Climate change and the risks of denying inconvenient truths
That it was not thought worth raising in the US presidential debates is astounding
by: Martin Wolf
Nature does not care what we think about it. Indeed, nature does not care about us at all. But we should care about nature. Above all, we should care about nature if our actions are affecting it adversely. Probably the most important way in which we are affecting nature is via the climate. Yet our response is foolish denial and fond hope. Nature will not be impressed.
Both last year and this one, with another strong El Niño, temperatures have hit records. A straight line between the peaks of January 1958 and February 2016 lies above the temperature in all intervening months. The same is true for a line drawn between March 1990 and February 2016. Twelve-month and 60-month moving averages give a similar picture. No slowdown in underlying rates of temperature rises is happening. After this El Niño another purported pause might occur — but probably at a higher average level than during the previous one. (See charts.)
Just as the world is hitting peak temperatures (relative to the 1951-80 average and pre-industrial levels), so is it hitting peak concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This year, the global average will almost certainly pass 400 parts per million, which is more than 40 per cent above pre-industrial levels. Given the well-known physics of the greenhouse effect, the causal relationship between the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases and consistently rising temperatures is at the very least overwhelmingly plausible.
Finally, we also know that the rise in concentrations of carbon dioxide are sure to continue, and for a long time. This is because emissions have themselves continue to rise, despite the talk about bringing them under control. So not only are the stocks of carbon dioxide continuing to rise but even the emission flows from human activities.
It is a remarkable fact that, given these simple truths, the question of climate change was barely addressed in the US presidential debates. This is not because it cannot matter. It is not because the candidates do not disagree. It is because few wish to think about the implications of these realities.
The two dominant responses to the evident reality of climate risks are denial. But they are very different forms of denial. I think of them as “denial major” and “denial minor”.
“Denial major” comes from the right. It starts from two facts and one supposition. Fact one is that many of the people who take climate change seriously are very suspicious of — if not downright hostile to — the market economy. Fact two is that climate change implies a costly global spillover from market-driven economic activity. The supposition is that doing anything to mitigate climate change must entail massive interference in the market economy and impose large economic costs.
The natural conclusion is that the idea of man-made climate change has to be fraudulent because the possibility of its truth is too painful to contemplate. It would be possible for those who want no action to agree, instead, that climate change is true but not worth any action. The drawback of this is that it would force a discussion about why doing nothing makes sense.
“Denial minor” comes from those who recognise the evident dangers but argue that tackling climate change effectively is a relatively low-cost and simple challenge. This, too, is implausible.
Even if, as some argue, the technologies needed to sustain economic growth while progressively eliminating carbon emissions are either here or arriving at ever-falling cost, the political, social and economic challenge of delivering a decisive break in these trends is daunting. It is too easy to get away with applauding what are in fact little more than gestures in the direction of tackling climate risks as if they are the real thing.
The much-praised Paris agreement of December 2015 is not only toothless but would fall far short even of keeping temperature rises below 2C, let alone below the 1.5C thought more desirable. This has to be a global effort of appropriate scale and urgency. Otherwise nothing relevant would change.
“Denial major” guarantees failure. It is what a President Donald Trump would take with him into the White House. Under him, the US would presumably abandon the modest steps taken under President Barack Obama. But the US is not just the world’s second-largest emitter; it is one of the biggest emitters per head. Without the US, the effort to reduce climate risks would be dead. That this was not thought worth even raising in the debates is astounding.
A President Hillary Clinton would not be guilty of “denial major” but is likely to indulge in “denial minor”, substituting modest gestures for policies able to bring credible change.
Indeed, without at least a start on carbon pricing and a determination to develop technologies far faster, the necessary shift in trends could not happen in time. The world would then have to adapt to the consequences of climate shifts it did not have the capacity to mitigate.
It is impossible to have just a US climate policy or a Chinese climate policy. It has to be a global policy. Much has changed in attitudes since the UK government published the Stern review a decade ago. But little has yet altered on the ground. Only if we collectively recognise and act upon the realities right now is anything much likely to change. On this, I remain pessimistic.