The problem of climate change is global and the worst effects of today’s release of greenhouse gases will be felt by future generations who do not yet have a voice.
Many environmental problems, including water quality in rivers, the release of toxic chemicals, or “acid rain”, have known solutions. Typically the problem involves replacing one cheap material with a more expensive substitute, or investing in a more expensive “end-of-pipe” technology to clean harmful wastes before they are released. These solutions are therefore implemented when a sufficient local lobby imposes sufficient pressure for change.
Climate change is different. There is no local lobby, as the problem is global and the worst effects of today’s release of greenhouse gases will be felt by future generations who do not yet have a voice. It’s also urgent. According to Anderson & Peters (2016), the total stock of emissions that can ever be released into the atmosphere if there is to be a 66% chance that global temperature increases are limited to 2°C is currently being reduced at a rate of 3-6% per year. At this rate the entire stock of emissions that are permissible under the Paris Accord will be exhausted by 16-33 years. Rather than face the urgent need for change implied by the Paris Accord, the international scientific community puts great emphasis on technologies that hope to deliver net-negative emissions by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Indeed, according to Fuss et al. (2014) 87% of the scenarios considered in the IPCCs fifth assessment report that meet the 2°C target require net negative emissions in the second half of this century. Successive attempts to fund carbon sequestration pilot projects in the UK have failed on budgetary grounds. The Committee on Climate Change has reported that weak UK government policy on climate change means that it is unlikely that the emission reduction targets set out in the 4th and 5th Carbon budgets (that stipulate a 50% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2025 and 57% reduction below 1990 levels by 2030 respectively) will be met.
Our focus is therefore on mitigating climate change. How can we reduce the world’s release of greenhouse gases enough and rapidly enough to avoid the social catastrophe of war that will arise if whole populations cannot meet their basic needs, or are displaced from their existing land?