Wishful Thinking about Climate Change

Luke Shore

On 12 December 2015, the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, hailed the COP21 climate agreement in Paris as ‘a monumental triumph for people and our planet’. The UN press office called it a ‘resounding success for multilateralism’. According to the president of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, the agreement signalled ‘nothing less than a renaissance for humankind’. Away from the media spotlight, policy makers speak more candidly.

The 195 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to limit global temperature increases to less than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels, by implementing self-determined, voluntary emissions reduction targets, known as Intended National Determined Contributions. But even in the unlikely event that the current INDCs are fully implemented, global average temperatures will still rise by 2.5ºC. In other words, at this rate, even in the best case scenario, the world will warm to dangerously high levels which scientists believe could destroy ecosystems, wipe out crop yields and expose people to unprecedented levels of famine, flooding and drought. In that light, the Paris Agreement hardly sounds like a renaissance for humankind.

Talking to politicians, diplomats and corporate executives last July, the OECD secretary-general, Angel Gurría, said that ‘we’re currently on course for around 3ºC to 5ºC.’ Scientists generally agree that an increase of that magnitude would be catastrophic, making much of the tropics inhospitable and melting the entire Greenland ice sheet and a significant portion of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Meaningful climate action is impossible as long as long-term considerations are excluded from the structures of financial and political decision making. With the next election or the next return on investment never more than a few years away, there is no direct incentive for decision makers to show a sense of intergenerational responsibility. It was clear from the discussion after Gurría’s lecture that they know what needs to be done: the immediate withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies, massive investment in clean energy, money for research into low-carbon technologies, regulatory intervention to encourage green investment.

But as Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, said in a lecture at Lloyd’s of London last autumn, ‘the horizon for monetary policy extends out to two to three years. For financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade. Once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.’


  • 2 February 2016 at 7:36am
    Sal Scilicet says:
    Unfortunately, the climate change debate is informed by a pathetic infatuation with an entirely mythological ‘global polity’. Terms like ‘the world’ and the ubiquitous collective pronoun “we”, inevitably create the beguiling illusion that “we’re all in this together”. Clearly, this has never been the case, not at street level, the Town Hall, across state lines, let alone on a national or global scale. The politically correct, populist rhetoric always creates these pervasive, dazzling figments of an ill-informed imagination.

    Alluding to Wittgenstein’s ‘tyranny of language’, the collective, first person plural pronoun, “we” is habitually deployed to invoke a homogenous, single-minded entity. A convivial, consensual crowd, that familiar grey mass of like-minded individuals. Each of whom is nevertheless predisposed to think of ‘me’ as primus inter pares.

    Language feels so comfortably reassuring because that is how the infant is inadvertently socialised. But ‘commonality of purpose’, ‘humanity’ and ‘scientific consensus’ are nothing more, nor less, than eminently useful, linguistically constructed illusions. In which the latter-day orthodoxy of ‘scientism’ thrives.

    “Scientific consensus” is a populist oxymoron. That has nothing to do with “common sense”, but is the incontrovertible confirmation of “the scientific process”. If the science were ever “settled”, the Earth would still be flat. And Gravity would not be the problem it is, by failing to comply with the “standard model”. Annoying. The case is never closed. The Higgs Boson does not answer any questions, but merely opens a whole new can of worms. As one would expect. Science is not about finding answers. It’s all about figuring out what questions, for the time being, shall be worthy of ceaseless, painstaking, time-consuming investigation. In the confident expectation that every ‘discovery’ will surely reveal a brand new field of research.

    So you want to leave the fossil fuels in the ground? By now, the world (as we know it) depends absolutely on an inexhaustible supply of steel. You can’t make steel without burning coal, lots of coal. And you need to dig the iron ore out of the ground, using heavy machinery made of steel. No steel, no ships, no cars, trucks and trains. No transport, no commerce. No supermarkets, no food, no you and me. No steel, no buildings, bridges, houses, hospitals, schools, factories. No knives and forks. No steel, no machinery for agriculture. No farms, no life. No steel, no aluminium, no aircraft. No means of electricity generation, be it by hydro, nuclear, wind or solar. No steel, no wind turbines and no pylons to carry the cables. No steel, no Jules Verne-style trips to Mars … and beyond.

    The biosphere (as we know it) depends absolutely on an inexhaustible supply of carbon dioxide. No CO2, no green plants. No trees, no grass, no rainforest, no mammals, no people.

    The Industrial Revolution certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. But if “sustainability” on this magnificent little planet was ever worth saving, “world without end”, perhaps “we” should have thought of that around ten thousand years ago, when Homo Sapiens began planting seeds, hanging about to await the accumulating surplus. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    Like it or not, just as speaking involves commitment, haplessly placing implicit trust in the notoriously unreliable, because hopelessly ambiguous, medium of ‘human communication’, the ultimately doomed denizens of this little-planet-that-could are irrevocably committed to continue on the path that was chosen long before your ancestors and mine were conceived.

    • 2 February 2016 at 10:06am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Sal Scilicet
      Human communication is indeed an imperfect medium.

    • 4 February 2016 at 4:38pm
      Ian L says: @ Sal Scilicet
      Sal Scilicet spends a lot of words with little relation to the blog post - sad.

  • 4 February 2016 at 4:54pm
    denismollison says:
    Sal -
    I agree with your criticism of "politically correct, populist rhetoric", and largely with the pessimism behind your comment.

    But you set against it some equally vacuous rhetoric, especially the "no steel" paragraph. We probably can't do without steel altogether, but we can certainly use it far more efficiently, recycle what we can, and substitute for quite a few of the uses you describe.

    We need less rhetoric and more calculation of what is needed.

  • 7 February 2016 at 4:10am
    Sal Scilicet says:
    Hi Denis –
    You object to vacuous rhetoric and rightly so. And there’s the rub. All rhetoric is [potentially] vacuous. [Something about “the eye of the beholder”.] Herein lies the inescapable, indispensable paradox inherent to resorting of necessity to vacuous rhetoric [there being no alternative] in order to explain the sheer, abject futility of resorting to vacuous rhetoric. [Something about the beam in my own eye.]

    “We need less rhetoric”, you say. Indeed we do. But where would “we” be Professor, you and I, and what would “we” do – nay, what could “we” do – bereft of that universally ubiquitous, sweetly beguiling, eminently useful and immensely durable illusion “we”? That morally/politically convenient rhetorical device, which everyone is obliged [per Wittgenstein’s “tyranny of language”] to blithely pretend actually ‘represents’ a real, flesh and blood, perfectly rational, rhetorically coherent, demographic cohort. Out there, on the street. A purely conventional, first person, plural pronoun, ostensibly to signify a singular concept of a strictly fictitious, single-minded, homogenous crowd [such as a lynch mob]. With the potentially mortifying consequence that “We are the People” is nothing more, nor less, than a pathetic euphemism for “we are the powerless, the numberless, the leaderless sheep”.

    Sir, with the greatest respect. Whenever Mussolini heard someone mention “culture”, he reached for his gun. When I hear “we” sanctimoniously addressed in the public square, I’m inclined to shout, “Sandy Hook!” Honestly, if the massacre of twenty school children and six of their teachers desperate to protect their charges fails, not only absolutely but instantly to electrify the good people of the United States of America [home of the brave …], to finally redress to a man, as a resolute body, the obscene absurdity of the eternally-enshrined “right to bear arms”, then what hope is there that “we” will ever come together to “arrest climate change”?

    Integral to the human dilemma is that you, sir, are unique. I am unique. And at last count there are as we speak an estimated seven billion equally unique individuals living – physically, emotionally, intellectually and ideologically – not all that far apart. No two individuals have ever shared the same cradle. Each has arrived at the present juncture via a unique, convoluted course, whose brain is genetically pre-disposed to “see the world differently”. Surely a ‘Professor of Applied Probability' does not subscribe [sell his soul] to the infantile mantra, “scientific consensus”?

    How many passionate activists does it take to change the world? What with the worldwide addiction to luxury, entertainment, materialism, excess consumption, electronic gadgets, air travel, cruise ships, spectacle … [panem et circenses]? I too abhor the vast plastic gyre out mid-ocean, potentially killing every species encountered on the way to the bottom, only to be repeated, over and over, for centuries. But there is no power on the planet with the will or the authority, let alone the resources, to clean that up.

    How I wish “we” could finally unite, as ‘The Family of Man’, to at last address the far more urgent need to ensure that every child born on the planet has access to clean drinking water, adequate nutrition, sanitation, shelter, education and protection. A situation, I would humbly suggest, far more susceptible to immediate, practical intervention, than something as pervasive as ‘climate change’. Do I believe that will ever happen? Of course not. As far as I can tell, the cacophonous Internet has finally rendered ‘democracy’ moot. I agree, it’s all just vacuous rhetoric.

  • 8 February 2016 at 6:02pm
    pgillott says:
    Phrases like “monumental triumph” and (particularly) “renaissance for humankind” are overdoing it, but to suggest that there is no chance of “meaningful climate action” seems overly pessimistic. A 2.5 C rise is large enough to be seen as dangerous, but an improvement on 3-5 C. At least there is now a framework for achieving the first, even if the INDCs aren’t legally binding. There’s to be a global stocktake as to progress every 5 years, intended to get things on track for 2 C – though by 2018, and more by 2023, it’ll presumably be harder to make the necessary adjustments. (The first global stocktake is in 2018, the first under the deal in 2023, according to The Guardian. I don’t know what distinction being “under the deal” makes.)

    Is the UK’s Climate Change Act of 2008 not a long term response to addressing climate change, albeit only at a national level? It requires that UK emissions in 2050 are no more than 20% of those in 1990, with the Climate Change Committee advising on what progress is required along the way, in the shape of carbon budgets.

    Maybe it’s wishful thinking to assume the aim of limiting the temperature rise to “well below” 2 C will be achieved. But the fact that there is now an agreement addressing the issue, with stated targets and a way of keeping them under review, surely puts us in a better place than we were in a year ago.

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