Facing Climate Change: Dithering, Denial & Delay

By David L. Brown

A new report commissioned by the British government, the Stern Report, has added to the growing mountain of evidence that not only have humans created a looming threat of climate change, but that the costs will likely be immense. The report also points out that it is almost certainly too late to avoid at least some effects.

The report’s author, Sir Nicholas Stern, claims that “our actions over the coming few decades could create risks of major disruption to economic and social activity, later in this century and in the next, on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th Century”.

Sir Nicholas is a distinguished development economist and former chief economist at the World Bank. Although his report gives prescriptions for how to minimise this economic and social disruption, he warns that we are too late to prevent any deleterious consequences from climate change.

According to an analysis on the BBC.com website (here), his central argument “is that spending large sums of money now on measures to reduce carbon emissions will bring dividends on a colossal scale. It would be wholly irrational, therefore, not to spend this money.”

The BBC analysis by Robert Peston, BBC News business editor, continues:

The prospects are worst for Africa and developing countries, so the richer nations must provide them with financial and technological help to prepare and adapt.

[Sir Nicholas] believes it is practical to aim for a stabilisation of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere of 500 to 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050 – which is double pre-industrial levels and compares with 430ppm today. But even stabilising at that level will probably mean significant climate change.

As well as decarbonising the power sector by 60%-70%, there will also have to be an end to deforestation – emissions from deforestation are estimated at more than 18% of global emissions, more than transport. And there will have to be deep cuts in emissions from transport.

The costs of these changes should be around 1% of global GDP by 2050 – in other words the world would be 1% poorer than we would otherwise have been, which would be significant but far from prohibitive.

To be clear, this does not mean we would be 1% poorer than we are today, but that global growth will be slower.

The way to look at this 1% is as an investment. Because the costs of not taking this action are mind-bogglingly large.

Responding to the report, which was commissioned by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, the likely next prime minister, Brown has announced that Al Gore has been named as an advisor to the British government on matters relating to climate change. Long an advocate for the environment, former vice president and presidential candidate Gore is known for his role in the recent motion picture “An Inconvenient Truth” (read my review of the movie, “Al Gore Film on Global Warming Is a Must-See,” posted June 23, 2006.)

But recognizing the problem and creating momentum for effective action are two different matters. A major difficulty is that global warming is a world-wide problem, not one that can be effectively dealt with on a national or even a regional basis. One of the main difficulties with the ill-fated Kyoto Treaty is that it gives a free pass to the developing nations that are fast becoming the worst polluters, notably China and India. Even most of the First World nations that signed the treaty have found it impossible to meet their commitments, and some such as Germany have virtually thrown in the towel by admitting they cannot follow through on meeting their pollution targets.

Recognizing that the poorer nations do not have the resources to carry out a program to de-carbonize the world economy, Sir Nicholas suggests that “in the interests of fairness … the richer countries should take responsibility for between 60% and 80% of reductions in emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.”

Well, fairness aside, developed nations to a large extent fail to appreciate the motivation to make this sacrifice, even though eventually they perhaps have the most to lose. According to Sir Nicholas, an investment of one percent of GDP starting now could prevent the loss of 20 percent of world productivity in the long term. This may be true, and likely is, but nations, just as corporations and individuals, find it hard to let go of today’s dollars for some uncertain benefit in the far future (and in today’s hurly-burly world, the “long term” means at most the next fiscal year).

A typical reaction to the Stern Report has come from Australia, which along with the United States refused to sign the Kyoto pact because of its bias toward developed countries. According to a report in The Australian newspaper today (here), Prime Minister John Howard “told parliament he would not sign an international agreement that did not put the same limits on the fast-growing economies of China and India, and said coal would continue to provide most of the world’s energy to 2050.”

In another article today (here), The Australian credited the country’s federal treasurer Peter Costello with saying that “Australia could not shoulder the burden of tackling climate change because the nation accounts for only 1 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.” The news report continued:

Against a wall of criticism from Labor and Green groups, Mr Costello insisted Australia was making a big contribution in critical areas identified by the British-report into climate, by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern released in London last night.

The Stern report warns of a catstrophic effect on the world economy if climate change is not tackled seriously, but also suggests a combination of clean coal and low-carbon power technologies, emissions trading system that penalises big polluters and tackling deforestation could see carbon levels in the atmosphere stabilise by 2050.

Mr Costello said he would not support a carbon tax.

“The most significant thing internationally which I think we have to do is we have to bring all of the countries into emissions targeting,” Mr Costello said.

“There is no point in Australia meeting its emissions target – and we are on track to do so, and I believe we ought to do so – when we are less than one per cent of global emissions if you are going to have major emitters such as China and India, which are increasing every year their emissions by more than the total of Australia.”

Obviously it is unrealistic for the Third World to be allowed to continue generating more carbon while expecting developed nations to take the tough steps necessary to rein in the release of greenhouse gas. That is more or less exactly what the Kyoto Treaty proposed, and it is no wonder that the United States and Australia refused to go along with the program. In fact, as noted above, Australia is making good progress toward a cleaner environment without being part of Kyoto, and there are many positive signs in the U.S. as well. Meanwhile, few if any Kyoto signators are meeting their goals.

It is my cynical feeling that no effective worldwide action on global warming is likely to occur anytime soon. There will be fits and starts, such as Britain’s suddenly having “seen the light” and similar moves by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and others, but as China and other uncontrolled polluters continue to pour out CO2 the costs incurred by those who attempt to “do the right thing” will make it more difficult for them to be economically competitive. Third World nations such as China and India already have a huge advantage in terms of their cheap labor, and by giving them the additional advantage of a pollution “Get Out of Jail Free” card these economies will only continue to expand and add more carbon to the atmosphere.

Of course, Star Phoenix Base fully and firmly supports any and all reasonable efforts to restrain climate change. In the long run, perhaps those with the courage to change will be rewarded, and those like China which is adding a new coal fired power plant on the average of once each week may suffer in the end. Meanwhile, though, the entire planet is paying the price for the dithering, denial and delay associated with the challenge posed by global warming.

The BBC.com analysis concludes with this:

There will probably be both more droughts and more floods. An increased incidence of devastating storms is expected. And there is an increased risk of famine in the poorest countries.>

So we must start to get better at monitoring of climate conditions – and adapt ourselves for the new world.

That means reinforcing buildings and infrastructure to make them sturdier in the face of extreme weather conditions, investment in new dykes, and support for financial markets so that it is possible to purchase insurance against climate-related disaster.

It will all be very expensive, disproportionately so for developing countries. So Stern argues, and it’s hard to disagree, that there is a strong moral obligation on the richer countries to help the poorest ones protect themselves against the very worst that may transpire.

Moral obligations have little currency in the real world, and until advanced nations understand clearly that the dangers of climate change are no joke, but could threaten not only our economic future but the very continuation of civilization, it is unlikely that the gauntlet of change will be picked up and the battle to save the Earth begun in earnest. The real danger is that by that time it may be too late to prevent a disaster even beyond that envisioned by Sir Nicholas.

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