Climate change policy ‘too big to fail’?

I spoke on October 20th at a public LSE lecture, Combatting Carbon in an Economic Crisis. Read my full remarks from the conference (pdf).

I argued that we do not have an economic problem with tackling climate change but we do have a significant, growing and largely unanalysed political problem. This is not to say that the economics of climate change are easy, only that they are a much less important and a lot less difficult than the politics.

One of the more unusual and interesting features of climate change as a problem is that we have an unusually clear analysis of the problem. We know exactly what we need to do – to construct a carbon neutral global energy system by the middle of the century. We know how to do it – all the technologies and engineering knowledge we need to get there in time are already available. We know we can afford to do it – the International Energy Agency estimates that the nett cost of doing so might add only a couple of trillion dollars to what we will be investing in energy anyway over the next twenty five years. That is a few tens of billions of dollars a year – I used to think that was a lot of money until the bankers taught me otherwise.

What we do not know is how to put the technology and capital together. Doing that will require political will and political will is exactly what the economic crisis has revealed to be lacking. There are some other significant ways in which climate change is very different from any problem humanity has had to tackle. Let give three examples:

  • First, it is a problem that is more truly global than any other.
  • Second, policy failure is not an option. Economic, social or political goals not achieved today can be pursued again tomorrow. This is not true for climate change. If we fail to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations at a level compatible with staying below 20C we cannot try again later to achieve this goal.
  • Third, there is a specific timeframe within which action must be taken. The build up of carbon in the atmosphere is cumulative and effectively irreversible. To remain within this boundary condition, global carbon emissions must peak within the period 2015-2020 and decline rapidly thereafter.

It is not yet widely understood by politicians, policy makers and the public alike that climate change will lead to a complete transformation of the human prospect. This is true whether climate policy succeeds or fails.

My own view is that we will not solve this problem without an insurgency of the under forties against the over forties. We need to shift the axis of choice in politics from an antiquated debate between left and right to that of choosing between the future and the past.

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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