Rhein on Energy and Climate

Climate change and the 2008 financial crisis in the US are cataclysmic developments that were foreseeable long before they fully erupted in the open.

But while the consequences of the US financial crisis are reversible this will not be the case for climate change. Beyond a critical point it will become impossible to restore the earth to its status quo: Many changes will have become irreversible and the earth less habitable for human beings and innumerable species.

Both crises lead to an identical interrogation: why are human beings incapable of taking preventive action, even if they foresee events unfolding in the future?

The answer seems simple. Human beings enjoy life as it is and reject the very notion that it could change to the worse. Therefore they do not trust any “story tellers”; and the further the risk lies in the future the more averse they are to taking preventive action.

This goes for individuals, but even more so for groups.

Those far-sighted US bankers and officials who had early recognised that something was going profoundly wrong in the financial system did not dare to propose the necessary curative action, fearing that those in charge would not listen.

It was only after the crash of Lehmann Brothers and the visible turmoil in the financial markets that the President of the Central Bank and the Finance Minister succeeded in convincing Congress to approve in no time a bail-out-package of close to $ 1 trillion.

Climate change is almost not well perceivable and advancing very slowly. Neither a multi-billion cash injection nor a Congressional vote can stop it! Slowing the process requires profound changes in the life-styles of more than five billion people in USA, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, Australia, Canada and Brazil, combined with a massive deployment of alternative technologies.

Unfortunately those most responsible do not assume their political obligations, and some continue denying the phenomenon or its seriousness.

As a consequence, the international community has been dragging on from one climate conference to the next. This frustrating game has been continuing for 20 years without much hope at the horizon.

Climate change has ceased to be a top agenda item for heads of government, who bother more about their next elections, war risks in the Middle East, public debt and other short-term events.

Even Europe, traditionally the most engaged continent, is getting tired of fighting climate change on its own. It is no longer prepared to be the front-runner as it is becoming more aware that its action is largely ineffective globally, unless other major emitters of green house gases like China and the USA make similar efforts.

But the game will have to go on. It will require immense patience. One day, when climate change may have become almost irreversible, Humanity is likely to act under the impact of terrifying climate disasters, devastating huge patches of fertile land and killing millions of people within a few months.

Humanity will need its “Lehman Brothers crash” before starting to act with courage and effectiveness. This is likely to happen before the end of the century.

Fortunately, the rising scarcity of fossil energy, water, food supplies and minerals, coupled with continuing demographic growth, will accelerate the awareness of global disasters at the horizon. Oil is likely to become very expensive in the coming 40 years, gas will follow before the end of the century. Unfortunately this leaves huge untapped coal reserves as the last straw.

Humanity should therefore engage in a two-track strategy: change life styles as to material values, mobility, housing and diet and deploy alternative technologies like wind, solar, wave, biomass and, of course, energy efficiency. This will be an up-hill battle. The longer Humanity keeps delaying the necessary action the less likely will climate change come to a halt.

Annual climate conferences will continue. But hopefully they will progressively change their nature and focus more on action and follow-up than solemn but ineffective declarations and targets.

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