If scientists ruled the world, we would all be safe, at least so far as climate change is concerned. Yesterday’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a synthesis of previous surveys and containing their latest thinking, could not be clearer. Humanity still has some chance of averting the very worst consequences of our abuse of the planet; if not, the process of climate change will become irreversible.
It is not, in truth, a new message, but that should not make it any the less frightening. The scientists have told us, once again, what needs to be done – scaling back our use of fossil fuels, stopping deforestation, especially of the rain forests, and conserving the most vital commodity of all, water. If the IPCC could pass globally effective laws to that effect we would all know the planet will still be habitable in a half a century or so.
They cannot of course, and the prospects for agreement at forthcoming climate change conferences in Paris next year are scarcely better than they were at the last disastrous attempt in Copenhagen five years ago. At that point, with the world’s financial system on the edge of precipice, the major economies already in recession, and the very real possibility that the cash machines would stop working in a matter of days, Gaia understandably slid down the political agenda.
Today that sense of imminent economic disaster has passed, and events such as Fukushima and a succession of extreme weather episodes, such as the floods in southern England in recent years, have focused a little more attention on green concerns (whatever the scientific truth about those phenomena). Nonetheless, jobs and economic progress top the list of voter concerns in most of the major powers, while the rise of Isis points to near existential geopolitical threats.
Nations with plentiful and cheap, though still dirty, fossil fuels under their feet such as China, Australia and Russia will continue to burn them to power their cities and heat their homes, to be competitive in world trade. Their push for growth has created jobs, a new middle class and lifted millions out of poverty, but at great cost to the wider world and the quality of the air they breathe themselves.
Yet it is difficult to answer the point made by a Malaysian prime minister some years ago, who asked why those nations that had already enjoyed their industrial revolutions in previous centuries had any right to stop others from taking that same path to a better future now. When these emerging economies refuse to co-operate then the US usually finds excuse enough to follow suit. Oil producers such as Saudi Arabia raise their own problems, perfectly legitimately. But those countries likely to disappear in part, or entirely, through rising sea levels, such as Bangladesh or the Maldives have a still more vital interest at stake, though they tend to be ignored by the bigger world powers. The global economy’s recovery is still too fragile for governments to put sustainable growth first, though green options, for example in electricity generation, are becoming ever more viable.
Even in the good times world leaders found agreement on powerful, immediate radical measures to rescue the planet impossible to achieve. The last remotely successful effort was at the original Rio Earth Summit two decades ago. Since then, India and China have become real forces in the world economy, others such as Brazil and Indonesia have put prosperity ahead of biodiversity and their impact on climate change has been substantial and still escalating. Plenty of fruitless summits and conferences and declarations have come and gone.
The global environment is the ultimate “common good” issue for the world, the property of everyone and no-one. Worse still, the effects of trashing it will not become critical for decades, long after most people alive today have departed a steadily more degraded Earth. Thus the decision makers have little incentive to change much. As the IPCC implies, the outlook is about as grim as can be.
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