Sunday, October 04, 2015

Paris, Climate, Capitalism and the Future

According to an ongoing temperature analysis conducted by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8°Celsius (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

The working assumption of those who will meet in Paris at the end of the year to agree a climate change treaty are that, as CO2 increases, so does the earths surface temperature. Indeed, the table below captures the key assumptions being made.

CO2 Parts Per Million (ppm) in the Atmosphere
Will Lead to This Increase in Surface Temperature
With This Degree of Certainty
450 ppm
50:50 Chance
5-50% Chance

Since the mid 1990’s there has been general political alignment around the idea that the people on the planet would find temperature rises above 2C difficult to cope with, due to their impact on sea levels, weather patterns and extreme weather events.

But these assumptions are problematic. The rate of surface warming has slowed in the past eighteen years and 9 months, despite CO2 increases.  August 2015 measures of CO2 in the atmosphere showed 398.82ppm – an increase consistent with many of the models of climate change in use today. But temperature has not risen anywhere near as fast as predicted. Indeed, most scientists would agree that the models have significantly overestimated temperature rise relate to CO2 increases. The sensitivity of the climate system to changes in CO2, sun spots, water vapour, shifts in the earths orbit and so on are much more complex than many of the models account for.

Yet the physical properties ofCO2 and other greenhouse gases have not changed. The same energy they were re-radiating back to Earth during previous decades is evident now, subject only to changes in the amount of energy arriving from the sun - and we know that has changed very little. But if that’s true, where is this heat going?

There is strong evidence that the oceans are absorbing far more heat that hitherto understood and that a larger forest and expanding vegetation are also helping to absorb CO2, only some of which is manmade. It is also the case that our understanding of climate is that, far from being a simple set of relationships (more CO2 = higher temperatures), the variables impacting the surface temperature and climate are in fact more complex.

So a focus on CO2 emissions as the sole policy issue (together with money) in Paris is a fraught problem. What the delegates are looking at is how far they should go to exercise the precautionary principle – changing their energy supply systems, ending the use of coal, changing emission standards for cars, reducing meat consumption (meat production emits more CO2 than transport systems) and so on because there is a 10% chance of something bad happening.

Setting aside whether the current CO2 emissions reduction targets to be discussed by UN member nations meeting in Paris will meet the 450ppm threshold for CO2 so as to keep temperature rises below 2C (they will not), just what is the problem these delegates are trying to solve?

There are four:

  1.   .      How can we reduce our impact on the earths environment as population grows?
  2.          How can we ensure reliable, affordable energy which generates less greenhouses gasses than our current energy mix but nonetheless supplies reliable energy to a greater population without creating energy poverty?
  3.       How can we mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events, which may have little to do with climate change and much more to do with population expansion and infrastructure development in areas of high risk of flooding and storms?
  4.       How can rich nations support emerging nations in their efforts to adapt to a different energy and environmental regime while still securing food, shelter, energy and employment for a vastly greater number of people? This is the transfer of wealth issues at the heart of a great many debates at these meetings.

All of these significant conversations are important for the future of mankind. But notice that they are as much about population growth, economic and social well being and the nature of capitalism as they are about the environment and climate. Indeed, some would go as far as to suggest that climate change focus is in fact a proxy for a wider conversations about the nature of capitalism, population and economic growth, food and shelter and equity. The real issue is not climate but the future of mankind.

It has to be. No rational government would seek to fundamentally change its entire economic paradigm and participate in one of the largest schemes for wealth transfer between rich and poor nations ($100 billion a year from 2020 onwards) on the basis of a problematic theory (CO2=+C) and a 10% probability of serious challenges to society as we now know it. What is under discussion in Paris is the future of capitalism. Be aware.

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