in Municipal World.