Try, try and try again.
Today, representatives from around the world met in Cancun for the latest round of talk to try and avert disastrous climate change. This is the 16th meeting of "the parties" as the United Nations calls them and there is little sense of anticipation that much will be achieved beyond keeping the process alive and moving forward on, perhaps, a couple of issues like protecting the remaining rainforests.
Global warming and resultant climate change has many features that make it a uniquely difficult problem to solve.
On the one hand it is fairly straight forward: certain gases in the atmosphere cause it to retain heat from the sun rather than radiating that heat back into space. Increase the concentration of these gases and you increase the amount of heat retained. We have been doing just that for the past 250 years, ever since we discovered how to generate power from fossil fuels, and at increasing significant rates in the past 60 years as global population and economic activity levels have increased. The concentration levels are now higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years and are expected to bring about an increase in global temperatures of 3-4 degrees centigrade. This is enough to significantly change the climate of the planet: when temperatures were of that order cooler, ice sheets came south of London and New York so you can make your own guess as to how far north the deserts will spread. And this scenario may well be witnessed by the end of the century, which is within the lifetime of people being born now. And, yes, you can find stuff on the internet to argue that the climate changes all the time: that is true just in the same way that people die in traffic accidents all the time. However, in the same way that each specific accident will have its own causes, this particular period of warming has its own cause: human activity through burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests.
In the developed world, this prospect is easily ignored by the majority of the population, which is strange but understandable. Understandable because the benefits derived from burning the fuels seem so great and because the cost of using them, in terms of price paid, seems so small. And that is the crux issue. When 15th century accountants invented the method of accounting for our economic activity that we still use today, the world was a very different place. There were many fewer people on the planet, we had not discovered a use for fossil fuel and the prevailing world view was that man had dominion over all other things. The later of these still holds in terms of how we account for our economic activity: use of the Earth's resources and services is deemed to be "free".
That assumption, probably more than any other, is what has led us to where we are today. And, because economic growth has become the compulsion of virtually the entire planet, the faster we grow, the faster we destroy the future.
David Cameron at the weekend argued that Britain could be a world leader in transforming its economy to be low carbon through using the profit motive. That may be true but "profit" is a function of revenue minus cost. By recognising the cost of using the planet's resources and services there is a better chance of the profit motive producing a positive result. Unfortunately, the first attempt to do so, the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme has been opposed by Friends of the Earth and others.
For me, if human consciousness is to have any meaning we must solve the global warming issue but it will require us to step up the level of our thinking and find ways to collaborate on a scale never before imagined, never mind attempted. We are not there yet so must try, try and try again.
'How to be a Humankind Superhero; a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate'
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