Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ingram Pinn illustration

Ingram Pinn illustration

The phrase “climate change denier” has a nasty ring to it. It links those who dispute mainstream science on global warming with “Holocaust deniers”. They are not just wrong, it implies, they are evil.

But the climate change lobby is in the grip of its own form of dangerous fantasy. It is in denial not about science – but about international politics.

At the moment, efforts to deal with global warming are focused on a huge international summit in Copenhagen in December. But the chances of Copenhagen delivering a deal that meets the goals for carbon dioxide emissions set by the United Nations Panel on Climate Change is vanishingly small. In private, many climate change activists will admit this. But Copenhagen is the only game in town – so they keep playing.

The first UN agreement on climate change was struck in Rio back in 1992. But in the intervening years, the rate of CO2 emissions has risen steadily – seemingly undeterred by huge emissions of hot air at UN conferences.

It was convenient to blame the lack of international progress on George W. Bush. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House will not be the game-changer that many climate change activists hoped for. The House of Representatives in Washington has passed a bill to limit carbon emissions. But its provisions are so mild that they seem unlikely to make much impact. The climate change lobby hoped that if the US took the lead with new laws, the rest of the world would respond. There is little sign of this.

When Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, visited India last week and appealed to her hosts to limit emissions she was rebuffed. The Chinese may be a little more polite in Washington this week. But the substance of what they say is likely to be just as unyielding. The Indians and Chinese point out that the vast bulk of the CO2 already in the atmosphere has been put there by the industrialised countries of the west. China is now probably the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. But, on a per capita basis, emissions in China are still well below western levels. Why, ask the Indians and Chinese, should Americans and Europeans assume the right to continue using energy at levels that they seek to deny to poorer countries? It is a fair question.

The Indians and the Chinese have so far refused to accept binding targets on CO2 emissions. Even if they change their position during the Copenhagen negotiations – and that is far from certain – that will come at a price. The proposed deal is that rich countries essentially bribe poorer countries to cut emissions and adopt cleaner technologies. China has proposed that developed nations should all agree to contribute 1 per cent of gross domestic product to help poorer nations fight global warming.

Now imagine that you are Mr Obama trying to sell a deal like that back home. The US is running a budget deficit of 12 per cent of GDP. The Chinese are sitting on the world’s largest foreign reserves. The president would have to ask the American people to write a large cheque to China to combat global warming – while simultaneously praying that the Chinese graciously consent to keep buying American debt to fund the deficit. It does not sound like a political winner.

Even if a deal is somehow struck at Copenhagen, it will involve promised reductions of CO2 emissions that seem literally incredible. The rich countries that belong to the Group of Eight, including the US, say they want to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – which will mean a massive transfer to cleaner sources of energy. As Oliver Morton, the science writer, points out – “Building two terawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050 – enough to supply 10 per cent of the total carbon-free energy that’s needed – means building a large nuclear power station every week; the current worldwide rate is about five a year. A single terawatt of wind – 5 per cent of the overall requirement – requires about 4m large turbines.”

Nicholas Stern, a professor of economics, has issued an influential report arguing that the transition to a low-carbon economy is affordable and compatible with continued economic growth. Leading western politicians say that they believe this and talk airily of the “green jobs” of the future. But there is little sign that they are prepared to back their arguments with deliberate efforts to raise the cost of fossil fuels or to make the necessary investments in alternative energy. All the politicians involved in the global climate change negotiations know that a country that moves unilaterally risks severely damaging its economy, at least in the short-term – without affecting the global problem.

The state of international negotiations presents a huge dilemma for climate change activists. Most genuinely believe that a failure to achieve an international agreement in Copenhagen would be catastrophic. But they also know that, even if a deal is reached, it is likely to be feeble and ineffective. If they admit this publicly, they risk creating a climate of despair and inaction. But if they press ahead, they are putting all their energy into an approach that they must know is highly unlikely to deliver.

It is a horrible dilemma. But, in difficult situations, it is best to start by facing facts. The trouble is that – in different ways – both sides of the climate change debate are in denial.
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