Black gold blackens future

June 22, 2001

To reduce global warming, we must decarbonise, says Mike Hulme.

How far do you usually think ahead? A day? A week? A year? A lifetime? The chances are that you will do a lot of thinking about tomorrow and quite often spend a fair bit of time planning for next week. But how often do you think yourself in 2010, or 2025, the year I reach retirement age? Not often. Climate change forces us to raise our horizons into the far future, well beyond our own lifetime and into the lifespans of our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.

This timescale is not easy to contemplate. What sort of world will that great grandchild of mine be born into? Would I recognise it? Do I care? Will it matter to her that the maximum hurricane wind speeds hitting New Orleans may be between 5 and 10 per cent higher than they are now, or that the top 10m of discontinuous permafrost in parts of Alaska may have disappeared?

Let us go back 100 years. Would it have mattered to my (now-deceased) seven-year-old grandfather in 1900 that a century later the development of telegraphic technology would result in his grandson's being able to communicate each day with 50 people scattered around the world to earn a living? Or would it have concerned him that his grandson's most likely cause of death would be an accident caused by what was in 1900 a newly invented machine called an automobile? Would his generation have altered its behaviour to reduce the chances of these developments happening? We are all trapped by time. Things that appear important to us may appear bizarre or even meaningless to future generations. What we value, they may not; what they value, we may not.

Also in the year 1900, how many people were aware of a lecture delivered by a Swedish geochemist pointing out that the climate of earth could be substantially influenced by the widespread burning of coal for energy? And how many of those who were aware of this proposition thought it the least bit significant? Yet just over a century later the significance of Svante Arrhenius's thesis is now fully revealed as our profligate use of carbon-based energy turns up the thermostat on greenhouse earth year after year.

So how do we grapple with the long timescales climate change forces us to think over, and how do we design the global institutions that will be needed if we are eventually to bring this inadvertent experiment with our planet under some sort of control? The publications reviewed here provide complementary perspectives from the United States on these two big questions raised by humanity's new-found ability to alter the evolution of global climate. Climate Change Impacts on the United States - by the National Assessment Synthesis Team (Nast) of experts appointed by ex-President Clinton's science adviser - "looks long" into the future to assess the possible impacts of climate change on the environment and people of the world's most powerful nation. The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming by David Victor "thinks big" about the architecture of an international regime that would effectively regulate the primary cause of this climate change: emissions of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere.

There have been many studies and assessments made of climate change and its significance for the world over recent years. The Nast report represents the most ambitious and comprehensive assessment for the US. It has taken more than three years to complete, has involved thousands of people in its compilation and has cost millions of dollars. It is impressive in scope and presentation. The team has consulted widely, assimilated much knowledge about how natural and social processes may be influenced by a changing climate and provided a coherent framework to present this knowledge to the American legislature and public. This framework includes a description of two possible future Americas; a range of possible future climates and ecosystems; and an exploration of the implications of these changes for nine geographical regions of the country and for five sectors of importance to the American economy and lifestyle: agriculture, water, human health, coastal areas and marine resources and forests.

The report makes clear how it uses the terminology of uncertainty - "likely", "possible" and "unlikely" are words with specific connotations - and it does well to recognise that "surprises" may originate not only in the natural system and make the risks associated with climate change greater, but that they are also endemic in human social evolution. Such cultural or organisational "surprises" may well make future societies better able to adapt to a changing climate. The assessment concludes that we need better observations of present climate, better predictions of future climate, better understanding of how people respond to climate change in relation to other environmental stresses, and an increased ability to cost the range of responses American society might make to slow down or adapt to climate change.

Yet there remain unresolved inconsistencies in some of the conclusions of the assessment. For example, it states rather obviously that "actions taken today will affect the quality of life for us and future generations", yet also proclaims in unqualified terms that "the impacts of climate change will (sic) be significant for Americans". Are these two statements consistent? The perspective offered from the standpoint of my grandfather in 1900 suggests that whether the impacts of climate change will be significant for future Americans or not depends very largely on the actions that are taken over the next few years and on what future Americans will and will not value in their natural and virtual environments.

The Nast report deliberately did not address the question of mitigation - to what extent do we need to slow global warming and how could we do it? The question of "how" is the concern of The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol , a book that matured just as the protocol ran into serious difficulties in November 2000. Victor is not a sceptic about the reality or potential seriousness of climate change; he is a sceptic, however, about the suitability of the Kyoto Protocol for achieving any of the objectives of global climate-change management. Over recent months, he has been waging a campaign to this effect, pointing out the fatal flaws in the design and proposed implementation of the protocol. The heart of his argument is that inviolable targets and timetables for controlling emissions are inappropriate for a problem of global magnitude, since the inevitable means of achieving these targets - carbon trading - cannot operate on a global scale. Yet Victor's preferred solution seems remarkably un-radical. He proposes a "hybrid" framework that combines elements of the Kyoto emissions trading concept with the idea of carbon taxation. This framework would apply initially to a smaller set of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries than proposed under Kyoto and only to those of the six Kyoto greenhouse gases that are well monitored - in effect just carbon dioxide. Victor seems to be calling for an abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol and a retreat if not to square zero, then at least to square one. One must question, however, whether his objections really warrant such severe backtracking.

Victor also makes it clear that there is more to climate-change management than finding a way through the Kyoto impasse. Hence his call for government investment in knowledge, in institutions and technologies that facilitate adaptation to climate change, and in the development of sustainable large-scale geo-engineering techniques. Of more interest to this reviewer is his call also for greater clarity about the long-term objectives of climate-change management. It is here that the more radical thinking is actually needed. The Kyoto Protocol, and Victor's variant of it, both focus too much on the near-term and on the incremental steps needed to achieve these near-term goals. Whether or not the richer nations manage to reduce their emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 and whether or not this reduction gets delayed by five years because Bush is in the White House are not really the issues. Neither eventuality will have a detectable effect on future climate evolution. As Richard Benedick, the influential shaper of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting chemicals, has said elsewhere, what is important for climate-change management is a technological revolution that would enable much larger carbon emissions reductions in future decades, and at lower cost. Rather than dispense with the Kyoto Protocol, what we need is a second track to Kyoto that can begin to put in place the diversion signs and technological accelerators that direct the world towards such a long-term decarbonising pathway.

So how do we make sense of these two perspectives on climate change that originate in the US, a nation that now has a federal administration that is deeply sceptical about the need for environmental regulation and one that is apparently off-hand about America's accountability to the rest of the world regarding her use of the global atmospheric commons? The message contained in both these publications is that the philosophy of US isolationism will not work when it comes to managing climate change. Although the US has the world's largest economy and possesses an abundance of natural assets, the consequences of global climate change will most likely still be felt in the US, as stated by Nast. And whether the Kyoto Protocol becomes operational or not, Victor's analysis makes it clear that in order to design a policy framework that will allow active control of the rate of future climate change, the US will have to engage with the emerging new institutions of global environmental governance. Not just the US, but all of us, are going to have to "look long" and "think big". This is something my grandfather was not compelled to do. But it is the real impact of climate change on my generation. What the impact will be for my great-grandchild, I cannot predict.

Mike Hulme is director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

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