The politics of climate change

Published in the Fabian Society’s Autumn 2005: Party Futures.

Climate change is not like any of the other problems that politicians must solve as we move this first, and potentially most crucial, century of the fourth millennium. Throughout history, humanity has relied on succeeding generations to correct the mistakes of their predecessors. Failure could always be redeemed by lessons learned the hard way.  Mistakes were reversible: cities destroyed by wars could be rebuilt; governments overthrown, restored; invading hordes could, and did, retreat. Failing economic or social policies could be reversed, renewed or replaced.

Climate change is not like this. The huge geophysical systems that keep our climate stable respond to change slowly. Many of the climate processes we are setting in motion today will take centuries or longer to reveal there full impacts. But once started, these processes are irreversible. Succeeding generations will not be able to redeem our mistakes. They will have to live with them.

Global average temperatures have already risen 0.60c above their pre-industrial levels. This hardly sounds awesome but the average conceals a far greater increase in some parts of the world, especially the poles. We can already see the effects of this rise in retreating glaciers, collapsing ice shelves, thawing permafrost and changing patterns of animal behaviour.

Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions today we are already committed to another 0.60C rise in the next few decades. The EU and climate scientists now say that we must keep the eventual temperature rise to below 2.00C if we are to remain safe. Recent research suggests that we have less than fifteen years to put in place the necessary measures to be sure we can stay within this limit.

This is why the politics of climate change are different. There is a ticking clock. It is not just that we have to reach a difficult goal. We have to reach it within a fixed time frame. There is no previous experience of dealing with a political problem of this nature.

Unlike problems of a comparable scale, creating the World Trade Organisation or nuclear arms reduction, we cannot try again to achieve the same goal if our first efforts fail.

Climate change is a distinctive political problem in other ways. It is a truly global problem: perhaps the only truly global problem. Billions of people lead lives contaminated with poverty, hunger and illness. But there also billions who lead lives of healthy, well-fed affluence. There are failed or failing states, but many more that succeed. Terrorism spans the globe but it affects few of us directly.

Climate change affects every single person on the planet directly and simultaneously. Some of us are more vulnerable than others, the poorest most of all. The phrase ‘global warming’ creates a false sense of comfort. No-one should be under any illusions that an unstable climate will be benign. The hurricane which devastated New Orleans was only partly a result of climate change but it provides a very good preview of what life in an unstable climate will be like.

A changing climate will displace millions of people from their homelands, dislocate agriculture, fuel competing interests within and between nations over access to water, productive land and other resources. It will inhibit investment and unsettle markets. It will spread diseases and disrupt communications. It will create the conditions in which criminals and terrorists thrive and consumers and citizens are demoralised. The notion that we will be able to adapt successfully to change on this scale is an escapist fantasy.

The first step in getting a proper grip on the politics of climate change is to stop thinking of it as just another environmental problem to be dealt with when time and resources permit. This is not a problem that we can solve by getting the price of carbon right and hoping that somehow the magic of the market will work. We have to do something a lot more serious than trying to internalise the externalities of our fossil fuel consumption.

The second step is to recognise that the obstacles to solving this problem are neither technological nor economic. The technologies to do so already exist: advanced coal with carbon sequestration and storage and the renewables for electricity generation; ultra-light hybrids and fuel cells for vehicles. They need to be deployed much more widely.

The world will invest many trillions of dollars in energy technologies in the next 25 years. As things stand the bulk of this investment will be into carbon intensive technologies that will make climate stability impossible. Changing the trajectory of this technology deployment is the single most urgent political imperative of climate policy. Doing so will cost less than has already been spent on the war in Iraq so we know we can afford it.

Events will not stand still while politicians consider their options. China is currently building a new large coal fired power station every five days to meet its burgeoning demand for electricity. Over the next 25 years it plans to build almost 600 more. India will build close to 200 in the same period. The remaining countries of the world will build another 600. If all these power stations are built with conventional coal technology there is no prospect at all of maintaining a stable climate.

There is no way that the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol on their own will be enough to accomplish the necessary change in technology deployment. The Protocol was conceived at a time when the urgency of the problem was poorly understood. Its critics have a point when they say it does not do much to solve the problem. But they are normally using this as an argument to do even less, not to do something different.

The Protocol remains an essential part of the global machinery we will need to tackle climate change. We have to deal with greenhouse gas emissions from a variety of sources not just electricity production. The mechanisms the Protocol establishes will be needed to address emissions from aviation, shipping, vehicles, deforestation, smelting and many other places. But if we cannot deal with the emissions that will be created by the ‘lock-in’ to coal fired electricity generation in the next 25 years it really will not matter very much what we accomplish elsewhere.

Although there may be technically and even economically possible routes for China, India and North America to generate electricity without using coal, these routes are not politically available in today’s energy insecure world. Nor are they likely to be politically available in time. This means moving very rapidly to using coal as gas and sequestering the emissions geologically.

We know we can do both. We have considerable experience in the gasification of coal and in the management of the deep geological reservoirs in which to store the emissions. Managing those reservoirs is exactly what the oil and gas industry has been doing for over a century. But we have not put these technologies together before. This will require a considerable amount of institutional innovation and will cost more. 

A stable climate is a public good, like national security, a healthy population, an educated workforce, safe streets and clean air. Without these public goods the pursuit of private goods and personal fulfilment is impossible. Like other public goods, a stable climate cannot be secured without the investment of public funds.

The only way in which we can secure a stable climate for ourselves and our successors is to use public expenditure to leverage a different energy technology deployment trajectory from the one we are currently on. Working out how to do this is the core challenge of the politics of climate change.

Accomplishing it will bring many other public benefits in its wake: increased energy security, improved public health and lower health costs, improved economic productivity and competitiveness, enhanced innovation, better access to energy services for the many millions who currently live without them.

No-one could possibly suggest this will be easy. But failure will be harder to live with. It will take political leadership of a kind that has become unfamiliar. It will need a politics that stretches across international. ideological and institutional boundaries, that reaches beyond the news cycle, the business cycle and the political cycle. It will require insight and ingenuity of the highest order. It will demand a clarity of purpose and persistence of effort that is only normally available in the extremities of total war. Even so, it is not at all clear that we can succeed. But it is certain we will not if we do not try.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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