Monday, 2 July 2012

Learning to live in a changing climate

Environmentalists rejoice: ExxonMobil is on your side. Well, sort of. In his characteristically plain-speaking way, Rex Tillerson, Exxon’s chief executive, last week set out a view of climate change that could not have been more clear: the planet is warming because of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Before they get too excited about the repentant sinner, though, environmentalists should follow the rest of his argument. Mr Tillerson sees climate change as a “manageable” problem, best addressed not by trying to stop it but by adapting to it: re-engineering our societies and economies so that they are able to withstand a warmer world.

He makes some valid points, in particular about the drawbacks of many renewable energy technologies and the difficulties in finding substitutes for fossil fuels. Yet his answer is incomplete.

Adaptation is an essential part of the response to climate change, but cannot be the whole of it. Measures such as strengthened flood defences are likely to be necessary because some warming has happened already and more is now locked in. Even if all carbon emissions were to stop tomorrow, temperatures would continue to rise for decades. Of course, they are not going to stop; not tomorrow, nor at any time in the foreseeable future.

The International Energy Agency, the rich countries’ think-tank, warned last year that the “door is closing” on the chance to avoid damaging climate change. International efforts to agree global emissions limits are moving torturously slowly, and may never reach a successful conclusion. The world relies on oil, coal and gas for about 80 per cent of its energy, and is shifting away from them only very slowly, while economic development creates an ever-growing demand for fuel. It is only prudent to prepare for the consequences.

Simply letting climate change rip and tidying up the damage as it occurs, however, is not a viable strategy. As Mr Tillerson points out, there is great uncertainty in forecasts generated by climate models. The possibility of extreme changes that would overwhelm mankind’s ability to cope suggests emission curbs are a precaution that we neglect at our peril.

Even in less catastrophic scenarios, the costs of climate change will be unevenly distributed, with the greatest harm falling on countries that already have the lowest incomes and are least able to defend themselves. In poor countries, higher temperatures will mean an increased risk of hardship and societal collapse, and rich countries will be forced to respond.

The warmer the world gets, the more likely it is that those costs will outweigh the price tag for curbing emissions through greater energy efficiency and increased use of renewables, nuclear power and carbon storage.

Controlling carbon is politically difficult, as the sorry history of international climate negotiations has shown. It is, however, likely to be unavoidable. The sooner the world gets to grips with it, the lower the eventual costs will be.

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