An important milestone is the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report last Friday (see pages 578-585 and 595-598). After the scientific consensus, which has been clear for some time, a solid political consensus that acknowledges the problem finally appears to be within reach. But achieving this result also has its risks.
Until recently (perhaps even last week), the general global narrative of the great climate-change debate has been deceptively straightforward. The climate-science community, along with the entire environmental movement and a broad coalition from Greenpeace and Ralph Nader to Senator John McCain and many American evangelical Christians, is advocating for meaningful action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
This requirement has been disputed by a collection of money-men and a few disparate scientists in alliance with some like-minded ideologues, such as the current President of the United States and Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard.
The IPCC report, released in Paris, has served a useful purpose in removing last ground from under the feet of climate-change skeptics, leaving them looking helpless and ridiculous. However, this situation was already quite clear. Opinion in business circles, in particular, has escalated.
A report released by Citigroup on January 19, Climatic Consequences – the kind of eloquently written, big-picture material that the well-informed chief executive reads on Sunday afternoon – suggests even more strongly than the IPCC that anthropogenic climate change There is a fact that world governments are moving to confront. It leaves no question that big businesses need to deal with this situation – something that many of them are already doing.
Then, the enemy is defeated and the conquerors can rejoice? hardly. In fact, the pending withdrawal from the platform of the President of the United States and his allies leaves those who acknowledge the gravity of the problem and are facing an even greater challenge. The world now broadly accepts that we have a problem if not a crisis. So what is to be done?
There are policy choices ahead than political leaders (or the media) are far more willing to accept. In a sense, twenty years of hopeless trench-warfare with skeptics have prevented a rational discussion about what needs to be done even from what has happened.
Currently, the political response to the situation is, in large part, inconsistent. We need to restrict emissions in the developed world, and some steps are being taken to do so, mainly through the Kyoto Protocol. We need to develop clean energy sources, and these are being pursued fairly rapidly, although each – nuclear power, biofuels, wind power and hydropower, for example – creates its own environmental battlefield.
Steps are also being taken to build systems for large-scale carbon capture and storage, and to improve the efficiency with which energy is used (see pages 586–591).
The trouble is, none of this is even close to being enough to meet the challenge. Hybrid cars are being purchased (and often allowing their lucky drivers exclusive access to empty highway lanes). Britain’s Conservative Party leader David Cameron has sought permission to plan a wind turbine installation in his back garden. And Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam have announced that their most recent world tour will be ‘Carbon Neutral’. But we all vaguely know that all this is nowhere near enough.
Even the most progressive governments continue to place the issue of climate change on a back seat, behind their fundamental commitment to strong economic growth, which is the key to political survival (in developed countries) and human dignity (in developing countries). in) is required to enable it.
So in a typical European nation, for example, governments are calling for drastic emissions cuts as they plan to expand air travel, which is expected to further triple in the next twenty years of air travel – the fastest-growing source of emissions. Source rising from, and not overshadowed by a Kyoto Protocol.
The fundamental difficulty here is that it has been politically impossible to accept that fighting global warming may involve some economic sacrifice, at least at the time when skeptics were in the picture. As these are overcome, it becomes possible – and indeed necessary – to initiate a discussion.
Similarly, it has become difficult to talk about actions that need to be taken to adapt to the damage caused by climate change and the associated rise in sea level, as such steps were considered dedication to those Those who just want to keep emitting greenhouse gases.