Dealing with climate change may be the most important issue for human progress but 2010 is likely to see it move to the backburner because creating jobs is better politics in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
President Barack Obama’s presence surrounded by 5 cabinet members, many senators and tens of top journalists at the recent Copenhagen conference failed to persuade major players like the European Union, China and India to accept his outstretched hand.
The reason is a widening divide between the US and most other countries about the responsibility for global warming and how the burdens of reducing carbon emissions should be shared within the international community. The climate change debate is flooded by suggestions on reducing carbon emissions and how to pay for them while offering new technologies to poorer countries to prevent them from worsening global warming. But populist politics is preventing a breakthrough because no politician anywhere likes to tell people to make sacrifices.
The substantial concessions offered in Copenhagen failed to overcome the fundamental rift between the interests of heavy energy users and those still waiting to encounter its benefits. Out of a combined population of about 2.7 billion, India and China contain over 1.8 billion who use almost no energy. Vast swathes of Africa have few energy sources while two-thirds of the 5 billion people living in developing countries receive energy supplies intermittently. In contrast, the 1.2 billion people living in developed countries enjoy abundant energy supplies.
To the extent that climate change remedies involve hydrocarbons, the pressure has centered on finding ways to reduce carbon emissions. Of course, this is vital in the developed countries where per person emissions are very high but gets less attention in developing countries. There, the key moral, economic and political imperatives center on raising people out of living standards incompatible with human dignity.
Throwing billions of dollars at those countries in the hope of reducing carbon emissions would be folly. Creating new funds through small taxes on global financial transactions or various carbon trading schemes will not solve the problem. That is because the political will and institutional structures needed to make a difference are still lacking especially in developing countries.
The necessity in developed countries is to reduce carbon emissions by changing the patterns, modalities and mix of various energy forms. That is not the imperative in poorer nations. Even emerging powers like China, India and Brazil have too many people living in dire poverty for their governments to deny them energy even if it emits carbon.
Of course, there is a common moral imperative for rich and poor to cooperate in preventing or delaying catastrophes predicted by climate scientists through credible scientific studies. The Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change has established that global warming is a reality, it is manmade and its consequences are potentially catastrophic. Copenhagen put to rest hoary debates about the credibility of the science but the jury is still out about the Panel’s predictions and remedies. The Panel’s science is now five years old and recent data does not contradict its findings. But scientific process involves theorizing about consequences based on empirical sampling. It moves forward through willingness to alter or abandon theories if new facts emerge or new ways emerge of analyzing the previous data.
The Panel’s science is not written on stone but emotions and polemics are very intense among believers, sceptics and disbelievers. Many governmental officials and non-governmental campaigners also accuse large corporations of trying to fudge the science to continue making profits. This is not entirely justified. Companies make profits by selling things to all of us. If they could find ways of supplying usable non-carbon energy at prices we are willing to pay, they would rush to cash-in.
However, no one yet knows how to give us safer forms of energy at sufficient scale to satisfy the profligate lifestyles of the rich while lifting the poor out of backwardness. Clearly, awaiting that, we should not slow down efforts to reduce carbon emissions because the next small gain may be the long sought blessing for humankind. But it is time to cool down emotions and populist rhetoric to better recognize the limits of what is feasible in the short term within available technologies and financial means.