Bush’s lack of guilt on global warming

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The future level of greenhouse gas emissions is governed mainly by the increasing demand for transport and electricity as economic development progresses in developing countries. Rich countries must pay for the research and development which would make developing and running a low carbon infrastructure affordable by poorer countries.

In the recent Group of Eight Gleneagles discussions on climate change, US President George W.Bush made four assertions: there are large uncertainties about the science and the economics; the Kyoto agreement would involve large costs and negligible benefits for the US; proposals to deal with greenhouse gas emissions that exclude developing countries are ineffective; and that research and development on new technologies should take priority over expenditure for meeting emissions reduction targets. It pains me to say it but on all points Mr Bush is right.

We know that average surface temperatures have been increasing since 1975. We do not know why. We know that human activities have contributed to this increase but not by how much. The size of the human contribution is of indirect significance since the problems that arise from global warming would occur whatever its cause. The size of the anthropogenic component is significant only because if human activity can have a major effect on raising world temperature it can also have a major effect on moderating an increase.

The debate has become so polarised that it is more and more difficult to pick one’s way through it. The best recent short guide to the issues I know was published on the eve of the Gleneagles summit by the Economic Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Lords. The report is balanced in approach and conclusions, and has therefore received little attention. The most trenchant paragraphs describe the ways in which politics, science and advocacy have become entwined. The voices of people who know how little we know are routinely drowned by those who claim to know far more than they or we do.

The Kyoto treaty is inconsequential because even if fully implemented it would not change greenhouse gas concentrations by much. If the degree of potential warming is large – say 5˚C over the next century – reducing that figure to 4.5˚C is nowhere near enough. If the degree of potential warming is small – say 0.5˚C over the next century – a policy which reduces that figure to 0.45˚C imposes costs a great deal larger than its benefits. There is no scenario in which actions that reduce global concentrations by a small amount make much sense. Since a small amount is exactly what we are doing, this is a key conclusion. We should, instead, either take major action or focus on adapting to any consequences.

What would be involved in doing a lot? The US accounts for just over 20 per cent of greenhouse gas output and Europe and Japan for a bit less. The whole of the developed world contains 800m people, compared with 2.4bn in India and China. The future level of greenhouse gas emissions is governed mainly by the increasing demand for transport and electricity as economic development progresses in these countries. This is the issue that matters on climate change. It is almost the only issue that matters on climate change.

And it points to the only way in which, if western leaders did take climate change seriously, the issue could be tackled. Rich countries must pay for the research and development that would make developing and running a low carbon infrastructure affordable by poorer countries. This is a matter for serious science, not wind farms and bicycle-to-work day.

Only nuclear technology fulfils these requirements today but its deployment on a global scale raises as many problems as it solves. There are many options that might become but are not yet commercially viable – hydrogen, photovoltaics, fusion. There are some not yet imagined. It is a curious lacuna that the most technologically progressive century in history ended with fuel technologies not fundamentally different from those employed when it began. And that we still do not have any cheap way of storing electricity. These are the projects on which action against climate change should focus.

Many of the people who express concern about climate change do not want a technological solution. Their concern is really an expression of guilt about materialism, distaste for capitalism and fear of technology. It is because Mr Bush does not experience any of these feelings that he is right on this issue.

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