Published in the Montrose Journal, Spring 2005 Issue.
The climate is more sensitive to human interference and climate change a threat that is more imminent, more dangerous, and developing faster than we previously thought. This is the grim message from a recent scientific gathering.
It took place in Exeter as the world’s leading climate scientists were brought together by Tony Blair as part of the preparation for his G8 meeting at Gleneagles in July. Its conclusions were clear, if measured in their expression: “In many cases the risks are more serious than previously thought.” and later, “A number of new impacts were identified that are potentially disturbing.”
This latter conclusion was prompted in part by a paper detailing the growing acidification of the ocean resulting from increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is especially disturbing because what is being described is a chemical process. In other words, this is something about which we can be certain that it is a result of human actions.
What it means is that not only are we reducing the ability of the ocean to remove carbon dioxide from the air, thus accelerating climate change, but we are likely to ‘affect the entire marine food chain.’ That is, to place additional stress on the already struggling fisheries that supply essential food for huge numbers of people.
The former conclusion was based on a series of papers which assessed a very wide array of risks to human beings from a changing climate. These ranged from a clearer idea of when irreversible melting of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets might begin – perhaps only decades away although it would be centuries before the full effects were seen – to the possibility that the tropical forests which currently absorb carbon dioxide could themselves become a very large source of the gas.
The force of the three day meeting was to add considerable weight to the Prime Minister’s view that climate change is “the single most important long-term issue that we face as a global community.” It underscores his foresight in deciding to make climate change a top priority for his Presidencies of both the G8 and the EU in 2005. It also poses considerable challenges to our present mechanisms for global governance.
To appreciate fully just how difficult it will be to address these challenges, it is worth examining why climate change is such a different issue from others that the international system has had to tackle. Experts always want to claim that their problem is different. There are three reasons for believing that in this case climate policy analysts might be right.
First, the sheer scale of the problem. It is a truly global problem that directly affects every single citizen of every single nation. Poverty and disease affect billions of people, but there are also billions who lead lives of healthy affluence. We are all caught up in the war on terrorism but, as the people of Britain know from their thirty year war against the IRA, it makes little direct difference to the daily lives of the overwhelming majority of Britons. Literally no-one will escape the everyday effects of a changing climate.
It may be possible to opt out of climate treaties, but there is no opt out from climate change itself. This creates an entanglement of interests unprecedented in history. No opt-outs are available.
If the problem of climate change is truly global, so, too is the path to its solution. The largest single source of the gases that cause climate change is the combustion of the fossil fuels we use to generate electricity and power movement. This means that stabilising the climate involves nothing less than coordinating the energy policies of more than 200 nations, or, at the very least, those of the whole of the OECD and the emerging economies of Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. This will not be easy. Because of its centrality to economic prosperity few countries are comfortable ceding influence over their energy policy to others.
The European Union, despite all the urgent pressures of creating a single market, has tried without great success for 50 years to align the energy policies of its member states. This was not easy when there were only six members, it is even more difficult now that there are 25. We have seen repeated attempts by governments of the United States to create a Federal energy policy founder on the same reefs of divergent regional and local interests.
The second reason why this problem is different is that it is driven primarily by knowledge – by our understanding of an inexorable natural reality. It is the findings of the International Panel on Climate Change that have compelled governments to act on this problem. This is a very different motivating force from the collisions of national interest or the clash of deeply held beliefs that have traditionally driven international relations.
By comparison with interests and ideologies, knowledge is a weak influence on international relations: it is more complex and less compelling; its thrust is more easily ignored or deflected. Human beings have a well developed ability to avoid what they cannot easily address.
The third reason is that with climate change there is a ticking clock. During the Cold War the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists would move the hands on a metaphorical clock closer or further away from midnight depending on the state of relations between the superpowers.
The climate clock is no metaphor. Its ticking is the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Today we live in a world in which this concentration has reached 379 parts per million (ppm), up from approximately 270ppm in the pre-industrial age. Because of the delays in the response of the climate to increasing carbon dioxide concentrations we do not know if even this level will maintain a safe climate for civilisation.
When, as we frequently did, we missed a crucial deadline in the arms or trade talks it was a setback but we could always try again to reach the same goal. Wealth increased a little later than it might otherwise have done, security was at risk for a little longer, but the goals remained available.
It is different with climate change. For all practical purposes we cannot return to the world of 270 ppm or even to the 379 ppm world that we now live in. Once we pass a certain concentration it is gone for good. The climate it represents is no longer available. Many climate analysts believe that we are already too late to avoid living in a climate shaped by a carbon dioxide concentration of anything less than 450 ppm. We have no idea whether economic development can succeed in such a climate. There is no experience in diplomatic history of having to negotiate under such relentless and implacable deadlines.
Tackling climate change is a comparable diplomatic challenge to the strategic arms control talks or the creation of the World Trade Organisation. Both of these processes took more than fifty years to arrive at their present incomplete positions. We do not have the luxury of fifty years to address climate change.
Structural progress in global governance is traditionally built by trial and error. Failure breeds lessons that are applied to a new effort which over time lead to progress. Rapid movement only occurs when catastrophic events, normally wars, force strategic realignments. Time is too short for the traditional approach to work with climate change and by the time catastrophic events are too evident to ignore it will be far too late to do anything effective about the problem.
Any problem on this scale and novelty is bound to transcend traditional policy boundaries. In particular, climate change blurs, perhaps eliminates, the distinction between foreign and domestic policy. Energy, transport, housing, agriculture, and many other policy disciplines must now be treated as an integral part of foreign policy. Home departments must learn to think, with their foreign policy colleagues, about how to deploy foreign policy assets in support of shared goals on climate. In the UK, this has led to the creation of a symbiotic relationship between the Foreign and Environment Ministries in both the design and delivery of climate policy. On this issue the traditional barriers between the two departments have all but disappeared.
At the same time the advocates within foreign ministries of this new approach to climate diplomacy need to convince their colleagues to take part in this mobilisation. The consequences of climate change will have such a profound effect on international affairs that they will come to shape the context within which diplomacy takes place.
This will happen – is happening – on many levels. Clearly, the physical impacts of climate change, for example the displacement of large numbers of people, will be significant. But, at a deeper level, the international system can only function effectively if everyone with a stake in it believes that they can make it work in their interests, and that others will take some heed of their interests. In other words, there needs to be a certain minimum level of equity in the system.
There is no greater threat to that equity than climate change. It is fundamentally inequitable: those most responsible for the problem are not the same as those most vulnerable to its consequences. As those consequences become more evident, they will impose increasing stresses on the framework within which other international conversations take place. We cannot expect to keep building rules-based international systems for dealing with other challenges – trade, terrorism, drugs, weapons proliferation – without a response to climate that bridges the equity gap inherent in the problem itself.
In the climate diplomacy of the 21st century there will necessarily be a very porous boundary between foreign and domestic policy. Formal arrangements between states will certainly be needed, but the global framework will have to be flexible enough to accommodate states moving at different speeds. Even more importantly, it will need to accommodate many non-state actors – cities, provinces, regions, corporations, and non-governmental organisations – that have a part to play. It will all need the legitimacy that the United Nations provide, but it will need to be a more empowered, efficient and focused UN to deal effectively with this problem.
The core obstacles to more effective global governance on the climate are not those of institutional or policy design. Of course, more horizontal, less silo based, frameworks at both national and global level would make progress easier, but the current lack of political will is a more significant barrier.
The design of the current policy framework, a convention establishing principles, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which has now been appended the Kyoto Protocol specifying a process for achieving agreed targets, is both robust and elegant. Robust, in that any number of protocols to deal with specific aspects of the issue can be attached to the basic treaty. Elegant, in that the mechanisms established under the Kyoto Protocol are flexible, allow for learning over time and identifying least cost options.
If there were unlimited time to deal with climate change, this approach might eventually deliver useful results. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. The timescales for action are depressingly short. Additional coal burn in China alone between now and 2030 will push carbon dioxide concentrations above 400ppm – a level we must stay below if we are to have much chance of limiting global temperature rise to the 20C considered safe by the EU.
What is really needed is an application of considerably greater political will. That in turn will require a reframing of the debate on climate change. Two key goals must be accomplished to move the world forward. The first is to align the efforts of the EU, China, Russia and the United States. The second is to escape, as rapidly as possible, investment lock-in to carbon intensive technologies.
To date, the debate on climate change has focused exclusively on developing the regulatory constraints needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Progress so far has been slow because neither governments nor businesses have found it easy to engage on this basis. Furthermore, climate change is not simply another environmental issue to be dealt with as time and resources permit. It affects the fundamental interests of the world as a whole.
A more positive approach must focus on the value of a stable climate, the investment needed to secure it, and the additional benefits that would flow from that investment in terms of innovation, competitiveness and energy security.
This political framework has four advantages:
• the issue in China, India, Brazil and other developing countries is the reliable and affordable supply of energy for growth. Any framework that implies limiting growth will fail. Russia decided to ratify Kyoto largely because it saw the prospect of new resources for investment. China will engage when the question becomes the investment needed to meet its energy needs whilst addressing its growing climate change concerns;
• there will be a business lobby for investment. Significant industrial and financial interests will benefit from investment programmes in China, India, Russia and elsewhere as well as Europe and North America. Crucially, this will include American companies and investors, so it will be harder for a US Administration to stand aside;
• Investment delivers technology. The immediate priority for climate change is not inventing wholly new low carbon technologies; it is rapid deployment of those currently available. This is driven by investment;
• Over the next 20 years, some $15 trillion will be invested worldwide in the supply of energy. An investment-based climate strategy will use public funds to leverage private capital towards low carbon energy systems. It will require governments and international financial institutions to do what they are best at – to provide finance and guarantees – but then work through markets and the private sector to achieve the necessary outcomes.
Such an approach offers a new, more inclusive and constructive response to the challenge of climate change. Reframed as a debate about achieving a stable climate, it is a security issue and therefore central to the national interest; it is about investment and therefore about innovation, opportunity, and employment; for the economy, it is about efficiency and competitiveness; and for consumers, it is about widening choice and securing supply.
The current debate, with its focus on burden-sharing and historic responsibility, is backward-looking and exclusive. It promotes a ‘you first’ approach to international cooperation. A reframed debate, with a focus on human creativity and skills, is inclusive and looks forward. It promotes a ‘me too’ approach to international cooperation. Redeeming past and present sins is a pallid prospect politically. Reaching for the ‘sunlit uplands’ of a world in which our many civilizations can continue to unfold within a stable climate is far more compelling.