Wake the world

This is a guest post by Anthony Giddens and Martin Rees. Giddens is a former director of the London School of Economics, a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge and the author of The Politics of Climate Change. Rees is president of the Royal Society.

This year has seen outbreaks of extreme weather in many regions of the world. No one can say with certainty that events such as the flooding in Pakistan, the unprecedented weather episodes in some parts of the US, the heatwave and drought in Russia, or the floods and landslides in northern China were influenced by climate change. Yet they constitute a stark warning. Extreme weather events will grow in frequency and intensity as the world warms.

No binding agreements were reached at the meetings in Copenhagen last December. Leaked emails between scientists at the University of East Anglia, claimed by critics to show manipulation of data, received a great deal of attention – as did errors found in the volumes produced by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many newspapers, especially on the political right, have carried headlines that global warming has either stopped or is no longer a problem.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that the core scientific findings about human-induced climate change and the dangers it poses for our collective future remain intact. The most important relevant fact is based on uncontroversial measurements: the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for at least the last half-million years. It has risen by 30 per cent since the start of the industrial era, mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels. If the world continues to depend on fossil fuels to the extent it does today, carbon dioxide will reach double pre-industrial levels within the next half-century. This build-up is triggering long-term warming, the physical reasons for which are well-known and demonstrable in the laboratory.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that this year is set to be the warmest year globally since their records began in 1880. June was the 304th consecutive month with a land and ocean temperature above the 20th-century average. Last year, the administration analysed findings from some 50 independent records monitoring temperature change, involving 10 separate indices. All 10 indicators showed a clear pattern of warming over the past half-century.

A renewed drive is demanded to wake the world from its torpor. The catastrophic events noted above should provide the stimulus. The floods in Pakistan have left some 20 million people homeless. Pakistan cannot be left to founder – but neither can other poor countries, many of which are vulnerable to catastrophic weather events.

World leaders should expedite and accelerate the discussions currently under way to provide large-scale funding for poorer countries to develop the infrastructure to cope with future weather shocks.

The United States and China are far and away the biggest polluters in the world, contributing well over 40 per cent of total global emissions. The European Union is pursuing progressive policies in containing the carbon emissions of its member states. Yet whatever the EU and the rest of the world do, if the US and China do not alter their current policies there is little or no hope of containing climate change.

The US has 4 per cent of the world’s population but churns out 25 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. It must assume a greater leadership role in world efforts to curb climate change. President Barack Obama should reassert that containing climate change is one of the highest priorities of his administration.

Positive initiatives are happening at the level of local communities, third-sector organisations, cities and states. These groups must exert pressure on many different levels to promote a significant reduction in emissions across the whole US.

China’s leaders show increasing awareness of how vulnerable their country is to climate change, and are investing in renewable technologies and nuclear power on a substantial scale. However, China’s carbon emissions are steadily increasing. It has the right and the need to develop, but much clearer plans than seem to exist at present are needed to show how the country intends to move away from its existing high-carbon path. The Chinese leadership should formulate such plans, make them public and open them up for international scrutiny.

The current emphasis on improving energy efficiency is important, but nowhere near enough to seriously chart such a path.

Russia is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. President Dmitry Medvedev has proposed targets the country should adopt, but as they stand they are empty. Calculated against a 1990 baseline, they are accounted for simply by the decline of the country’s uncompetitive heavy industries.

Above all, a renewed impetus to international collaboration is required. The meetings of the UN to be held at Cancun in December carry little promise of initiating policies on the scale needed. The US, China, the EU and other major states such as Brazil and India, with due attention paid to the interests of smaller nations, should work with a greater sense of urgency.

Finally, limiting carbon emissions won’t happen solely through regulation and target-setting: innovation — social, economic and technological — will be central. Enlightened business leaders should step up their attempts to this end. The rewards, after all, are huge. The actions needed to counter this threat — the transition to a lifestyle dependent on clean and efficient energy — will create manifold new economic opportunities.

[Beach Boys]

25 thoughts on “Wake the world”

  1. Although I agree things look bleak on the political front, including, disappointingly in New Zealand I think that most leaders are worried sick about the climatic outcome. There ability to do much is limited by the uncompromising attitude of the electorate who refuse to entertain any problem that might upset there way of life and vote them out if there are any problems.
    We need a few major weather disasters in political centres to sharpen peoples minds to the problems.
    If America had lost a quarter of its grain crop instead of Russia would it have changed attitudes there? We need major death and destruction directly linked to climate change to focus peoples minds to action before it gets too late…

    1. Most leaders worried sick? Some, perhaps, but not that many. If our leaders really appreciated the calibre of the barrel we’re staring down, and the payload of the shell at the other end, they’d be doing a lot more to address the problem.
      I fear that you’re right — we’ll only get action when the damaging impacts are undeniable — but I very much hope that will arrive long before we get major death and destruction…

    2. Actually, I don’t see any evidence that the electorates are holding the leaders back. Polls all over the world say that a lot (often a majority) of people are prepared to see energy prices go up to do something about climate change. A meaningful cap and trade scheme is not a hard sell, provided people see that it is fair, and that the poorest are compensated for the extra energy costs.

      1. What I think we need to remember here, though, is that people answer poll questions in an ‘ideal’ sense relating to their own self-image and what they’d like to believe their intentions are.

        In Australia we had a decade of poll after poll showing large majorities claiming Global Warming as a high-level concern while the electoral majority merrily voted for John Howard, the deniers dream candidate. This isn’t just a matter of there being other issues at stake in an election, this is the cognitive dissonance inherent in wanting to see oneself as virtuous, but not being willing to ‘pay’ for it!

        No doubt a majority would tell you they are gravely concerned about the abuse inherent in children manufacturing soccer balls, yet they won’t actually buy the bloody non-exploitative balls if they cost only a few dollars more! This is one example among thousands – fair trade; battery hens, eggs, and meat; fatuous ‘frequent-flyer’ globe-trotting – everyone’s universally opposed to the badness right up to the specific point that it becomes inconvenient for them!

        Ultimately only external regulation will work to constrain behaviour for the majority – whether this comes relatively benignly through democratic institutions, heavy-handedly via total states, or catastrophically via eco-system collapse. Or as mixture of the above.

        And this is why there’s such an intense and concerted lobby to prevent ‘nanny state’ interference in the AGW issue – this problem can never be solved at the consumer level. And there’s a whole bunch of ideologues, several of whom have been known to comment on this blog, who just don’t care; for them the institutionalised myopic selfishness inherent in their ‘free market’ is a value that must endure ahead of mere individuals and ecosystems…

        1. Good intentions and not-so-good actions. And this is the point where good governments and communities step in.

          Where people do have good intentions, a good system makes it easier for those intentions to be put into practice. Leadership is the art of getting people to do their best rather than their worst. And that’s where the ideologues like Howard and his ilk fall down. Constantly telling people that the thing to do is to be selfish or grasping or inconsiderate makes those behaviours not just legitimate, but desirable. Sure they’re natural, but so is death in childbirth, and we’re not very keen on that.

          It’s also natural to be thoughtful, generous and welcoming. Supporting such behaviours is good government practice. Finding the policy formulations to match is a lot easier when people are willing to find their way to better outcomes.

  2. Our politicians seem too busy ‘restoring the economy’ (Titanic deckchair shuffling) to heed what the informed public are hearing and seeing.
    I find it unfathomable why their is no public outcry over this situation. Predictabe as human nature is, it’s going to take several over-lapping natural disasters followed by social collapse before governments realise their measures have fallen short.

    I imagine the bulk of the populous are inert because they’re too busy paying off mortgages and hp’s between drowning their despondency with ‘reality shows’ on the very medium that should be informing of global plight.

    The like of the above articles should be on mainstream radio & TV, as should ted.com
    I’m still staggered by people who refute climate change in light of the evidence , and I find myself asking whether I’m the one who has joined the ‘Sky is falling’ brigade.

  3. Weather is not the same as climate.. oft said, in justifiable defense or explanation. But weather is what people ‘get’.

    So.. slight suggestion.. we attempt have them continue ‘get’ their obvious understanding whilst relating climate disruption more than AGW (causation). Not ducking the issue you understand yet trying overcome so-called language blocks to make front-foot play(sorry for the lousy metaphor) into science traducers’ faces.

    Besides, disruption says in effect different. Pretty obvious for extremes. To this extent I’d buy John Holdren’s recent explanation for why we ought advance communicating on ‘global warming’.

    Anyone for a decadal x-axis and y-temp averages along with extreme weather events to suggest relation. [ come to think of it I reckon NOAA has a bar-job something like it ] Simpler the better.. Titled Weather Disruption Looks Like..

    Not strictly science, of course not, so who needs strictly for common understandings..?

    And Southland farmers.. Northland farmers can join the meleé.. along with their Aussie cousins in drought and flood.. After all, why should they be left out. That some may recall just as bad or worse events in the past does not in any way discount today’s discerned, scientifically-accounted, extreme events. The understanding of which along with appropriate action I’d add was quite vital in terms of dealing with them.

    Nice weekend all.

  4. I was born, raised, educated and lived in the US until 1995. I think I have a reasonable handle on US domestic politics (this does NOT include insider information from a possible distant relative-in-law). It pains me to say so, but the chances of the US limiting GHG emissions through some sort of international agreement that would have any negative effect on the domestic economy are nil.

    Blaming this state of affairs on oil and coal industry lobbies (or the influence of the Koch brothers) is as ridiculous as the conspiracy crap the contrarians spout. The real inconvenient truth is that most Americans are only interested in their own well-being. They are woefully ignorant of the rest of the world. They live in the richest, most powerful nation the world has ever seen and they don’t rat’s ass about the poor in their own capital city much less those half a world away in Pakistan!

    Calling on Obama to “reassert that containing climate change is one of the highest priorities of his administration” indicates the authors are clueless regarding the US politcal scene. He has been a lame duck the last year with both houses of congress controlled by his own party! When the Republicans take control in 2011, there will be blood.

    Unfortunately, the only way for the US to curtail its GHG emissions is for cheaper alternative sources of energy to become available. That’s going to be mighty tough because the US (like China, India and Russia) has heaps of cheap coal waiting to be burned. Yes, the true costs of oil should include the trillions of dollars the US has wasted on wars in the Persian Gulf, but I don’t see that reality being recognised anytime soon.

    I am sorry for being so pessimistic on a Friday evening.

    1. You are right in most respects (I have always been amazed by aspects of the US – in particular the inward-looking nature of the place), but I think you are wrong about the Koch/Exxon stuff. What they have done is work with the grain of American attitudes to create a political situation where action on almost any environmental issue is difficult, if not impossible. So effective have they been in shaping right wing US attitudes that virtually every Republican candidate in the forthcoming elections is a climate denier. That’s no accident… (and it’s profoundly depressing).

      1. Hi Gareth-
        I wish that the underlying attitudes of the American Right and a large (and apparently growing) number of the public could be attributed to the machinations of the Koch brothers or fossil fuel industry, but that is just another big conspiracy theory. Don’t get me wrong, the Koch brothers are evil, but if not them, someone would be filling that role. Like it or not, it is in the American character to distrust their own government and all foreigners – the only exception being when they want the government to “protect” them from the foreigners.

        Just one of many reasons I enjoying living in New Zealand.

        1. Mike, we’re all familiar with the naivete and ignorance of Americans about the wider world. (As the experiences of my own and others’ children on school exchange trips can hilariously attest.)

          However, always and everywhere, it is the responsibility of leaders to look to the best in their populations rather than exciting and feeding the worst. All of us who deal with individual US citizens find them friendly and congenial. There is no reason why good leadership, political, community, industrial, couldn’t bring these excellent qualities to the fore in public discourse.

          Pandering to fear and greed is a sign of poor leadership in every facet of life in every country on earth.

  5. For a geoscientist, this is a most amazing experiment! Some scientists experiment upon themselves, but to have the support of the most powerful governments on earth provide the conditions for testing Global Warming models…

    This leaves the physicists with their LHC toy looking ridiculous. It even surpasses the hey-day of the atomic scientists in the Cold War when they created the thousands of bombs that could glassify the earth.

    As for Political science I am betting that the Chinese with their scientists/engineers calling the shots, – they will be the winners. Just tell the peasants what to do. If middle management doesn’t do the job then “retire” them. No time for back chat. As for the Americans…. let their greed conquer them.

    Actually, the Hitch-hikers Guide had some hints about what to do with the non-scientists. Give them a trip to another planet…. Isn’t that what Boeing has recently suggested?

    The faster Earth gets rid of humans, the sooner it can get back to evolving the white mice, and identifying “the question”.

    Just another “average” wet spring day’s musings.

  6. “June was the 304th consecutive month with a land and ocean temperature above the 20th-century average.”

    Can we assume that August was the 306th consecutive month with above average temperature? This is the kind of fact-bite that gets people’s attention.

      1. Thanks. Fifteen years of above average global mean temps should be enough to get even the most slothful politician active in addressing this issue. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.

  7. It would be interesting to redo the calculation. The ‘average’ involved includes 15 or 16 consecutive years that were above the average that included them. (Depends on whether 20th century started on 1900 or 1901.) After having a run that long above the ‘average’, it suggests that perhaps something has changed.

    So take the century you work with to be earlier — so as to not include the recent long run of unusual figures. What would the run be like versus the 1880 to 1979 century’s average?

    Regardless of which 100 years you take as base, an additional question is: How common are runs of 50, 100, 200, … months of above, or below, average temperature? Could it be that it’s normal to be above (or below) average for many years at at time?

    1. Well, you’d have to work out what sort of autocorrelation there was between months (ie a record warm month being less likely after a record cold one, or vice versa), and if there were any cycles in the data – decadal or multi-decadal periods of increased likelihood of warmth and cold. But you’d have to do that for a period before substantial CO2 forcing, because we expect that to have an effect… In other words we’re looking for “natural variability” and a test to see if its been exceeded.

      Sounds like a job for a statistician. 😉

    2. Yes, RG. Watching the Arctic ice melt this year, it constantly occurred to me that the “historical average” graph line included years up to 2000. I kept on wanting someone to do the comparison with earlier years – say excluding 1991 and later. Just looking at the satellite pictures comparing this year with 1980 tells me that we’re in a completely new era.

      Won’t matter in a few years I suppose, unlike the temperature profile.

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