The greatest challenges of climate change are not, I believe, related to science and technology, although they are often put that way (see the recent report from UK and other scientists, reported in The Guardian, supporting carbon capture). They have to do rather with human societies and how we choose to live in them across the international community. For that reason, the solutions to climate change are not primarily technological (although renewable energy development and energy efficiency clearly have an important role) but political and institutional, at local, national and international levels.
In particular, it is difficult to see that climate change policy can be disentangled from global poverty. This link was recognised in the first major statement on global sustainability, The Brundtland Report. There it was pointed out that a central objective of action by the international community must embrace both economic and environmental goals simultaneously; that the enormous damage produced by poverty shouldn’t be overlooked in the drive to improve environmental outcomes; that properly structured economic growth can enhance environments (by providing people who otherwise have only survival imperatives with more options); and that improving environmental outcomes without reducing poverty had little point—an unapologetically anthropocentric position.
These principles apply with equal force to climate change policy. Here, however, the issues are complicated by the fact that the economic growth which reduces poverty has been driven historically largely by fossil fuel energy, which is the major contributor to climate change. Developed countries are now in a position of asking developing countries to reduce emissions which under current conditions means limiting economic growth and continuing to accept these very high levels of poverty. Currently some two billion people live less than $2 billion per day. More than four million people in Ethiopia are currently approaching critical food availability, from desertification and prolonged drought driven in all likelihood by climate change. Global food stocks have declined dramatically, resulting in steep price rises for food, with the major impact falling on the world’s poor.
Clearly ethical imperatives come into play at this point. Developed countries can’t very well insist on maintaining their own standard of living while denying developing countries the opportunity to reduce poverty and raise living standards. Yet this is precisely what the US (and, until recently, Australia) have effectively argued. The only ethical solution is that developed countries must transfer wealth, as well as technology as it is developed (it isn’t yet), to developing countries to assist in the transition to a low carbon economy while managing the social impacts in a positive way. It’s worth noting, too, that the US could within its own borders make a very great contribution to global climate change by reducing its own emissions, which both in total volume and per capita sit around the highest in the world. So far, with the exception perhaps of California, there has been little evidence of a willingness to do this at any level of government.
Already we are seeing how interest groups will put their own economic interests ahead of the general interest. At the present time we have thousands of truck drivers on strike in Spain over rising fuel prices. We have an Australian government which seems to be bound by the powerful coal industry to invest in further discovery and production for export income, despite the impact of coal-fired power stations everywhere (in China, somewhere around one new power station a week) on greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture technology, being put forward in Europe and Australia, on the other side, is highly speculative, and brings with it its own risks to the health of human populations.
The international community doesn’t have the cohesiveness to act like a nation, in imposing taxes, setting caps, redistributing income, imposing direct controls and so on. The political institutions of the international community are stretched to breaking point over this issue—because of the sacrosanct nature accorded to national sovereignty. It’s here that the issue of climate change will be played out. You’d have to say the historical record is against the sort of wholesale reconfiguration of these institutions that will be required.
Local solutions may be the only way open for the present. Sitting behind the governmental and political challenges are patterns of consumption and associated levels of well-being. At the household level, I believe most people are willing to contemplate and implement the required behavioural changes, within a relatively short period of time. Local governments are beginning to look at the possibility, for example, of localising power and selling back to the grid. But its difficult to see, without an ethical position being taken by the developed countries and embedded in the UN structures and procedures, that a challenge of such magnitude and scope can be effectively handled. We have yet to see whether the international community can develop the kind of deliberative processes, not to mention the shared ethical framework, that will be needed to prevail.
The timeline, however, is getting shorter. The most recent scientific evidence points to much more rapid global warming that predicted in any of the IPCC scenarios. The international community needs to act decisively and coherently–not in six months time, or a year, but now.