Judging by the New Year Messages of Heads of government around the world, climate change will range far behind employment, fiscal consolidation, structural reforms and competitiveness among the top priorities in 2013, whether in Europe, USA or Asia.
The global society seems to have forgotten the floods, droughts, wild fires and other climate-related disasters in 2012. It does not mind warmer or excessively cold winters and is looking forward to the prospect of ice-free passage in the Arctic Sea. Only climate specialists worry about the accelerating pace of melting glaciers, which will lead to rising sea levels and drowning coastal civilisations.
Normal human perception lacks the capacity to discern global climate changes and the imagination of how these might develop in the future. It rejects instinctively any long term projection of catastrophes. Over generations human beings have seen Nature continue with small changes to which they can adapt without major difficulties .
Europeans have survived the Ice Age 20 000 years ago, by fleeing South from the advancing ice masses and reducing their numbers to the harsher climate. Why should Africans not follow their example, when parts of their continent might become too hot to survive, and move to Europe in a massive decade-long migration too vast to imagine?
Societies are unable to prepare for potential crisis situations 100 years – three generations – ahead. They can only react to challenges that arise here and now! Climate change is no such challenge: Not being clearly perceptible and seen as very damaging it is not yet the risk against which it is imperative to act, the more so as there is no simple remedy to apply.
Moreover, the major countries responsible for climate change perceive its impact – so far! – as more beneficial than detrimental. So why should they engage in what appears as a politically and economically costly transformation of their energy supply and life style and battle with powerful business groups, which they do not want to alienate!
It is not surprising at all that the tiny low-lying island countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans bound to disappear due to a rising sea level, are the most vociferously crying for effective reduction of green house gas emissions.
The bulk of human societies, however, is not impressed by the fact that, beyond a critical point that we are approaching rapidly, climate change will become irreversible because of the accumulation of hundreds of billion tons of green house gases in the atmosphere.
They are not scared either by the spectre of resource depletion. During the last 150 years they have learned to cope with whatever scarcity crises by resorting to new production sites, technologies or substitutes. So, why bother about the depletion of oil and gas reserves! There will always enough coal for another 200 years, whatever its devastating impact on the global climate, which might be remedied by carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The latest example is the development of geological “fracking”, which will catapult the USA – for the second time in its history – into the league of the top five oil and gas producers. Being no longer concerned about its excessive import reliance and enjoying ample cheap gas with relatively low C02 emissions the US political elite sees little reason to rush into a massive energy efficiency campaign, expensive CCS or wind and solar energy.
- global climate conferences will continue in a routine fashion without, however, delivering meaningful results in the medium term future.
To achieve substantial reductions of green house gas emissions the threat perceptions among major players are too different and the challenge of effective policy coordination too big, as the history of the Kyoto Protocol amply demonstrates.
Still, they should continue to take place, if only as an recurrent warning and a platform for the most threatened people to make their voices heard.
- In parallel, the big emitter countries should step up their efforts to enhance energy efficiency and make solar/wind energies fully competitive with oil, gas and coal. It is only through this process that we can hope one day to see emissions fall, however late and slowly.
Brussels 07.01. 2013 Eberhard Rhein