By Laurie Goering
Decades ago, scientists warned that climate change presented a serious risk to people and the environment they depend on. Negotiations began to reduce heat-trapping emissions, with the aim of holding world temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Celsius.
The result of more than 20 years of effort? Emissions are surging higher, year by year, and extreme weather is becoming the "new normal". Scientists say the world is heading towards a temperature increase of at least 3.6 degrees by the end of the century, with a hike of 6 degrees or more a real possibility.
What would that world look like? Experts say it’s one of large-scale food and water shortages, extreme droughts and floods, sea-level rise that threatens many of the world’s biggest cities, and reversals of every sort of development progress.
“How could it be that so much effort and so much political capital and, in some cases, so much money has been spent to so little effect?” asks Dieter Helm, an energy policy specialist at the University of Oxford.
There are plenty of answers – and in those may lie the answer to changing things for the better.
Why has there been so little progress on climate change? Economic woes have sapped attention from climate challenges. Political systems favour decisions that create short-term benefits over long-term ones. Efforts to win consensus decisions in international negotiations fall flat as countries jockey to protect their own interests. In most parts of the world, there is still little or no cost to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Most importantly, people don't like to change if they don’t have to – and the majority have yet to be persuaded that doing things differently is important, or desirable, or will work.
“There are still too many who have a very huge interest in not changing anything,” notes Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, who spoke alongside other experts at a Chatham House conference on climate security and resilience in London this week.
So how might that reluctance be shifted?
China, now by far the world’s largest carbon emitter, once saw efforts to stem climate change as a conspiracy by the West to slow its development. Now, increasingly, its leaders see climate change negotiations as a driver for making the country’s economic development more resilient and effective, says Zhang Haibin of the Peking University School of International Studies.
Those same leaders also view climate change as a growing economic and political threat. Sea-level rise could submerge small islands anchoring territorial claims and coastal industries that drive the economy. Thawing permafrost threatens the new railway to Tibet and a key oil pipeline to Russia. Desertification and water shortages put the country’s food supply in danger. And worsening pollution from coal-fired power plants may trigger social unrest.
So China’s leaders - in an attempt to protect their own interests - are now working in earnest to find ways to limit emissions, Zhang says.
That shift in thinking is crucial, argues Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
“The impetus for transformation comes from the growing realisation from each country that (change) is in its own self-interest,” she says.
Similarly, persuading companies, countries and people that they will pay for climate change – either now as they move to a low-carbon economy or much larger amounts to deal with disastrous climate impacts later – is crucial, Hedegaard says.
Putting a long-term, stable and rising price on carbon emissions (and possibly carbon consumption), together with attaching an economic value to natural capital like forests and water systems also will be key, experts believe.
One of the toughest changes may be finding ways to make good long-term decisions in a world where short-term action – from politics to financial markets – is what reaps rewards.
Right now "there’s no one in charge of long-term planning here on the entire planet,” charges Farhana Yamin, the chair of Climate Strategies, a non-profit organisation that links researchers and policy makers on climate issues. The result is that “climate change is still... agenda item 34, if it makes it on at all.”
Making it a higher priority will require building public demand for action, she says.
“No global transformation has occurred without huge transformation in the public psyche,” she adds. “The demand for change has to come from that.”
Charting a path to action on climate change
By Laurie Goering