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Will we find a solution to climate change in time?

February 18, 2009

This is a post in response to some questions raised by Mark Haines:

I am curious as to what your thoughts are regarding solutions to the climate crisis. Do you think that the solutions that are being presented to us by government are in fact going to lead us to a point where we can live sustainably? It seems to me like the inherent structures of our social and economic systems are what is causing the problems in the first place and need to change.

Do you think that we will succeed in restructuring how we operate as a global society before the consequences of our actions become our undoing?

No. I don’t think we’ve even begun to talk about solving the issue of climate change in any meaningful way. While governments skirt coyly around questions like whether avoided deforestation or aircraft emissions should be included in carbon trading schemes, global emissions are soaring.

We need to radically rethink the way humans interact with the planetary environment, our shared biosphere.

Ultimately, climate change is an issue of chemistry: there is too much carbon in the atmosphere. Solving the problem means dramatically reducing the amount of carbon being put into the atmosphere and trying to remove that which is already there. It is not an issue of what is fair or not fair, of development, of money, of politics, poverty or anything else. It is simple chemistry. 5 minus 3 equals 2. This is true whether it is fair on 5 to lose 3 or not.

We are faced with a global crisis, an emergency along the lines of international warfare, an asteroid impact, a disappearing ozone layer, etc – intergovernmental meetings should deal primarily with implementing measures and policies that deal with the physical solution to climate change.

Even under the fairest method of carbon reduction, whereby every country has a per capita emissions quota, would entail China and India emitting very little (in many Western countries, people would have to emit in negative quantities – that is, take carbon out of the atmosphere – in order to meet safe atmospheric levels of carbon).

The quite separate – although obviously related – issues of poverty, demographics, economic crisis, development, energy, food, etc, must naturally also be dealt with in parallel. Poor countries need energy – this should be supplied, whether it be fast-tracked nuclear or state of the art CCS coal/gas-fired plants. It is only fair that rich countries help pay for this. But just as rich countries can’t turn to poorer countries and say: ‘We messed up in the way we industrialised, so you don’t get to do it’; poor countries can’t turn to the rich and say: ‘You got to threaten life on the planet with carbon emissions, so now we have the right to push the biosphere beyond its tipping points with ours’.

In terms of restructuring society, this will anyway have to happen as a direct consequence of reducing carbon emissions. Whether it happens in a peaceful and fair way, or involves conflict and terrible human suffering depends on the extent to which the international community cooperates to share the planets resources.

Since I’ve been in India, and before that, Nepal, I’ve been living with daily power outages of between half an hour and more than 16 hours (Nepal). It’s a bit annoying, a bit inconvenient, but not more than that. If national power was phased so that during certain hours only municipal street lighting, hospitals, libraries etc had power, but domestic electricity was switched off – would it be so very terrible?

There is a subtle but vital difference between being a developed nation (high standards of health, education, life expectancy, civil liberties) and being a polluting nation. It is this difference that must be grasped and expanded, for in it lies the key to sustainable economic growth in the 21st century.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 12:20 am

    The current economic downturn is a testament to the need there is for a shift of values towards endeavours that should rise to become truly essential for the betterment of the human condition on Earth. The gamble the Indian PM is taking to endorse a knowledge-based economy is a necessary stepping stone for a radical shift in tackling the world’s problems. It is only by creating new ground to chart, ie, doing basic research, that we will first gain better insight into reality, and then have tools, such as applied science, less skilled people can wield for a more equitable society. There is no need to turn off the lights any time, but we have to find out how to generate the energy we need to be able to turn them on any time we want in ways that only knew knowledge will make it possible to find. Having said that, I think your post is very powerful indeed.

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