A Tide of Horseshit

David Runciman

  • Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency and Promise of Tackling Climate Change by Nicholas Stern
    MIT, 406 pp, £19.95, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 262 02918 6
  • Natural Capital: Valuing the Planet by Dieter Helm
    Yale, 278 pp, £20.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 300 21098 9
  • Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet by Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman
    Princeton, 250 pp, £19.95, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 15947 8

It’s hard to come up with a good analogy for climate change but that doesn’t stop people from trying. We seem to want some way of framing the problem that makes a decent outcome look less unlikely than it often appears. So climate change is described as a ‘moonshot problem’, though of course it isn’t, because the moon presents a fixed target and climate change offers anything but – how will we know when we’ve landed? Or it’s a ‘war mobilisation problem’, though of course it isn’t, because there is no clear enemy in view (the enemy is us). Or it’s a ‘disease eradication problem’, like ridding the world of smallpox, though of course it isn’t, because getting rid of a disease is good news all round, whereas tackling climate change creates losers as well as winners. These analogies are intended to capture the scale of the challenge – it’s going to be a major effort – while keeping alive the thought that we can succeed. The problem is that climate change is nothing like anything we’ve encountered before. Just because we did all those things doesn’t mean we can do this one.

So what about a different kind of analogy, from the other end of the scale? Perhaps we have to think small to get a real sense of how difficult it’s going to be. Think about what’s involved in trying to write a book. Some books get written and some don’t. Sometimes they don’t get written even when the would-be author has a very strong incentive. This is particularly true for academics, whose careers often depend on getting something out between covers with their name on it. ‘Publish or perish’ is the ugly mantra in my line of business. Nevertheless, significant numbers of academics find it very hard to write the book on which their survival depends. Why don’t these books get written when the incentives are so clear? Why indeed. Climate change is like a nasty case of writer’s block.

As anyone who has failed to write a book will know, it’s the timing that kills you. When something is long overdue, it’s hard to get going because the moment is never right. Why start now? If you find that the words start to flow you’ll feel like an idiot, because that means you could have done it long ago and spared yourself a lot of grief. Displacement activities abound, fuelled by the lingering fear that it may already be too late. What if you write the book and it’s no good, or at least not good enough to rescue your tattered reputation? What if by the time the book comes out the field has moved on? Before you can get going you need to bring your thinking up to date, which turns out to be just another displacement activity. If they ever got really serious about firing you it would already be too late, because no one can write a book overnight. So once the threat materialises there won’t be enough time to do anything about it; if there is still enough time then the threat must be distant. The threats and incentives are never productively aligned.

Climate change is a lot like this. The unmissable wake-up calls will almost certainly arrive too late to be effective: once we discover the planet is serious about making our lives hell we will have no time left to do anything about it. In climate politics too, displacement activities abound. Further delay, rather than adding to the urgency, creates barriers in the way of decisive action, since any decisive action makes a mockery of our reasons for delay. We don’t even have the luxury of waiting for resource scarcity to send an unmistakable signal that time is short. In the topsy-turvy world of climate politics, Malthusians turn out to be the optimists, because they believe that limited resources must soon produce the crunch point that will bring us to our senses, unpleasant as that will be. Peak oil will force the painful transition to a low carbon economy, or so it’s hoped. But that’s wishful thinking: technological ingenuity means that there are still vast amounts of untapped fossil fuels to be extracted, allowing us to delay the moment of truth long past the point when it could make any difference. The shale gas revolution is just the latest stage in this process. As Dieter Helm says, ‘there is enough oil, gas and coal to fry the planet many times over.’ Waiting for the oil to run dry is like waiting for new information to run dry so the book can finally get written: it’s not going to happen.

Still, the situation is not hopeless. Books do get written, even long delayed ones. The key is to avoid fixating on the book itself. Threats, pledges, artificial deadlines don’t work. You have to find reasons for writing that go beyond the need to create the final product. Write something – anything – simply to find a way of getting going. Try to take pleasure in the act of writing, or at least to find some reason to do it other than the crudely utilitarian one. If you don’t keep asking yourself if you have a book then at some point you might have something that starts to look like a book. Writing, instead of being displaced, can be the displacement activity. Nicholas Stern’s new volume on climate change, which updates his report from 2006, indicates that this kind of tangential approach may now be what’s needed to address the threat of a rapidly warming planet; indeed, it may be all we have left.[*]

Stern doesn’t think the facts have changed since 2006, which means that the situation is more urgent than ever. At current rates of emission we are due within little more than a decade to breach the 450 ppm (parts per million) of carbon dioxide equivalent in the atmosphere that signals a 50/50 likelihood of average temperature rises of 2°C or more above pre-industrial levels. Without a significant correction we’re on course for something much worse than that: at 550 ppm there is a real risk of rises exceeding 4°C; at 650 ppm there is a 10 per cent chance of rises above 6°C, which would be cataclysmic for human civilisation. At current rates we are heading towards 650 ppm long before the end of this century. So why are we waiting? We are caught between the twin blocks of uncertainty and inevitability. These figures conceal all sorts of hedges and caveats: for instance, what I called the ‘real risk’ of temperature rises of more than 4°C at 550 ppm is estimated by Stern at somewhere between 5 per cent and 55 per cent. Given that even a risk of 55 per cent would be far from a done deal (might happen, might not), and given that we can’t be sure what a temperature rise on that scale would mean (might be utterly calamitous, might not), such a wide range of risk makes any future outcomes profoundly uncertain. At the same time, rising carbon emissions often appear inevitable regardless of what we do. A shift to a low carbon economy will take years if not decades; while it’s happening, current infrastructure will continue pumping carbon into the atmosphere. Nothing we do – barring a technological miracle – will make that carbon go away. To take an analogy: environmental optimists like to point to the example of the manure that was piling up on the streets of New York at the end of the 19th century, when increasing demand for horse-drawn transport indicated that the city would soon be buried under a tide of horseshit. But then along came the motorcar and the problem went away. Doom-laden projections from current trends often neglect the possibility of transformational solutions. But climate change is like imagining a future in which all the horseshit that has ever been dumped has to sit on the streets of New York for ever, and cars and roads have to navigate their way around it.

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[*] John Lanchester wrote about the Stern Report in the LRB of 22 March 2007.