I’m astounded by the increase in public awareness on climate change over 2006. It’s hardly a new subject. Discussed and debated continuously since the early 1960s, climate change is now driving change in perceptions and attitudes that are simply amazing. Business leaders have joined to chorus in the last decade. Even some prominent conservative politicians are now "greening" themselves.
The Kyoto Protocol celebrates its 10th anniversary next year and the Earth Summit at Rio its 15th. It’s no longer an informal thing. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the agreement that was started at Rio and principally amended at Kyoto – was entered into force (became international law) 12.5 years ago. Kyoto itself was became law last year. So what happened in the last year or so to raise the global consciousness on this issue, particularly global warming?
Well there have been some popular books & movies in the recent past that have made the subject very accessible. On the film side there’s a broad spectrum of releases: from Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth" to Rolland Emmerich’s "The Day After Tomorrow". On the literature side, there’s an outstanding book by Tim Flannery called "The Weather Makers". There’s a bunch of other sources on David Suzuki’s site.
Significantly, a report was published overnight commissioned by the UK Treasury on the economics of climate change. Its author, Sir Nicholas Stern, is a former chief economist & VP at the World Bank, an academic at the London School of Economic and a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge. Sir Nick (as he’s known) briefed environment ministers from the 20 worst greenhouse-gas-emitting countries on the report last month. The numbers are scary but the upside hopeful: spend 1% of world GDP now and for some time to come and avoid a global catastrophe. The downside is that inaction for a decade or two could produce irreparable global damage.
A key message of the review is that economic & environmental sustainability need each other. It’s not the economy or the environment, it’s both in a mutually-dependent way. If the science and the economics are right, then maybe a Sir Nick has removed the last viable argument for inaction. "Pro-growth and pro-green" chanted Sir Nick’s boss, Gordon Brown at the launch event of the report at The Royal Society.
The UN also has some bad news today that basically says greenhouse gas emissions by industrialized nations got worse than expected 2000-2004. They do all the right diplomatic things and urge strengthening of measures in those member states going forward. The US (in particular), China & India seem to be responsible for over half of these emissions. None of these are obligated by treaty to do anything. The US has not ratified Kyoto (and neither has Australia) and is unlikely to until some major changes in government, either in the Congress or when President Bush leaves office. China & India, though signatories of Kyoto, do not have the obligations under that treaty carried by the developed nations.
The problem is not multinational – it’s global. Maybe the Stern Review’s multidisciplinary approach – starting from science going onto the economics and other social sciences – shows the way. But the issue is fundamentally a moral one. We (the world community) need do the right & good thing and secure a sustainable future for coming generations: environmentally and economically. To continue business-as-usual is to do the wrong and bad thing. If Sir Nick is right and it costs 1%, surely it is a small price to pay to head-off some terrible consequences, particularly for those living in coastal areas. If we have to trade in carbon to save the planet, so be it…
The solutions will be interdisciplinary too. Markets & capital have always followed technological innovation. This is a classic example of an opportunity to do well by doing good. Not just political will but effective action now (and for some time) from the private sector are needed. The urgency is striking and no longer in doubt. There is no longer time to delay, particularly with single-discipline or national debating exercises. Already, the lag in the effects of the worse-than-expected greenhouse gas emissions from 2000-2004 ensure that things will get worse before than can get better.
Maybe the raised awareness of climate change this year will show up where it’s most needed – in the US congressional elections, in boardrooms, in the policies of the two emerging giants (China & India) and in average consumption patterns of the more affluent people. The UK has demonstrated thought leadership here; it now needs to demonstrate leadership by actions. We, the developed world, are already on shaky moral ground if we try to lecture the developing world – especially China & India – about environmental responsibility.