13 july 2009

Getting Serious About Climate Change

New York TimesJuly 13, 2009 Op-Ed Contribution by PAUL HOHNEN and JEREMY LEGGETT

Climate “policy as usual” is not working. In the 20 years since serious global discussions on climate change have been underway, atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations and average temperatures have continued to rise.

During the 1990s, the talk was mostly about the need to prevent climate change. Now, adapting to climate change is given equal or greater priority. This shift of focus is an admission of failure.

To save the environment we will need unprecedented action — and a great deal of luck. But the change we need is nowhere in sight. Having participated in U.N. negotiations and countless climate conferences in recent decades, we confess to a dreadful sense of déjà vu as we approach the December 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

There will be fresh scientific warnings and calls for collective responsibility and urgent action. A few climate skeptics will get more than their share of media attention, but they will not dent the underlying science.

The business sector will highlight its ability to deliver emission-reducing technologies while at the same time urging pragmatism on the inevitability of burning more coal.

Nongovernmental organizations will hang we-told-you-so banners from the moral high ground.

When it gets down to the hard negotiations, however, the discussions will result in 11th hour lowest-common-denominator compromises. The overall effect will be to weaken almost every nation’s commitments to action.

In terms of what is needed to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and then reduce them by at least 50 percent (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050, the dirty little secret is that not even the most ambitious agreement will meet this goal.

If this assessment is correct, there is a need for a major rethink on how the global community approaches the issue. While no one has all the answers, here’s a set of suggestions:

It’s defense of the planet, stupid. The Copenhagen meeting is not just another diplomatic talkfest. It must be seen as a global security conference about the survival of life on earth as we know it. It would help negotiators get a sense of the stakes if they likened the challenge to that of stopping the impact of an incoming asteroid or deterring an alien invasion. Collective urgent action, in which all players compete to contribute and recognize there are no winners, is required.

Priorities as usual won’t work. While it is increasingly acknowledged that climate change will affect all ecosystems and levels of civilization, there is still a tendency to treat climate change as a discrete set of policy issues. If we are really talking about global self-defense then hard thinking needs to go into current government priorities.

With global military expenditure in 2008 at just under $1.5 trillion, politicians must question investments that won’t do a thing to protect nation states from the ravages of climate change. Re-evaluating priorities will help mobilize the additional resources needed and put the costs of climate protection in the right perspective.

Limits of market forces. As with conventional conflicts, winning the war against climate change will not be achieved by the use of markets alone. While the power of markets will need to be used to the fullest, the whole arsenal of government policy tools needs to be wheeled out to accelerate action. Nothing should be off the table, including product bans and mandatory emissions reporting.

A serious international architecture. Most intergovernmental bodies have responded to climate change by forming a climate department. But they need to do more: fundamental reorganization.

The World Trade Organization, for example, must have “low-carbon trade” as part of its central mission. Similarly, the World Bank’s priority needs to be “low-carbon sustainable development.” Efforts to put climate change on the agenda of the U.N. Security Council should be renewed.

None of these approaches is on the agenda — yet. The irony is that if climate change isn’t stopped and escalates as quickly as many scientists fear, measures such as these will be taken anyway, but then hastily, with little coordination.

This is not a counsel of despair or defeat — to the contrary. As the last decade in particular has demonstrated, there is an unprecedented level of concern, creativity and action taking place globally at many levels.

Humankind can rally quickly, but leadership, engagement and resources need to be commensurate to the challenge.

Paul Hohnen is an associate fellow of Chatham House, London. Jeremy Leggett is executive chairman of Solarcentury and the author of several books on climate change and the oil economy.

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