Patrice Riemens on Mon, 30 Mar 2009 07:22:35 -0400 (EDT)

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<nettime> George Monbiot: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Just in case you had forgotten amidst concerns over the economic/financial
Cheers from the palms, p+2D!
original at:
bwo GlobalInfo/Kredietcrisis Digest/ Kees Stad

Posted March 17, 2009

If you think preventing climate change is politically difficult, look at
the political problems of adapting to it.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian, 16th March 2009.

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are
saying the same thing: it's over. The years in which more than two degrees
of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities
squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we'll be lucky to
get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution)
has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

This, at any rate, was the repeated whisper at the climate change
conference in Copenhagen last week(1). It's more or less what Bob Watson,
the environment department's chief scientific adviser, has been telling
the British government(2). It is the obvious if unspoken conclusion of
scores of scientific papers. Recent work by scientists at the Tyndall
Centre for Climate Change Research, for example, suggests that even global
cuts of 3% a year, starting in 2020, could leave us with four degrees of
warming by the end of the century(3,4). At the moment emissions are
heading in the opposite direction at roughly the same rate. If this
continues, what does it mean? Six? Eight? Ten degrees? Who knows?

Faced with such figures, I can't blame anyone for throwing up his hands.
But before you succumb to this fatalism, let me talk you through the

Yes, it is true that mitigation has so far failed. Sabotaged by
Clinton(5), abandoned by Bush, attended half-heartedly by the other rich
nations, the global climate talks have so far been a total failure. The
targets they have set bear no relationship to the science and are negated
anyway by loopholes and false accounting. Nations like the UK which are
meeting their obligations under the Kyoto protocol have succeeded only by
outsourcing their pollution to other countries(6,7). Nations like Canada,
which are flouting their obligations, face no meaningful sanctions.

Lord Stern made it too easy: he appears to have underestimated the costs
of mitigation. As the professor of energy policy Dieter Helm has shown,
Stern's assumption that our consumption can continue to grow while our
emissions fall is implausible(8). To have any hope of making substantial
cuts we have both to reduce our consumption and transfer resources to
countries like China to pay for the switch to low-carbon technologies. As
Helm notes, "there is not much in the study of human nature?and indeed
human biology?to give support to the optimist."

But we cannot abandon mitigation unless we have a better option. We don't.
If you think our attempts to prevent emissions are futile, take a look at
our efforts to adapt.

Where Stern appears to be correct is in proposing that the costs of
stopping climate breakdown - great as they would be - are far lower than
the costs of living with it. Germany is spending E600m just on a new sea
wall for Hamburg(9) - and this money was committed before the news came
through that sea level rises this century could be two or three times as
great as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted(10).
The Netherlands will spend E2.2bn on dykes between now and 2015; again
they are likely to be inadequate. The UN suggests that the rich countries
should be transferring $50-75bn a year to the poor ones now to help them
cope with climate change, with a massive increase later on(11). But
nothing like this is happening.

A Guardian investigation reveals that the rich nations have promised $18bn
to help the poor nations adapt to climate change over the past seven
years, but they have disbursed only 5% of that money(12). Much of it has
been transferred from foreign aid budgets anyway: a net gain for the poor
of nothing(13). Oxfam has made a compelling case for how adaptation should
be funded: nations should pay according to the amount of carbon they
produce per capita, coupled with their position on the human development
index(14). On this basis, the US should supply over 40% of the money and
the European Union over 30%, with Japan, Canada, Australia and Korea
making up the balance. But what are the chances of getting them to cough

There's a limit to what this money could buy anyway. The Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change says that "global mean temperature changes greater
than 4°C above 1990-2000 levels" would "exceed ? the adaptive capacity of
many systems."(15) At this point there's nothing you can do, for example,
to prevent the loss of ecosystems, the melting of glaciers and the
disintegration of major ice sheets. Elsewhere it spells out the
consequences more starkly: global food production, it says, is "very
likely to decrease above about 3°C"(16). Buy your way out of that.

And it doesn't stop there. The IPCC also finds that, above three degrees
of warming, the world's vegetation will become "a net source of
carbon"(17). This is just one of the climate feedbacks triggered by a high
level of warming. Four degrees might take us inexorably to five or six:
the end - for humans - of just about everything.

Until recently, scientists spoke of carbon concentrations - and
temperatures - peaking and then falling back. But a recent paper in the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that "climate change
? is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop."(18) Even
if we were to cut carbon emissions to zero today, by the year 3000 our
contribution to atmospheric concentrations would decline by just 40%. High
temperatures would remain more or less constant until then. If we produce
it we're stuck with it.

In the rich nations we will muddle through, for a few generations, and
spend nearly everything we have on coping. But where the money is needed
most there will be nothing. The ecological debt the rich world owes to the
poor will never be discharged, just as it has never accepted that it
should offer reparations for the slave trade and for the pillage of gold,
silver, rubber, sugar and all the other commodities taken without due
payment from its colonies. Finding the political will for crash cuts in
carbon production is improbable. But finding the political will - when the
disasters have already begun - to spend adaptation money on poor nations
rather than on ourselves will be impossible.

The world won't adapt and can't adapt: the only adaptive response to a
global shortage of food is starvation. Of the two strategies it is
mitigation, not adaptation, which turns out to be the most feasible
option, even if this stretches the concept of feasibility to the limits.
As Dieter Helm points out, the action required today is unlikely but "not
impossible. It is a matter ultimately of human well being and ethics."(19)

Yes, it might already be too late - even if we reduced emissions to zero
tomorrow - to prevent more than two degrees of warming, but we cannot
behave as if it is, for in doing so we make the prediction come true.
Tough as this fight may be, improbable as success might seem, we cannot
afford to surrender.


1. Eg David Adam, 13th March 2009. Stern attacks politicians over climate
?devastation'. The Guardian.

2. James Randerson, 7th August 2008. Climate change: Prepare for global
temperature rise of 4C, warns top scientist. The Guardian.

3. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, 2008. Reframing the climate change
challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Philosophical
Transactions of the Royal Society A. Published online.

4. They are referring to stabilisation at 650 parts per million CO2
equivalent. The IPCC suggests that this would produce something the region
of 4C, even before all the likely feedbacks have b een taken into account.
See Table SPM6 of the IPCC's Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report -
Summary for Policymakers.




8. Dieter Helm, 21st February 2009. Environmental challenges in a warming
world: consumption, costs and responsibilities. Tanner Lecture, Oxford.

9. Oxfam, 29th May 2007. Adapting to climate change. Briefing Paper 104.


11. John Vidal, 20th February 2009. Rich nations failing to meet climate
aid pledges. The Guardian.

12. ibid.

13. Oxfam, 29th May 2007, ibid.

14. Oxfam, 29th May 2007, ibid.

15. IPCC, 2007b. Assessing key vulnerabilities and the risk from climate

16. ibid, Table 19.1.

17. IPCC, 2007b, ibid.

18. Susan Solomona,1, Gian-Kasper Plattnerb, Reto Knuttic, and Pierre
Friedlingstein, 16th December 2008. Irreversible climate change due to
carbon dioxide emissions.

19. Dieter Helm, 21st February 2009, ibid.

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