A few hours previous to writing this people were out on the streets of London and New York demanding action on climate change. Ban Ki-Moon himself joined the march in New York. But getting Governments and big corporations to act and make meaningful changes is difficult.
There are still a lot of people who for one reason or another don’t want to believe in climate change. They deny that there is a problem or they say there is a problem but it is not a man made problem.
Why is this?
I think one of the problems is that the human race seems to have painted itself into a corner here. We have come to rely on oil, coal and gas to such an extent that cheap energy is no longer an optional part of modern civilization. This has a strong influence on the beliefs and opinions of the people running large corporations, governments and particularly on the energy companies.
If we stop using fossil fuels then we effectively take our society back to the technology we had before the industrial revolution. Our 21st century western lifestyle is dependent upon the consumption of vast quantities of hydrocarbons in the form of petrol, diesel and plastics. If we stopped using fossil fuels it would mean that we in the western countries who enjoy a very high standard of living compared to those in the third world would have to take a huge reduction in our standard of living and our consumption of energy, food and consumer goods.
In the minds of a lot of people there is still some degree of scepticism, uncertainty, and doubt around man made climate change. Large energy companies try to exaggerate those doubts by promulgating even the smallest piece of information that casts doubt on the reality of climate change. I am not suggesting some kind of global conspiracy here, just plain old human nature. Most people in the energy industries or big corporations who feel that the environmental movement might threaten their bottom line take the intellectually easy way out, simply ignore the evidence and deny there is a problem.
Governments also have an ambivalent view of the environmental movement, on the one hand they are voters, but on the other hand governments feel that they have to look after the vested interests of big business.
It is a dichotomy, how can you be both for oil and against carbon emissions. It’s human nature to resolve mental conflicts like this by rejecting whichever side of the dichotomy we have less emotional investment in. People try to find consistent narratives to shape their world views.
Let’s look at how the two narratives clash:
Environmentalists and climate scientists say we must stop using fossil fuels to prevent global warming.
Politicians and people who are employed in the energy industries or in large corporations can foresee the consequences of stopping the use of fossil fuels. People are too dependent on them. The result would be a global depression on a scale the world has never seen before.
Politicians and people in the energy industries are therefore strongly disinclined to listen to the environmentalists and climate scientists.
How else would you expect them to react?
You might as well tell farmers that they have to stop growing food because obesity is going to cause massive health problems.
So they are faced with a choice, they could do one of four things :-
- Deny man made global warming
- Blame the consumer society we live in for over consuming
- Ignore the problem and hope it will go away
- Accept the fact that we’re in a very deep mess without a solution
Unsurprisingly the first option is the most popular. People tend to see things in black and white and if you see things in this way it’s the most intellectually consistent option to take.
I think the fourth option is the most realistic. In developing economies, like China and India, the desirability of growth is obvious, to lift millions out of poverty, although if the planet continues to heat up, that success will be short lived. The UN expects world population to rise to 10 billion before it stabilizes (if it stabilizes). Development places huge demands on the world’s energy production. China now has a greater CO2 emission per head of population than the EU, and it is accelerating.
Global summits from Kyoto onwards have been exercises too little too late and in being more interested in creating the appearance of tackling the problem than actually doing anything effective. It is not, for the most part, that they think nothing should be done. It is just that they are unsure what they can get away with. Both in the sense of the minimum necessary expenditure required to save the planet and more importantly in the sense of what they think their citizens can stand in terms of increased taxes and decreased choices.
I don’t think we have any chance of reducing CO2 emissions by enough to meet the IPCC targets. If the models are correct, it’s already too late.
China and India (and many others) are already building too many coal fired power stations for there to be any chance of significant global reductions in CO2 emissions within the next fifty years. They are a quick and cheap short term solution to the need for electricity. Even if electric cars exceed all expectations at reducing oil usage, coal and gas fired power stations will still dominate 21st century global CO2 emissions. Renewable energy is probably more than fifty years behind where it needs to be in terms of research and development.
Rich nations can probably cope with rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. It’s the poorer nations who will suffer the most from climate change.
Should we help the developing world develop?
It would be extremely evil to prevent the developing world from gaining access to the energy and wealth they need to survive the consequences of the developed world’s profligate energy use. But if they gain this access then they will make the problem much worse, by building more power stations and driving more cars and consuming, they will be sucked in to global capitalism and consumerism. Western companies have their eyes firmly fixed on these ‘Emerging Markets’ as soon as they have enough money to afford our goods we will sell to them.
So we are dammed if we do and dammed if we don’t.
Does the world have enough resources to support 10 billion people with a lifestyle equivalent to the one we in the west enjoy today?
I don’t think so!
It is a very frightening prospect. I don’t know what is going to happen.