Earlier this month, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reported to have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5 million years. It is also continuing to rise at a rate of about 2 parts per million every year. On the present course, it could be 800 parts per million by the end of the century. Thus, all the discussions of mitigating the risks of catastrophic climate change have turned out to be empty words.
Collectively, humanity has yawned and decided to let the dangers mount. Professor Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College in London, notes that when the concentrations were last this high, “the world was warmer on average by three or four degrees Celsius than it is today. There was no permanent ice sheet on Greenland, sea levels were much higher, and the world was a very different place, although not all of these differences may be directly related to CO2 levels.”
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His caveat is proper. Nonetheless, the greenhouse effect is basic science: it is why the earth has a more pleasant climate than the moon. CO2 is a known greenhouse gas. There are positive feedback effects from rising temperatures, via, for example, the quantity of water vapour in the atmosphere. In brief, humanity is conducting a huge, uncontrolled and almost certainly irreversible climate experiment with the only home it is likely to have. Moreover, if one judges by the basic science and the opinions of the vast majority of qualified scientists, risk of calamitous change is large.
What makes the inaction more remarkable is that we have been hearing so much hysteria about the dire consequences of piling up a big burden of public debt on our children and grandchildren. But all that is being bequeathed is financial claims of some people on other people. If the worst comes to the worst, a default will occur. Some people will be unhappy. But life will go on. Bequeathing a planet in climatic chaos is a rather bigger concern. There is nowhere else for people to go and no way to reset the planet’s climate system. If we are to take a prudential view of public finances, we should surely take a prudential view of something irreversible and much costlier.
So why are we behaving like this?
The first and deepest reason is that, as the civilisation of ancient Rome was built on slaves, ours is built on fossil fuels. What happened in the beginning of the 19th century was not an “industrial revolution” but an “energy revolution”. Putting carbon into the atmosphere is what we do.
As I have argued in Climate Policy, what used to be the energy-intensive lifestyle of today’s high-income countries has gone global. Economic convergence between emerging and high-income countries is increasing demand for energy faster than improved energy efficiency is reducing it. Not only aggregate CO2 emissions but even emissions per head are rising. The latter is partly driven by China’s reliance on coal-powered electricity generation.
A second reason is opposition to any interventions in the free market. Some of this, no doubt, is driven by narrowly economic interests. But do not underestimate the power of ideas. To admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified. For many libertarians or classical liberals, the very idea is unsupportable. It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science.
A symptom of this is clutching at straws. It is noted, for example, that average global temperatures have not risen recently, though they are far higher than a century ago. Yet periods of falling temperature within a rising trend have occurred before.
A third reason may be the pressure of responding to immediate crises that has consumed almost all the attention of policymakers in the high-income countries since 2007.
A fourth is a touching confidence that, should the worst come to the worst, human ingenuity will find some clever ways of managing the worst results of climate change.
A fifth is the complexity of reaching effective and enforceable global agreements on the control of emissions among so many countries. Not surprisingly, the actual agreements reached give more an appearance of action than a reality.
A sixth is indifference to the interests of people to be born in a relatively distant future. As the old line goes: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”
A final (and related) reason is the need to strike a just balance between poor countries and rich ones and between those who emitted most of the greenhouse gases in the past and those who will emit in the future.
The more one thinks about the challenge, the more impossible it is to envisage effective action. We will, instead, watch the rise in global concentrations of greenhouse gases. If it turns out to lead to a disaster, it will by then be far too late to do anything much about it.
So what might shift such a course? My view is, increasingly, that there is no point in making moral demands. People will not do something on this scale because they care about others, even including their own more remote descendants. They mostly care rather too much about themselves for that.
Most people believe today that a low-carbon economy would be one of universal privation. They will never accept such a situation. This is true both of the people of high-income countries, who want to retain what they have, and the people of the rest of the world, who want to enjoy what the people of high-income countries now have.
A necessary, albeit not sufficient condition, then, is a politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy. That is not what people now see. Substantial resources must be invested in the technologies that would credibly deliver such a future.
Yet that is not all. If such an opportunity does appear more credible, institutions must also be developed that can deliver it.
Neither the technological nor the institutional conditions exist at present. In their absence, there is no political will to do anything real about the process driving our experiment with the climate. Yes, there is talk and wringing of hands. But there is, predictably, no effective action. If that is to change, we must start by offering humanity a far better future. Fear of distant horror is not enough.