It is sad but true. Climate change is unstoppable. Is it happening now – as the Philippines has discovered to its great cost this month – and whatever we do from now on is going to make very little difference. The latest United Nations Climate Change Conference once again seems to confirm the futility of trying to get global agreement. Too late!
The optimism expressed by Christiana Figueres and Nicholas Stern in Warsaw that “a new universal climate agreement is within our reach”, has to be contrasted with the decisions of Japan, Canada and Australia to back-track on the national commitments they had made. And those commitments – particularly in the case of Australia which was at a pathetic 5% emissions reduction – were not of the order to make a real difference anyway. We have passed the point of no return.
UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon said in 2007 that climate change was “unequivocal” and we can expect “abrupt and irreversible” impacts. Nothing has changed.
I am horrified that I appear to be admitting defeat for the first time – ever the optimist – that the present process is not working and not enough has been set in motion to make any difference. Can we do more than prepare for the worst? Go into damage control? Read More.
Because, as many people do not seem to understand, it will take many years – climate scientists say between 20 and 50 years – for any of the benefits of what we do now to be felt. We cannot change the climate overnight. What damage we have done over 200-odd years since the Industrial Revolution – when man started to seriously burn fossil fuels, land clearing and changed agricultural practices - has changed for all time the level of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.
Here’s what Bryan Walsh wrote for Time Magazine last month:
You want to know what the biggest obstacle to dealing with climate change is? Simple: time.
It will take decades before the carbon dioxide we emit now begins to have its full effect on the planet’s climate. And by the same token, it will take decades before we are able to enjoy the positive climate effects of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions now. (Even if we could stop emitting all CO₂ today, there’s already future warming that’s been baked into the system, thanks to past emission.)
But we will feel the economic effects of either emitting or restricting CO₂ right now, in real time. While we can argue about the relative cost of reducing CO₂ emissions now — just as we can argue about the economic effects of climate change in the future — it should be clear that any attempt to restrict CO₂ emissions enough to make a dent in future climate change will cause some present-day economic pain.
(Source: Study Shows That Human Beings Are Too Selfish to Fix Climate Change | TIME.com http://science.time.com/2013/10/21/why-we-dont-care-about-saving-our-grandchildren-from-climate-change/#ixzz2lLqihMBJn-from-climate-change/ )
So let’s go back to what Lord Stern said, as the author of the landmark 2006 Stern Review , when he made it clear then that the cost of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of GDP each year. If we don’t act – and there is little evidence to date that the world has taken notice of his warning six years ago – “the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever”. He said it, and along with Al Gore at the time, put out enough warnings and made serious recommendations for action.
It should now be clear to many – whether they admit it or not – that global emissions will not be reduced to the extent that is necessary to prevent the worst from happening. Many deadlines for action have come and gone, over and over. What was said by Australian commentator Chris Berg in May 2012 must ring true: “sceptics, alarmists, realists, and optimists should all agree that seriously mitigating climate change is a pipe dream”.
Extreme weather events, like we have seen this month, not just in South East Asia, but in North America as well, will get worse and will happen more often. As we have seen in the Philippines, we are not as good as preparing for – or managing disasters and their aftermath – as we should be. We have had a lot of practice us in recent years. So that’s something the world must focus its attention on. Disaster management. We can also start seriously working on adaptation plans. Not building on low lying coastal areas or river/flood plains would be a good place to start.
It is still worthwhile – in my humble view – to continue to invest in renewable energy and to stop burning fossil fuels and forests. There has been a remarkable change in attitudes in this regard and that is worth encouraging. Companies and communities have embraced renewable energy – solar, wind, hydro, bio fuel – and there is the hope that if the world is able to speed that up we might be able to delay the onset of the worst impacts of climate change. Maybe. But we have to accept that the climate is changing now. It is not some future event to “look forward to”. The heat is on and things are getting worse.
The world still has to make some important decisions. The UN’s chief climate diplomat Ms Figueres urged the coal industry in Poland this month to diversify toward cleaner energy sources and leave most of the world’s remaining coal reserves in the ground. Please tell the world’s coal industry the same thing. And oil companies too, must be given a deadline to stop extracting and selling oil. They should also be required by law to show they are investing more – much more – in renewables.
There’s always hope – and the optimist in me has returned!– that if we do move faster to replace fossil fuels with clean energy; that if we stop cutting down and burning forests; if we can cut waste of energy and other resources – be much more energy efficient for a start – we might just buy ourselves and future generations a little more time.
That’s something the International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Biroh has been saying very plainly. He described it as an “economic sin” and an “epic failure of international energy policy” that the industrial world has failed miserably to save energy. Why only a third of economically viable energy efficiency measures are actually achieved globally.
He believes energy efficiency can delay the “lock-in” of CO2 emissions, and give us an extra five years.
And we can also hope, not for miracles, but for some plan or technology or innovation that can be applied on a grand scale to make a difference. I would like to think that the well-researched book by Jonathon Porritt, “The World We Made”, has some accurate forecasting in it. The world in 2050, according to his “fiction based on facts”, could eventuate. But there is a lot of pain to go through to get there.
Let’s hope there is still time to do more and do it better than before. But the time has passed when we leave it in the hands of our representatives to agree to a global pact.
Every country must act its own interests to mitigate and adapt to climate change impacts.
Every company must manage resources in a sustainable way to cut waste and improve efficiency.
Every city and community must look to ways to “become sustainable and liveable”.
Every person, where-ever they live, must come to the realisation that they have a vote and they have a voice.
Maybe there will have to be a global ‘people-power” movement – along the lines Porritt predicts in his book where people have had enough and take matters into their own hands.
There’s always hope! – Ken Hickson