Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Current Politics of Climate Change and CO2

The political movement to change our economies from carbon based to a more balanced energy based economies which make more use of renewables has experienced several setbacks.

First, while governments continue to talk the rhetoric of climate change and a commitment to renewables, the recession and credit crunch is making the achievement of targets less likely, especially in those economies (Ireland, Britain, Spain and France) whose government debts are higher than 5% of GDP. In Britain alone, their commitment to renewable energy as 15% of energy sold will cost in excess of $175 billion over the next eight years, with subsidies costing even more over a longer period of time. Governments are looking at the costs and are slowing development down.

Second, while the US President has committed to cap and trade and a strong renewable energy strategy, congress is beginning to get cold feet. It’s part of a general reaction to Obama’s bold, big strategy – “too much, too expensive and too complex” say many. With such a big deficit already and massive government debts (over $10 trillion), many in the House and Senate are looking for optional items to drop and cap and trade is one of them. Obama intended to use the $665 billion revenue from cap and trade to fund his green jobs through renewable strategy – if cap and trade goes, then the whole green plan is vulnerable.

Third, the science is getting more problematic. A study of the 1918 El Nino, published recently, suggests it was much more powerful than previously understood. The implication for the theory of anthropomorphic global warming are serious: complex computer modeling showed the 1918 El Nino event was almost as strong and occurred before there was much warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels or widespread deforestation. What is more, the effect of this El Nino persisted for longer than previously thought. Adding this component to the computer climate simulations each time these have occurred significantly reduces the CO2 impacts on climate.

Finally, even some ardent campaigners have recognized that the reducing CO2 strategy – the core of Kyoto – Is not working, with few attempts to curb CO2 emissions having any real bite. They openly now talk of Plan B – a focus on adaptation and new technology, which is where many wanted to be in the first place (like the Government of Alberta).

So what’s next for the politics of climate change?

As we get nearer to the battle of Copenhagen in December where the world will look to our leaders for the next Kyoto protocol, we can expect three things. The first is for the calls for action to become shriller. We have already had the Prince of Wales suggesting that we have just 100 months “to save the planet” and Dr James Hansen, scientist turned polemicist and prophet, told President Obama in a letter that he had to act immediately otherwise the game was up. James Lovelock, who developed the Gai concept, thinks its already too late and we will now lose up to five billion people as a result of climate change. This is just the start.

Second, we can expect the science to find more dramatic evidence that the end is nigh. That is, those building models will find evidence that action is urgently required. It has already started. There is a claim that CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years – yet CO2 atoms in the atmosphere don’t come with date stamps (i.e. it’s a model based guess). There are claims that the arctic melt is so rapid that the arctic will be ice free (nonsense). And this will go on.

Finally, we will experience a new level of rhetoric from politicians. They will tell stories and start to build myths and fantasies which they actually believe. Obama really believes he can create five million jobs by going green in America, despite good evidence from Spain that every green jobs leads to significant job losses elsewhere in the economy and increases national debt. Gordon Brown really believes that Britain can achieve its wind power targets, despite the opposite view coming from his own public servants. But it is a characteristic of post-modern politics that the independent reality of facts and evidence is not the basis for action: it’s the narrative and the story that drives policy.

It will be interesting to observe this unfold between now and Christmas. Watch this space.

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