Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Tony Blair and climate change

So, Tony Blair has given a major speech on climate change, and said that he is "shocked" by the scientific evidence. So am I. A couple of weeks ago I finally got around to reading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2001 Synthesis Report, and was, like Blair, shocked - shocked at how bad the future looked, shocked at how anybody could continue to deny the reality of climate change in the face of this evidence (which has only grown stronger in the past three years), and shocked that the governments of certain major industrial powers were continuing their policy of denial.

The short version of the IPCC report is that if we continue to do what we're doing, we're fucked. Blair was more polite, saying that

global warming... is simply unsustainable in the long-term. And by long-term I do not mean centuries ahead. I mean within the lifetime of my children certainly; and possibly within my own. And by unsustainable, I do not mean a phenomenon causing problems of adjustment. I mean a challenge so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.

Climate change isn't a threat to the survival of humanity as a species, but it does threaten to make things uncomfortable for many of us for a good long time. And there's no question that it is happening. The global climate has warmed noticeably since the pre-industrial era, and according to the best models available, we are responsible (see fig SPM-2 in the synthesis report for the graphic version). The concentrations of major greenhouse gases have all increased over the last 200 - 250 years - CO2 by 50%, methane by 150%, and nitrous oxide by 17%. The increase in CO2 is highly correlated with the increased use of fossil fuels; the increase in the latter two gases is due to changes in land use and the dramatic growth of agricultural activity (they're also worse than CO2, by 23 and 296 times respectively, and comprise around 50% of New Zealand's equivalent greenhouse gas emissions).

The precise effects of global warming are uncertain, and depend greatly on what assumptions are made about continuing emissions and the level at which the concentrations of greenhouse gases will stabilise. The IPCC estimates, for various scenarios, an increase in global mean temperature of between 0.4 and 1.1 degrees by 2025, 0.8 to 2.6 degrees by 2050, and 1.4 to 5.8 degrees by 2100. This is expected to lead to significant climate change, resulting in decreased crop yields as agriculture struggles to adapt, threats to low-lying islands from increased sea-levels and storm surges, an increase in extreme weather events such as hurricanes and droughts, and an overall detrimental effect on human health due to poorer nutrition and increased incidence of tropical diseases such as Malaria. There is also some possibility of what they call "large-scale, high-impact, non-linear and potentially abrupt changes in physical and biological systems" - melting ice-caps or a shut-down in ocean convection - which would have an even worse impact. However, one thing the IPCC is certain of is that:

the projected rate and magnitude of warming and sea-level rise can be lessened by reducing greenhouse gas emissions... The greater the reductions in emissions and the earlier they are introduced, the smaller and slower the projected warming and the rise in sea levels.

We can reduce the effects, if we have the global political will to do so - and that's where Tony Blair comes in. He has promised to make climate change the centerpiece of his presidency of the G8, and to use the position to secure a new agreement on the basic science and the existence of the threat. He'll also be pushing other G8 members (notably Russia and the USA) to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on cutting emissions. I'm doubtful that he'll succeed with the US - Bush is implacably opposed to any limitation on American's god-given right to drive big cars with shitty gas mileage, and doesn't do quid pro quo (so no payback for being a good little poodle over Iraq) - but at least Blair will be making the effort.

More importantly, he's also talking about the long-term. Kyoto is only the beginning, and the initial cutbacks it requires are insufficient. Worse, it doesn't include China and India, whose emissions are increasing as they industrialise and adopt a more western standard of living for an increasing number of their people. Dealing with climate change means bringing these two countries into the Kyoto system, and getting an agreement to lower their emissions path (meaning that they do not pollute as much as they otherwise would), with the eventual aim of a cap. This raises significant global equity issues (why should Indians and Chinese be made to walk while Americans continue to drive SUVs?), but it is conceivably achievable if linked to technology transfers and increased assistance for clean development (in other words, if the west pays part of the bill).

Blair also puts his finger on the real long-term solution to the problem of global warming. Deniers seem to think that the only solution lies in significant reductions in our material standard of living (based in part on the statements of those green factions that advocate a romanticised peasant existence as the only sustainable way of life). This is simply false - technology provides us with another way out. It's therefore refreshing to see Blair demanding a "new green industrial revolution" to develop environmentally sustainable technologies and make them ubiquitous. We already seem to be in the beginnings of this - hybrid cars, wind turbines, cheap solar panels and energy efficient homes all offer some hope - but its currently in the bootstrap phase. But if we use government to push this trend - by funding research, tightening regulations, and creating a market through government procurement - then there's every possibility that we can reach a (far more) sustainable future.