Climate confusion

A longer post to try out something I want to include in the climate/energy chapter of the book.

It is not a new point, but from my pondering over these last weeks there’s a good case that the current state of the energy supply problem takes the demands of thinking about the future to a new level. Why? More than any other thing on our minds now, energy and climate force us to think about things which are connected across vastly different timescales.

This is true almost whichever part of the picture you look at. Fossil fuels took hundreds of millions of years to form. Yet once we started using oil we got through about half the easy to fetch stuff in just a century. We have detailed climate records from ice cores going back 800,000 years – the number goes up as researchers drill deeper. But as we begin to tune in to geological timescales we  learn that one of the main findings of recent climate science is that there can be abrupt changes in climate, where abrupt means tens, not hundreds or even thousands of years.

Newspaper reporters and climate bloggers wrangle endlessly about year by year, or even season by season temperature readings – and we still seem to find it hard to see the distinction between weather (day to day variations in prevailng conditions) and climate (averages of rainfall, wind, temperature and so on).

When it comes to policy, we are asked to think about action which will safeguard against future climate change. But indications are that the next 20-30 years will be more or less the same whatever we do because the colossal thermal inertia of the oceans means that heat they have already absorbed will go on slowly warming the atmosphere, come what may.

On the other hand, we are told that we have a couple of decades at best to slow CO2 emissions enough to keep the levels in the atmosphere below thresholds which could trigger real instability in climate. But the largest effects of climate change, particularly melting polar ice, could still take centuries or millenia to work through. That is also the kind of timescale involved if we expand nuclear power generation, and need to deal with radioactive waste.

Meanwhile a look at energy systems suggests that it will take at least twenty or thirty years, probably more, to make big changes. But carbon dioxide mixed into the atmosphere will stay there for a century or more. The politicians dealing with all this are still bound to electoral cycles of a few years. And the citizens they answer to are paying bills every month.

So, where to begin?  Especially when the uncertainties on all of these timescales are still perplexing. Maybe there is a more helpful way in by emphasising another feature of global change – space, rather than time. When a molecule of carbon dioxide or methane is newly formed it becomes part of a global system. No matter where it comes from, if it stays in the atmosphere, its effects can ultimately be felt worldwide. This has always been true, but its truth now takes on a new power. Our knowledge that it is so, and our ever increasing ability to chart, analyse, and predict those effects, is the strongest evidence yet for the philosophical sounding proposition much touted by environmentalists in the 1960s: everything is connected to everything else.

This is one way to understand globalisation. It is not just about the ever increasing interconnection of a world economic system which began getting joined up in the fifteenth century. It is about the fact that an increase in car journeys in say, Germany, a rush to build new coal-fired power stations in China, or forest clearances in Brazil can come together to produce changes which will be felt anywhere in the world. Although some will have the resources to avoid their worst consequences, there will be no escape from the basic effects.

This is not completely new. We have known for a long while that some industrial chemicals find their way to the most remote places and leave their residues in animal tissues, for example. And the depletion of the upper atmosphere ozone layer which caused alarm in the 1980s was an early example of global environmental change which was a result of enthusiastic use of modern technology. But the likely effects of greenhouse gases look like being more pervasive, longer lasting and, perhaps, more worrying.

The message of climate change, then, is that when it comes to securing future energy supplies, we are all in this together. As usual, that can be read pessimistically or optimistically. The downside is that it makes the problem hugely complex and hard to get to grips with. Any single country, any single household even, which acts in ways which seem prudent can see its efforts cancelled out by others who are less cautious, or more desparate – or both.

The upside could be that the same fact – essentially that the atmosphere and oceans have ways of ensuring that local actions have global consequences – plus the fast improving ability to track what those consequences are – invites negotiation to avoid the worst. We have so far managed not to slide into disaster when we knew there was one big thing we must avoid doing which was guaranteed to be calamitous (nuclear war). We have also, it appears, managed to avert a serious problem when there was a moderately bad thing happening which was the result of doing lots of small, but not absolutely essential things (depleting the ozone layer). Now, the imperative is to reduce the size of a problem which looks like growing more severe as a result of things which absolutely everyone does, or would like to do, and many wish to do more of in future rather than less. And there are almost infinitely many trade-offs in deciding who actually gets to do what, how, and at what cost, in the coming decades.

H. G. Wells would surely have embraced climate change as a welcome indication that the only way forward for civilization was world government. The more up to date way of putting it is to say that dealing with energy and climate requires global governance. That does not necessarily mean that there is one single body with the knowledge to dictate policy for everyone and the power to enforce it, as Wells always hoped. It does mean that local decision-makers have to try and develop a global view.

And the pessimistic reply?  Well, that global governance is a fantasy and the idea of using it to take charge of climate mere hubris. But then the best evidence is that we are already helping to change the climate. The question is how to use that knowledge to affect the changes we continue to make.  If you were wildly optimistic you could even say we now get to decide how warm we would like it to be.  (though who “we” are is then a big issue, as usual).

Meantime, I wonder if there has ever before been a problem which ranged across so many timescales – or, failing that, one which did, and we knew at the time this was the case? I’d love suggestions…

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