Michael McCarthy: Needed, a new Manhattan Project

The more one knows, the more one is likely to conclude that global warming is not a threat the world will master
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The Independent Online

Two ominous trends are now becoming visible on the issue of climate change which should lead a reasonable and informed person to an ominous conclusion: this problem, potentially the gravest human society has ever faced, is simply not going to be solved.

Two ominous trends are now becoming visible on the issue of climate change which should lead a reasonable and informed person to an ominous conclusion: this problem, potentially the gravest human society has ever faced, is simply not going to be solved.

Such a negative statement may invite condemnation as mere alarmism, facile to a degree. But the closer the acquaintance one makes with the facts, not all of them well-known to the public, the more likely one is to arrive at the view that the calamitous threat from global warming is not one the world will be able to master.

The core of the matter is a question of scale: the scale of the danger and the scale of the human response to it. These are the two trends whose shape is increasingly discernible. They are ill-matched, as many commentators - politicians, scientists, environmentalists - would already contend. But what is much less well understood is that they are not only ill-matched, they are moving apart.

Never mind how much you may have heard over the past 10 years about what this country or that country is doing to combat global warming, all the signs are that the gap between the danger and the response, far from narrowing, is rapidly widening, and that the danger is set to accelerate away from the response, leaving the gap unbridgeable.

For the threat to the world from a changing climate appears to be growing faster than anybody thought it would, even four years ago, when the last assessment report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was published. That was dire enough. It predicted that, depending on how we manage our emissions of carbon dioxide (CO 2) - the waste gas from power generation and transport which is causing the atmosphere to warm - global average temperatures would rise by between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees centigrade by the end of the current century. Even at the lower end of the scale, these are enormous, society-destabilising rises.

A month ago the British government sponsored an international scientific conference at the UK Met Office headquarters in Exeter to bring the research up to date. This contained a number of real shocks. They included the threat of collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would raise global sea levels by 16 feet, the threat of the acidification of the oceans by CO 2 dissolving in sea water, which would devastate marine life, increased threats of the melting of Greenland's ice sheet and the collapse of the Gulf Stream and several more. The conference report concluded that, compared with the last IPCC assessment - only in 2001, remember - "in many cases the risks are more serious than previously thought".

But here's the rub; here's the second ominous trend. Not only is the threat growing faster: the human response is not moving to match it, but is actually going backwards. It is nearly 15 years since the international community first came together at the 1990 World Climate Conference to tackle global warming, and despite the millions of words written since then, the thousands of hours of negotiations and the pledges of politicians, what we have is profound failure to do the essential and cut radically CO 2 emissions.

We promise, but we simply cannot get a handle on it. It is as if willing-minded countries and their politicians have been swept along by the war-rhetoric of fighting climate change (Tony Blair being the most egregious example), and been prepared to make the gestures, but have not really understood or been prepared to take on board the full implications. Societies everywhere seem just too wedded to dependence on carbon, especially in areas like motor transport and aviation. Programmes to cut emissions are everywhere failing.

The failure is largely masked by the fuss surrounding the Kyoto protocol (the 1997 treaty prescribing emissions cuts for the industrialised countries) and the achievement of signing it. We think we are doing something. But we mistake activity for action. We take pride in the fact that the European countries are still adhering to their Kyoto commitments to cut greenhouse gases while America has pulled out, but most of us miss the point that on current trends, most of the original 15 EU member states, the treaty's keenest supporters, are going to fail to meet their targets.

Controlling climate change would require a cut of perhaps 60 per cent in present global CO 2 levels; the parties to the Kyoto treaty are struggling to make a 5 per cent cut, and failing. Nobody else - the US, China, India - is doing anything. (Britain will meet its own Kyoto target only because of an economic fluke: the "dash for gas" of the 1990s, when many British coal-fired power stations were replaced by gas-fired units, which produce much less CO 2. But to the Government's huge embarrassment, it will not meet the Labour party's own much-proclaimed target of cutting CO 2 emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010.)

What crowns the problem is the fact that the level of CO 2 in the atmosphere, which we are at present failing so signally to cut, is of course not going to stay stable while we try to work out a way of dealing with it. It is going to increase massively. On present trends, according to last year's World Energy Outlook from the International Energy Agency, global CO 2 emissions will rise by another 62 per cent by 2030, most of it from developing countries, with China and her exploding, coal-powered economy leading the way.

Can anyone seriously believe that with the way we are presently going about things, with a bit of renewable energy here, some energy efficiency there, and unable to meet our own tiny targets, we are likely to make the enormous inroads into these forthcoming emissions that would be necessary to stabilise the climate? Face it: it is not going to happen.

What is becoming clear is that controlling CO 2, really getting a handle on emissions and curbing them, would require a programme of action far more radical and far more comprehensive than any yet remotely contemplated by any nation-state.

It would in fact require something approaching a wartime command economy, for all countries, where human ingenuity and limitless resources are directed to one overweening end - the replacement of carbon as an energy source.

One obvious template suggests itself: the Manhattan Project. Whatever you think of nuclear weapons, it cannot be denied that the American programme to build the atom bomb between 1942 and 1945 was the greatest harnessing of the knowledge and productive resources of any country towards a single, immensely-difficult scientific end; and it succeeded.

It seems clear now that such is the growing threat from global warming, and such is our deep-rooted inability to respond, that only something like a global Manhattan Project for climate change would have any chance at all of getting hold of the warming process and bringing it to a halt.

But America in 1942 was a country overwhelmingly united in purpose in the face of an enemy; today the world is fractured in a thousand ways, and America itself is in denial about the terrible threat the warming atmosphere poses to human society.

In such circumstances, is pessimism not entirely rational?