Former chief scientists refuses to sugar-coat climate risk assessment - political and business leaders should listen
"Climate change is not, in the Foreign Secretary's words, the biggest challenge of our time, it's the biggest challenge of all time."
Those were the words last night of Sir David King, erstwhile chief scientist and current Foreign Office adviser on climate change. He was speaking at the annual Chairman's Dinner for the Carbon Trust (a rather delicious vegetarian meal, since you ask, in consideration of the planet and waistlines), where King responded to a question I posited about arguably his most famous intervention in the climate change debate, namely his 2004 assertion that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism.
Is climate change still a bigger threat than terrorism, I asked, and assuming the answer is yes, can you envisage a warning that would convince politicians to take the steps needed to tackle the threat? It was, I'll admit, a slightly unfair question, given no one has yet worked out what it will take to get our political class to deliver climate action commensurate with the scale of the threat. But it was a useful reminder to hear one of the world's leading scientific figures reassert that climate change is a threat nonpareil, an existential challenge to the global economy and our way of life.
King's chilling assessment of the scale of climate risk brought to a close an evening in which he had been remarkably upbeat about the prospects for both an international climate change treaty and an effective response to the climate threat.
He acknowledged the prospect of a "Berlin Wall" between the OECD and non-OECD countries at the ongoing climate change negotiations. But he tempered that warning by arguing that China and US were in a better position than they have been in years on climate policy, while European nations could point to the gift they have delivered the world through the feed-in tariffs that have helped slash renewables costs over the past decade.
He also welcomed the happy coincidence that will see this year's crucial UN climate summit hosted in Lima - a summit King said was in many ways more important than next year's Paris Summit as it has to deliver the groundwork for a scheduled agreement in 2015. King predicted that the progressive stance many Latin American countries have taken on climate policy could play a crucial role in bridging the divide between industrialised and developing countries that has marred all previous UN climate talks.
He was similarly optimistic about encouraging progress from clean technology developers and financial markets. He described the "carbon bubble" hypothesis as critical to shaking financiers out of their chronic short termism and hailed the emergence of low cost renewable energy and energy storage technologies as the breakthrough that makes a genuinely low carbon economy viable.
However, for all this optimism the speech was bookended by a daunting realism that rather took the gloss off the coffee and chocolates. The evening closed with King's description of climate change as "the biggest challenge of all time" and opened with him highlighting the importance of the IPCC's recent endorsement of a global carbon budget - an assessment that shows how a two per cent a year increase in emissions will mean the available budget for a 2ºC world will be burned through by 2043. Add in the risk that climate tipping points could be reached even earlier and the demographic forces that are expected to soon result in a global middle class of five billion people and you would be forgiven for thinking the scale of the climate challenge is fast becoming insurmountable.
King insists it is not yet insurmountable and he is travelling the world trying to convince others that an escape route is indeed available. "I have to feel optimistic," he says. "But the challenges of staying below 2ºC are frankly enormous."
The former chief scientist is right, of course, we have the technologies, expertise, and policies we need to tackle climate change and it can be done while improving, rather than harming, living standards. But he is equally right when he describes climate change as an unprecedented global challenge and his assessment of the scale of the risk, just like his previous comparison with the threat of terrorism, demands a response from business, and most of all, political leaders.
The key question - the question I have asked so many times over the years of politicians and business executives - is if you accept climate change is an existential threat, why is your response not commensurate to that threat? Again, it is a slightly unfair question, as like most people, the steps I take personally to respond to climate change are singularly inadequate. But then again I don't get to write national policy or decide how to invest millions of pounds, so I think the question remains valid, if a touch hypocritical.
From time to time people are honest enough to admit their response is nowhere near sufficient and they are committed to working on more ambitious measures. But the most typical answer to this question is a blustering insistence that policy A or investment B is indeed an adequate means of tackling "the biggest challenge of all time". If only that were really the case.
The reality is we cannot deal with "the biggest challenge of all time" if we continue to subsidise fossil fuels, if we chop and change clean energy policies on an annual basis, if we ease planning rules for new fossil fuel developments and impose new restrictions on green alternatives, if we neuter energy efficiency schemes, if we refuse to consider divesting from polluting assets, if we put some solar panels on the roof and think we've done enough.
I know that in each of these cases there are complex and compelling reasons why compromises need to be struck between the need to decarbonise and other considerations. I also know that it will only be possible to build a sustainable economy if it is deemed affordable and attractive by the public.
But King's latest warning offers a timely reminder that the success or failure of any given climate change policy, technology, or initiative has to be measured against its ability to help tackle the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced. We're not messing around here; we are talking about the viability of the global economy and the health and prosperity of this and future generations. That may sound terrifying, perhaps even more terrifying than terrorism, and as such it is vital that we don't lose sight of the huge opportunities that tackling this problem offers.
But, as King explains, climate change is not just a bigger threat than terrorism, it is the biggest threat we have ever faced. Political and corporate leaders need to stop trying to pretend otherwise and prove they are up to the challenge.
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