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Hope rises for climate change action

There have been two major blocks hindering action to deal with looming climate upheaval. One is political and the other is theoretical. The political good news is that it is reported that the US and China, whose combined greenhouse gas emissions nearly match the rest of the world’s, are now engaged on talks at a new level of intensity on cutting CO2 emissions which observers say is the most promising development in nearly 20 years of climate change negotiations.

That is highly significant because the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding UN climate pact ever agreed, was gravely weakened because the US under Bush never ratified it and China as a ‘developing country’ was never bound by it. The US-China economic rivalry also scuppered the key Copenhagen negotiations in 2009 which were meant to renew this protocol. Now however Xie Zhenhua, the leading Chinese negotiator, is declaring: “We should be confident that the Paris meeting (the world summit on climate change next year) will not be another Copenhagen”. What is driving this is not a sudden conversion of the world’s two great economic powers, but rather hard-headed political realities.

Life in many Chinese cities is becoming unbearable for millions of their inhabitants because of persistent choking smog while the Obama administration, so long hamstrung by political paralysis over budget expenditure and the Healthcare Act, is now freer to pursue its commitment to climate action. In addition there is an increasing change of thinking at the theoretical level. The reason that governments and the public have been lulled into complacency over the risks of climate catastrophe is that the so-called integrated assessment models assume, with no theoretical or empirical foundation at all, the cheerily optimistic assumption that a warming climate will have only modest effects on economic output, and these can be discounted by putting a social cost on carbon of , say, $36 a tonne. The models assume that output keeps rising, but then a supposed measure of damage is subtracted. This is profoundly deceptive.

If the world economy grows by 2% a year for the next century, its size will increase over 7-fold, and even if the damage estimate knocks off half of that, it would still grow 3.5 times. But that takes no account of the fact that climate change doesn’t occur on a smooth linear rise, but rather with sudden huge surges when certain tipping points are reached. Economists are at last beginning to dispense with the linear model approach as unrealistic, and instead estimating the consequences of climate catastrophe (which are well within current predictions) and then calculating the cost of precautionary action to avoid it – just like in the Cold War analysts considered the consequences of thermonuclear war and used that as the basis for negotiating arms control treaties. A similar approach to climate change will dramatically alter perceptions.

One Comment

  1. jan freed says:

    Half of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the the seas. Our fossil fuel emissions have increased acidity of those seas by 30%. One can Google reports of diminishing sea life due to thee increases.

    We are gambling with the only planet known to support life.

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