THE CLIMATE CRISIS: A PROFOUND FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP
Ah, New Zealand — small, but otherwise typical among Western-style democracies. The Christchurch Press editorial of 10 October 2018 was titled “Climate Change: Let’s Talk Pain”. Around the same time, the wonderful Tom Scott penned a cartoon, modelled after Munch’s ‘the scream’ with the caption: “The UN has just issued a dire warning on the fate of Earth if we don’t stop global warming…. Oh my God! Someone else has to do something!” (his original is not shown here) The emphasis of course, being on the words ‘someone else’. Has anything changed since then? A little, perhaps; in New Zealand and around the world, polls (1) show that a clear majority of us now accept the global expert consensus: current climate change is man-made and dangerous.
But Tom Scott’s observation retains its sting: what are we, individually, prepared to sacrifice to safeguard the future for our children? Numerous studies (2) have shown that while shifting to a low-carbon economy will be costly, failing to do so will be far worse. Currently it looks unlikely that we’ll avoid breaching the +2oC barrier (3).
Research on past climates reveals that the last time CO2 levels were as high as they are now, sea level was 20 metres higher (4). So far, mainstream climate models have proven themselves reliable (5). But serious uncertainties remain about the many positive feedbacks that lead to cascading tipping points and irreversible change (6). Common sense suggests applying the precautionary principle: plan to avoid the worst-case scenario.
Our entire economy depends on the availability of cheap energy; so much so that money itself is best regarded as a proxy for access to available energy (7). It’s been an unspoken assumption for generations that this availability will continue to grow; that GDP growth is our birthright. But the current scale of fossil-based energy use underpinning the global economy is such that simply expecting wind, solar and hydrogen to fill the gap seems dangerously optimistic, while switching to biofuel would need vastly more arable land; and all these technologies require much more mining of strategic minerals. Nuclear fusion — were it ever made safe and commercially viable — might solve the crisis, but not in time.
Other escape routes? Geoengineering (e.g. the reflection of sunlight by deliberate introduction of aerosols into the upper atmosphere) has been suggested as a way to reduce global heating. This is clearly exceedingly risky, with unpredictable downstream effects. Nor, if fossil fuel use continues, will it stop ocean acidification (8). Carbon sequestration technologies (reinjecting CO2 into porous rock or reacting it with hot basaltic rock) would require considerable energy input and be extremely expensive to scale up.
Failure to act will cause increasingly erratic weather, sea level rise, ocean acidification, glacier melt and changing river flows. There will be massive consequences for agriculture, water supplies, fisheries, public health, global trade, and even whether human life can be supported in some hotter regions (9). Agencies concerned about global security (including NATO and the Pentagon) have issued clear warnings (10) about the consequences for mass migration and regional conflict.
With all this in mind, a number of experts including our own Prof. Susan Krumdieck have demonstrated that we don’t just need a low carbon economy, we need a lower energy economy (11). Materially, our kids will be less well off than we are (12). With that comes a lower tax take and reduced public services. Business as usual? It’s over.
How many of us are prepared to accept that? It’s unthinkable; growth is our religion. So Tom Scott was right: public buy-in is problematic. Who among the more well-off (13) is prepared to ditch their overseas holidays, fossil-fuelled cars, jet-skis and the like?
If, however we were to lower our material expectations and actively embrace a culture of sharing, teamwork and generosity, conflict could be avoided and the new normal would be a rewarding lifestyle. Acting with intelligence, decency and empathy should enable us to transition peacefully to a low-carbon, low-energy economy.
We might, perhaps, be up for all that — if our leaders had the guts to stand up and tell the truth. But politicians make a living by selling optimism. Both major political parties seem to believe that fixing the climate can and must be accompanied by continued GDP growth. They assume therefore that we can fix the problem by business as usual, i.e. more economic growth modified by a few tweaks such as subsidising EV take-up, public transport and tree planting. That’s simply not so. While those subsidies are necessary, they are grossly inadequate. Reliance on technological solutions (14) that might not work is a distraction from the key task, which is the rapid transition to a low-carbon, lower-energy economy.
The New Zealand Climate Change Commission (CCC) has just submitted its policy recommendations to government. Let’s hope we don’t see these recommendations submerged in a sea of political bickering, empty promises, and delay. During WW2, the civilian population cheerfully accepted hardship and inconvenience for the greater common good. The climate threat is more serious than WW2 — it’s unprecedented. The only hope of positive change rests on increasing the public appetite for rapid, even draconian, policies.
In troubled times alas, populist autocrats have a certain appeal. The worst outcome of all would be the rabble-rousing pretence at leadership we’ve seen from the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and an increasing number of lookalikes: sneering at the science, downplaying the crisis, blaming others and promising simplistic, tribal solutions. Genuine leadership (15) would mean addressing voters directly to set out the crisis fearlessly, without offering fake optimism or pulling any punches. Let’s hope our current batch of mainstream politicians have the courage to do that.
1. Public opinion:
2. Low carbon best option
3. Breaching 1.5 and 2C goals.
4. Sea level
5. Climate models
6. Tipping points
7. Money a proxy for energy
8. Ocean acidification
9. Heat deaths
10. Conflict and mass migration
11. Energy downshift and degrowth
12. Young will pay
13. Consumerism and the wealthy
14. Tech solutions and reforestation