The biggest obstacle to effectively addressing the climate problem is finding ways to delink economic development from emissions growth. Something all industrialised economies have scant experience of (at best). Imposing a just measure of pain and cost now for future well being and security, while maintaining political legitimacy, requires a consistency of belief and effort which is extremely hard to achieve. And articulating an honest acknowledgement of how uniquely complex and challenging the problem is involves creating a politics (rather than responding to the prevailing politics).
The climate problem is also first truly global problem: we all contribute to emissions in some way, and we all share the same atmosphere that is affected by those emissions. In the face of this multi-dimensional global challenge ‘environmentalism’ – and environmental politics – is ill equipped to address the problem.
The science of the problem is now well established, yet our individual, political, governmental and economic responses remain immature. To effectively reduce emissions and re-establish some balance to the global carbon cycle, individuals, governments, political parties and businesses must all change their established activities and behaviour. Although the past five years have seen immense progress on the climate problem, the raising of awareness amongst these agents is yet to achieve an adequate change in prevailing politics, policies, or business models.
Achieving measureable, reportable and verifiable emissions reduction at scale is an imperative. This is clear from the scientific analysis and observation of climate warming and destabilisation. However, it is not a perceived imperative. Not only because we cannot see greenhouse emissions, but also it is hard for many governments, businesses and individuals to readily relate to the actions they take as having a consequential impact. And even if they do have consequence, that consequence is doing no more than – at the very best – maintaining the current attributes of the atmosphere and climate. We require an immense and unprecedented shift in the nature of the global economy, yet it is to achieve no more than climate stasis.
In the face of this complexity, and the nature of the challenge, ill defined terms are used to describe what must be achieved. Many of these terms are devoid of meaning, with the focus on articulating ‘the answer’ prior to having established the question: highly ambitious emissions reduction targets with little serious analysis of how to achieve them; businesses stating that they will be ‘carbon neutral’; agreement on the need for a ‘low carbon economy’ (with little clarity about what this will mean for how we generate and use electricity, maintain high levels of personal mobility or design and develop the places where we live and work); establishing a ‘price on carbon’ (with little clarity on what the price would have to be to achieve the necessary change in investment required), or the need for a ‘low carbon revolution’: the first revolution involving only winners.
This ill defined rhetoric is symptomatic of us never having tackled a problem like this before and a lack of rigorous engagement with the multi-faceted and established dynamics leading to the problem. Yet the difficulty of the task must not be a reason to abstain from trying to know the difficulties as well as the conditions for its achievement.
As Lord Kelvin, the Physicist and developer of the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature measurement stated “When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” Both government and business must develop systems for measuring their performance against established benchmarks towards defined targets. The UK and the British Government has come an enormous way in achieving this. So far the political debate has focussed on ‘what’ needs to be achieved (emissions reduction targets); now the debate and the effort must go into the ‘how’, through developing sophisticated new ways to achieve the measureable, reportable and verifiable emissions reductions this most wicked of problems requires.
Nick Rowley is director of Kinesis, Sydney and strategic director of the Copenhagen Climate Council