Regular readers may be a little surprised by this column. I am regularly arguing that the science shows we are inevitably approaching, or may have past, a tipping point where widespread, rolling ecological and economic crises take hold.
But there’s another critical tipping point, of a very different character – where the world’s political and business leaders turn firmly towards action. Here’s the surprise – I think we may be at this tipping point already.
Scientists have become increasingly alarmed in recent years, as climate change reality has raced ahead of the political response. They point to countless examples of accelerating feedbacks, such as the reduction in the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 and rapid Arctic melting.
While they regularly point these out to our political masters, many of them express despair at the slow response.
So on what basis do I think the global political system has started to turn?
I think we have recently seen a number of developments that, taken together, indicate a profound shift is under way. When such a shift takes hold, it will rapidly accelerate – with significant implications for campaign and business strategy in this area over the years ahead.
The most significant and encouraging shift is what Tom Friedman in his recent NYT column called the shift from Red China to Green China. The Chinese leadership has for many years been talking about the need to act on climate but has in recent months shown serious potential to lead on this issue.
The rationale for them to do so is certainly there. As they have reeled under the negative economic and social impacts of pollution, China has accepted that the growth model followed by Western capitalism cannot work for them. Will they now pursue clean energy so vigorously they will dominate this new global market? Could climate even provide the issue on which China can manifest its global leadership ambitions?
I increasingly think the answer to both questions is likely to be yes, with far reaching economic and geopolitical implications. There is a good summary of recent developments and this potential for leadership, including China’s potential to see its emissions peak by 2030 in the article “Peaking Duck” by the Centre for American Progress’ Julian L. Wong.
Another important indicator is the recognition in the US political debate that the strength of the Chinese response is an economic threat to the US. The fear is growing that the resistance to change in the US may leave that economy floundering in what will be the largest economic transformation in history. As argued by Tom Friedman in the column referred to earlier, while America is currently strong on innovation, research ultimately follows the market. Friedman pointed out that “America’s premier solar equipment maker, Applied Materials, is about to open the world’s largest privately funded solar research facility — in Xian, China.”
The goal posts are also shifting in the science. An increasing number of scientists are coming to the view that the global CO2 target should be closer to 350ppm rather than 450ppm. In recent months we’ve seen this get global credence in response to the 350.org campaign, with eminent figures like the climate economist Nicholas Stern and the IPCC Chair Pachauri coming out in personal support of the 350 target. They would both be well aware that such a target would require cuts far more dramatic than anything on the table now. With such a goal, the task becomes the elimination of net CO2 emissions from the economy rather than their reduction.
At a deeper level, Stern also lent his considerable intellectual weight to the debate on economic growth, stating what was previously heresy – that economic growth itself must now be questioned. He recently put the case that there were probably only 20 years left for further economic growth before the earth was full.
Equally important as these scientific and political developments are shifts in the business community. While debates are raging in Western economies including in the US, Japan and Australia on climate policy, there are signs of a profound underlying shift emerging in corporate attitudes. Symbolising this in the United States is the rapid withdrawal of major companies from the US Chamber of Commerce over their lobbying against action to regulate greenhouse gases. In recent weeks, major corporates such as PG&E and Apple have resigned, Nike has quit the Board of the organisation and GE and Johnson & Johnson have both publicly distanced themselves from the Chamber’s anti-climate action lobbying efforts.
Another example was a recent initiative by Cambridge Program for Sustainability Leadership’s Corporate Leaders Group, with 500 companies signing on to the Copenhagen Communiqué which endorsed strong action on climate by the world’s governments including keeping warning below 2 degrees and urging early action. “There is nothing to be gained by delay”, the communiqué states.
Many other countries previously in the background on the global climate debate like Indonesia (which is the world’s 3rd largest net emitter due to its extensive deforestation) recently announced its intention to cut emissions by 26% by 2020 compared to Business As Usual and by 41% if they get international financial support to go further. They also believe they can turn their forests into a net carbon sink by 2030.
And of course there is a storm of grassroots campaigning erupting around the world in the lead up to Copenhagen with campaigns like 350.org and many others.
Many of you will have the correct response that these are all only words – that we are yet to see action of real substance. That’s certainly true. Words are early signs, not conclusive evidence. But I think I can smell it now, and when these things do turn, they do so remarkably quickly – as we saw when governments responded to the recent financial crisis.
Of course this does not mean we can relax and it will all be OK! The climate system is now rapidly descending into crisis and the consequences will be felt for decades even with strong action now. What it does indicate however is that we will not be the proverbial boiling frogs who just sit here passively as the system collapses around us. It is only early signs of the turn, but it gives us an indication of what’s coming.
So we mustn’t back off, not even a little bit, with the pressure being applied to the system to encourage change. But we should perhaps reconsider tactics.
I think some of our energy should be focused for example on developing an emergency plan to fix the climate. The science clearly lays out what a stable climate looks like and it requires the elimination of net CO2 emissions from the economy within decades. Any rational analysis says this is going to require the equivalent of a war plan to achieve it. In future columns I’ll be saying a great deal more on that topic.
But for now, take a look around. The world is turning our way and while the crisis is still coming, the crisis response may not be as far behind it as we thought.