Martin Wolf on the Difficulties of Combatting Climate Change Inertia

Climate change is rapidly joining a host of media stories, like Darfur and the deterioration of living standards in Iraq, where the public half-heartedly follows the updates because they believe there’s no underlying news and even if they are bothered, there is nothing they can do. For example, the final, summary report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got a fraction of the attention of the first report, even though it contained a great deal of additional information and drew conclusions. As serious as other ongoing horrors might be, climate change is in a completely different category, yet in too many quarters is generating no meaningful response.

Martin Wolf, in “Why the climate change wolf is so hard to kill off,” goes through some of the behavioral and game-theory obstacles versus some of the latest data from the United Nations Development Report, which paints a dire picture of the scale of action needed. I try to steer clear of editorializing via boldfacing, but if you are time pressed, at least scroll down to view the paragraph I’ve marked.

Wolf argues that “, people must first be frightened and then they must be offered a good way out.” But he also argues that the US needs to play a major role. The US is such a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that no country will want to engage in conservation (the most important first line of action) and investment in new technologies while the US does nothing.

From the Financial Times:

The point of the story of the boy who cried wolf is that, finally, a wolf did appear. I feel the same way about the intellectual heirs of Thomas Malthus. Malthusians have finally found a wolf called climate change. Many now agree. But it is far away and coming slowly. “If the worst comes to the worst,” mutter the rich to themselves, “we can always let our children cope.”

This is the complacency that the latest Human Development Report from the United Nations Development Programme attacks. It does a good job, too. But does it do a good enough job to turn the Bali climate change conference into a call for effective action? I fear not. This is not because it fails to make a morally sound case. It is rather because humanity will change its behaviour only when convinced that the lifestyle the better off enjoy now – and the rest of the world aspires to – remains in reach.

This cynical view of human behaviour is fully consistent with what has happened so far. For it is as if the Kyoto treaty had never been. Is this judgment too harsh? Consider just a few of the many facts contained in this report: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide continue to rise at a rate of 1.9 parts per million a year; over the past 10 years the annual growth rate of emissions has been 30 per cent faster than the average for the past 40 years; if the rate of emission were to rise in line with current trends, stocks of CO2 in the atmosphere might be double pre-industrial levels by 2035; and that, argues the International Panel on Climate Change, would give a likely temperature increase of 3°C, though rises of over 4.5°C cannot be excluded. If the science is right, the world is doomed to significant climate change.

The report takes a temperature increase of 2°C as the threshold of “dangerous climate change”. Achieving that means draconian cuts in emissions: “If the world were a single country it would have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by half by 2050 relative to 1990 levels … However the world is not a single country. Using plausible assumptions, we estimate that avoiding dangerous climate change will require rich countries to cut emissions by at least 80 per cent, with cuts of 30 per cent by 2020. Emissions from developing countries would peak around 2020, with cuts of 20 per cent by 2050.”

The one point in favour of George W. Bush’s US or John Howard’s Australia is that they were not hypocritical. For the signal feature of most of the commitments made so far has been the failure to meet them (see chart). The vaunted European emissions trading system has been more a way of transferring quota rent to a few big emitters than an effective means of emissions control. The UK government has, for example, been honest enough to admit that large electricity generators gained £1.2bn in quota rent for 2005 alone.

Can the world do better in future? Yes, but it will find it hard. If we are to understand why, we must confront the fact that the world is far from a single country. This creates three huge problems: collective (in)action; perceived injustice; and indifference.

First, not only does each country want to be a free rider on the efforts of others but none feels wholly responsible for the outcome.

Second, the contributions made by different countries to the problem have been (and remain) enormously different. Collectively, the rich countries account for seven out of every 10 tonnes of CO2 emitted since the start of the industrial era. While China is the biggest emitter in the world, its emissions are still only one-fifth of US levels per head. India’s are one-fifteenth.

Third, as the report spells out in compelling detail, the heaviest cost will be borne by the world’s poor. Among the most frightening consequences are those for rainfall and glaciers: water shortages could become severe across large swaths of the globe. Poor people are far less able to cope with climatic disasters than rich ones. But this, if we were honest, is why the rich are unlikely to make the huge reductions in emissions the report demands. The powerful will continue to act without much consideration for the poor. This, after all, is a world that spends 10 times as much on defence (much of it useless) as on aid to poor countries.

How might this change? The answer is that we must appeal at least as much to people’s self-interest as to their morality. Yes, we have a moral obligation to consider both the poor and future generations. Yes, the fact that the changes in the composition of the atmosphere are, to all intents and purposes, irreversible makes early and effective action essential. But acceptance of these points will not be sufficient to obtain meaningful action, instead of pious aspirations and much pretence. A good example of the latter is the proposition that it is enough to lower the carbon intensity of output. Alas, it is not, unless the reduction is very large indeed.

Two things are needed. The first is convincing evidence that the true risks are larger than many now suppose. Conceivable feedback effects might, for example, generate temperature increases of 20°C. That would be the end of the world as we know it. I cannot imagine a rational person who would not seek to eliminate even the possibility of such outcomes. But if we are to do that, we must also act very soon.

The second requirement is to demonstrate that it is possible for us to thrive with low-carbon emissions. People in the northern hemisphere are not going to choose to be cold now, in order to prevent the world from becoming far too hot in future. China and India are not going to forgo development, either. These are realities that cannot be ignored.

The UNDP report argues that the low-carbon future it wants could be achieved at a cost of 1.6 per cent of global output between now and 2030. Such round numbers look attractively modest. But the question people will still ask themselves is what this might mean for their own standards of living. Advocates of change will have to persuade people that living in a low-carbon economy does not mean giving up everything they enjoy. People will not wear hair shirts, whatever they may pretend.

In short, if they are to tolerate radical change in energy use, people must first be frightened and then they must be offered a good way out. The truth, moreover, is that this will happen only if the US also takes the lead. No country will deliver radical cuts if the US does not do so, too. No leaps forward in science and technology will occur if the US is not prepared to commit its resources to those ends. The US can no longer wait for a lead from others. Either it takes the lead now or the cause, in all probability, will be lost. Our children and grandchildren will then find out whether it was a real wolf or not.

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  1. mike

    Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased as a result of industrialization. But it was higher in dinosaur days than today. Carbon has been sequestered in many forms over the eons increasing atmospheric O2 levels.

    CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas.

    While atmospheric CO2 changes are conclusive, climate change is not.

    If global warning is happening and is the result of greenhouse gasses, is it bad? The greenhouse affects night-time lows more than daytime highs, a distinction ignored in global warning articles. Anyone want to grow tomatoes in Canada?

    Considering the limited wealth available for the environment and the expanding human foot print, habitat preservation deserves the attention and resources that global warning is getting.
    Daniel Botkin MP3
    Daniel Botkin in WSJ:

  2. MF

    If anything, Martin Wolf is not even remotely pessimistic enough on this issue — if you think that any red-blooded American SUV owner, along with his/her family’s other 4 or 5 vehicles, plus their grotesquely large McMansion and their vacation homes, will voluntarily give any of that up — short of being lined up in front of the firing squad — you are seriously out of touch with reality.

    I happen to be in the American “upper-middle-class” economic bracket, and I can assure you that NOBODY I know or have even heard about in this bracket has the slightest intention of giving up anything for “global warming”, no matter what the evidence may be or what the experts may warn. GOD could so pronounce to no avail.

    Nothing will change until there are massive calamities (Katrina was minor, very minor) from climate change, and even then the change will be way behind the curve.

    And if the Americans won’t change, why should the Chinese, the Indians and everyone else aspiring to the American lifestyle change?

    Furthermore, any American politician who proposes a drastic curtailment of the American lifestyle would simply be committing political suicide. The current presidential campaign is clear evidence that NO CANDIDATE, Republican or Democrat, would even touch this topic with a ten-foot pole. Total poison.

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