A couple of years ago, George Monbiot wrote a column in the Guardian arguing with me. He was responding to an essay that I’d written arguing that there was no good evaluation of the potential climate impacts of a rapid build-out of renewable energies, and that it was possible that given the short time frame, that even if we were to actually get the political and social will to do so, we might cross critical tipping points in our attempt to save ourselves. Monbiot argued that this was indeed a real possibility, but that we had to try it anyway, since the stakes were so high. I responded arguing that radical conservation and a much slower build-out, again, assuming a political will that does not exist, would be a better choice, and the discussion ended there. Both of us, of course, realized that debate in the absence of political will to do, well, anything, was sort of pointless.
With both peak oil and climate change, one of the most essential things you can know may simply be that both of them are things that we only fully understood in hindsight. Consider the history of climate change – in February 2007, when the latest IPCC report was released, the assessment was the grimmest ever provided. By the end of 2007, the IPCC report looked like a children’s book compared to the reality. The IPCC report proposed that summer sea ice might disappear from the arctic by the end of this century – by the summer of 2007 reasonable reports suggested they were off by more than 75 years – that we might see ice-free summers by the middle of the next decade. By fall the Climate Code Red report argued that climate sensitivity was double that which had been used to assess likelihoods in the IPCC report – and that has become an emerging consensus. And there are plenty of other examples – as the Copenhagen Update reported this past year, all the voices on the right screaming that the IPCC is wrong may have been correct – but they missed the fact that the IPCC report was too conservative, that climate change is occurring more rapidly and severely than even the world’s expert consensus could fully articulate.
Despite all of this, political responses to climate change have gotten steadily softer and wussier, not stronger and more effective, and Copenhagen was pretty much the death hope for any real political consensus. Consider Monbiot’s biting and entirely accurate assessment:
But nobody cares enough to make a fight of it. The disagreements are simultaneously entrenched and muted. The doctor’s certificate has not been issued; perhaps, to save face, it never will be. But the harsh reality we have to grasp is that the process is dead.
In 2012 the only global deal for limiting greenhouse gas emissions – the Kyoto protocol – expires. There is no realistic prospect that it will be replaced before it elapses: the existing treaty took five years to negotiate and a further eight years to come into force. In terms of real hopes for global action on climate change, we are now far behind where we were in 1997, or even 1992. It’s not just that we have lost 18 precious years. Throughout the age of good intentions and grand announcements we spiralled backwards.
Nor do regional and national commitments offer more hope. An analysis published a few days ago by the campaigning group Sandbag estimates the amount of carbon that will have been saved by the end of the second phase of the EU’s emissions trading system, in 2012; after the hopeless failure of the scheme’s first phase we were promised that the real carbon cuts would start to bite between 2008 and 2012. So how much carbon will it save by then? Less than one third of 1%.
Worse still, the reduction in industrial output caused by the recession has allowed big polluters to build up a bank of carbon permits which they can carry into the next phase of the trading scheme. If nothing is done to annul them or to crank down the proposed carbon cap (which, given the strength of industrial lobbies and the weakness of government resolve, is unlikely) these spare permits will vitiate phase three as well. Unlike the Kyoto protocol, the EU’s emissions trading system will remain alive. It will also remain completely useless.
Plenty of nations – like Britain – have produced what appear to be robust national plans for cutting greenhouse gases. With one exception (the Maldives), their targets fall far short of the reductions needed to prevent more than two degrees of global warming.
Even so, none of them are real.
Missing from the proposed cuts are the net greenhouse gas emissions we have outsourced to other countries and now import in the form of manufactured goods. Were these included in the UK’s accounts, alongside the aviation, shipping and tourism gases excluded from official figures, Britain’s emissions would rise by 48%. Rather than cutting our contribution to global warming by 19% since 1990, as the government boasts, we have increased it by about 29%. It’s the same story in most developed nations. Our apparent success results entirely from failures elsewhere.
Hanging over everything is the growing recognition that the United States isn’t going to play. Not this year, perhaps not in any year. If Congress couldn’t pass a climate bill so feeble that it consisted of little but loopholes while Barack Obama was president and the Democrats had a majority in both houses, where does hope lie for action in other circumstances? Last Tuesday the Guardian reported that of 48 Republican contenders for the Senate elections in November only one accepted that man-made climate change is taking place. Who was he? Mike Castle of Delaware. The following day he was defeated by the Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell, producing a full house of science deniers. The enlightenment? Fun while it lasted.
I’ve noticed I haven’t written much about climate change in the last couple of months, because everything I write sounds like a dirge. The reality is that even the most optimistic folk didn’t think we had forever. If the pattern of scientific revelation continues, realistically we’re going to see critical tipping points in the rear-view mirror – and we can intuit that many of them are probably there already.
The debate I had with Monbiot was stimulating – intellectually speaking. But both of us could not but know that it was an intellectual debate only. Because in order to do what needs to be done at the national and world scale, we’d have to be different people, who choose different leaders and have their eyes on the future. So now we’re back to the big question – how do we live in this world we’ve chosen? What will it look like? And what do we get to choose now?