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Fixing climate change: the future isn’t what it used to be

Optimism is lovely, but individual action won’t solve climate change. \!/_PeacePlusOne/Flickr

This is the last part of a series following on from the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report and looking at emerging alternatives to the UN climate agreement process.

State based action and sectoral agreements show some promise in dealing with aspects of climate change. But from humanity’s climate change experience to date and its failure to address the climate change problem through a global agreement, it’s safe to suggest we are headed for trouble.

Given our current path on generating and dealing with emissions, here are my predictions for the future of climate change and climate change action.

Individual action doesn’t and won’t matter

Much has been made of individual action as a means of dealing with the climate change problem, but what one does personally doesn’t on its own make the least bit of difference.

Put another way, the things individuals do in their daily lives, taken by themselves, have no effect. The planet doesn’t notice. It is collective action that matters, or what several billion people do.

Environmental economis Gernot Wagner argues that “[t]he changes necessary are so large and so profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action”.

Instead, what is required is policy that motivates individuals and major industrial sectors to reduce emissions and use resources more efficiently.

In any event, there is nothing to indicate that our behaviour is changing; if anything, it’s “business as usual”.

Policy focus will eventually be on adaptation

Climate change mitigation involves reducing emissions through, for example, price-based mechanisms like emissions trading. Climate change adaptation means coping with or adjusting to climate change.

With mitigation, adaptation becomes easier (and they are not alternatives). Together with mitigation, policies focused on adaptation are required, to make adjustments to the unavoidable changes that we now face.

The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and others have suggested that achieving a limit of 2C global warming above pre-industrial levels may be impossible. This raises the possibility of global temperature rises of 4C this century. This could result, as the Royal Society says, in the “collapse of systems or require transformational adaptation out of systems, as we understand them today”.

The world’s failure to mitigate, the potential severity of impacts, and the challenges (behavioural, societal, economic) in dealing with such failure and such impacts, all argue for renewed efforts on adaptation.

There will be ‘ever more people’

David Attenborough asks us to make a list of all of the environmental problems which afflict the planet – climate change, desertification, famine, loss of rainforest, collapse of fish stocks, shortage of arable land, and so on. He argues that these problems share one underlying cause: all of these problems become “more difficult – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people”.

The UN estimates (with qualification) that the world’s population will reach 10 billion and climbing by 2100. If families, on average, have half a child more than the UN projects, population will reach 16 billion by 2100.

In Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals, statistician Paul Murtagh and others argue that a person’s reproductive choices must be considered together with his or her everyday activities to work out that person’s impact on the global environment. And it’s difficult to take issue with the view that the decision to have a child is an ethical decision.

Ethics also underpin any market-based approach to population control – how about “tradeable procreation credits”, for example, for buying and selling the right to have children? Market-based mechanisms – emissions trading schemes – are in vogue as a means to address the climate change problem. Why not use such mechanisms to address the population problem?

Perhaps, though, if having children is, as philosopher Michael Sandel says, “a central aspect of human flourishing, then it’s unfair to condition access to this good on the ability to pay”.

Growing global population amplifies a range of other threats, and they are all related to climate change: resource scarcity, for example, and the energy crisis. And energy of course goes to the heart of the climate change problem.

There will never be ‘enough stuff’

UCLA’s Laurence Smith poses this question:

What if you could play God and do the ethically fair thing by converting the entire developing world’s level of material consumption to that now carried out by North Americans, Western Europeans, Japanese, and Australians today?

Would you?

The world Smith depicts would be frightening. Consumption globally would rise elevenfold. Where would all that meat, fish, water, energy, plastic, metal, and wood come from in a carbon/climate-constrained world?

Suppose, though, that such conversion takes place gradually over the next 40 years. If demographers’ estimate that world population might stabilise at about 9.2 billion by 2050, and if the ultimate objective is for everyone on Earth to live like the developed world, we will need enough stuff to support the equivalent of 105 billion people.

Such a world is completely unsustainable – yet it is, as Smith points out, the “end goal implicit in nearly all prevailing policy”.

This is the ‘age of the Anthropocene’ and will be the end of the wild

Fully 80% of the world’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) is directly influenced by human activities. More than a decade ago, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen suggested we were living in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch inadvertently brought on by the influence of human activity and behaviour on the Earth’s atmosphere.

Further, studies suggest that Earth’s creatures are on the brink of a sixth mass extinction. Perhaps three-quarters of animal species will vanish within 300 years.

This leads MIT’s Stephen Meyer to refer to the “end of the wild” and to conclude that “the extinction crisis … is over, and we have lost”.

Two alternative conclusions

The optimist is comforted by humanity’s ability to come up with solutions. As Brian Schmidt, the Australian winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics, said (though not in the context of climate change), “Humanity is remarkably clever at figuring out how to do things that are not obviously possible”.

But Stephen Emmott, Head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, may be more accurate when he says in his book 10 Billion, “I think we’re fucked”.

Part one of this series is here and part two is here.

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