In the short term, there’ll be no major action against climate change

By Thomas Crowley, professor of geosciences at the University of Edinburgh and director of Sages. Response to Bali: now the rich must pay (THE GUARDIAN, 11/12/07):

Nicholas Stern’s piece on the Bali summit for climate change states that “rich countries must lead the way in taking action” (Bali: now the rich must pay, November 30).Even though I am a climate scientist concerned about global warming, I cannot help but conclude that such well-intentioned proposals – including some in follow-up Guardian articles (What breakthrough would best advance the fight against climate change?, December 3) – are not going to work.

The basic problem is that they call for a level of action and attitude changes probably unprecedented in human history (outside of total war), and history argues strongly against the likelihood of such changes.

A deal in Bali and its enforcement, says Stern, “will come from the willing participation of countries driven by the understanding that action is vital”. However, to take one example, we have the capability to save millions of lives now by making inexpensive means of clean water available. If we cannot do that, what makes anyone think we can do something about a bigger problem in the future? This inertial human factor applies even to preservation of the self. For example, it has taken 40 to 50 years to change attitudes in Europe towards smoking.

Developing nations rightly wait for first-world countries to take the lead on global warming. But as long as the United States and its powerful interest groups merely give lip service to the issue, the matter seems dead-on-arrival at any negotiating table.

As a US citizen, I believe it would be rash to assume that things will change even after George Bush leaves office. The interest groups will still be there.

After 15 years of discussions and agreements on global warming, there is little to show in terms of actual reduced emissions. It is necessary to consider whether anything humbler – but more reliable – can be done now.

Countries’ actions are based primarily on self-interest in the near term. From this perspective, perhaps the most reasonable option for any British action is the need for protection against the whims of Russian gas and Middle-Eastern oil.

The government should therefore take stronger action in two areas: first, enhance market options to stimulate energy efficiency and innovation across the economy; second, massively increase spending on technologies for clean coal and carbon capture and storage (CCS), currently the only method of directly preventing atmospheric greenhouse gas increases. Since fossil fuels are responsible for about 85% of the total world energy usage, they will have to be used for the next 30-40 years. In addition to providing a job stimulus, it is conceivable that a concerted thrust on CCS will enable Britain to become the world leader in these technologies.

This may not seem like a grand restart to addressing a problem of imminent concern, but it is at least realistic. In the long-term we can reach for the stars, but now is the time for action.