Now the world is slowly waking up to the climate threat, passionate debates are raging around the world on climate policy – cap and trade systems vs taxes, renewables vs coal with CCS and global agreements vs national action. From the US, to China, from South Africa to Australia, policy makers are examining their options and vested interests are furiously protecting their turf.
As recently as a year ago I would have been deeply engaged by these debates, deeply concerned that we got the right reduction target, the right policy mechanism, the right strategy in place. Now I find myself watching with an almost surreal detachment, observing with interest but rarely getting excited or disappointed as the debate swings this way or that.
This is all just shadow boxing, the training session before the game really begins. What happens this year and next, even at the Copenhagen conference is of marginal significance only. What? That’s heresy! Isn’t the Copenhagen Climate conference the most critical global meeting in history, the one that will determine the future of civilisation? No, not really. Here’s why.
It is now completely clear that all the actions currently on the table by policy makers are based on the wrong science and the wrong assumptions – the science of a decade ago when we thought a target of 450ppm and 2 degrees was radical and bold. When we thought dramatic global reductions in emissions by 2050 of around 60% was going to put us into safe territory and protect humanity from collapse. But that science has been superseded.
The current debates are simply the world of policy and business slowly catching up to the science of yesterday. They’re acting in 2009 on what we knew in 1990. I would have been very engaged if this debate was happening when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was agreed to by world’s governments, including George Bush Snr in 1992.
I still would have been excited these policies were being agreed when I was in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 when Vice President Gore rode in on his white horse in the closing days of the negotiations and convinced the world to agree to the Kyoto Protocol. Exciting days.
But I’m not in Kyoto and its not 1997. Its 2009, emissions are rising, the ice is melting and most negotiators think that even the inadequate 2 degrees / 450 ppm target is not achievable and if it were agreed, it would be a decisive victory for humanity.
But that’s OK, we will all certainly wake up soon. Then the shadow boxing will stop and the game will get serious.
Don’t get me wrong, I think all the work we’re doing now in this area is useful. I think a strong international agreement, even by yesterday’s standards of “strong”, would be a good thing. I think kick starting the renewable industry and phasing out coal is all worth the effort. After all, when you’ve got a big game coming up, training matters – it makes you match fit for the real thing.
You see what the science now tells us is that climate crisis is not about our children’s children, it’s about us. It’s not about reduction in the economy’s CO2 emissions, it’s about the elimination of net emissions in a few decades and removing billions of tonnes CO2 from the atmosphere every year for decades after that. Nothing else would be a rational response to the level of risk today’s science says we face. Nothing else gives civilisation a reasonable chance of surviving in its current form with billions of people on the planet. So nothing else would be a logical, rational response.
I take a strange sense of comfort from this being the new reality. The science is so completely clear on these points that it is inevitable that humanity will one day soon wake up, end denial and get to work shutting down coal plants, banning dirty cars, transforming cities and paying poor countries for the use of their forests as carbon sinks. We will proceed to eliminate net CO2 emissions from the human economy and we will do so rapidly and globally.
So my message to all climate action advocates is to relax. Take the time to smell the roses. Keep training, stay focused, but don’t wipe yourself out before the game begins. We’ll need you all there on the big day, match fit, happy and ready for the real action.