Deep pessimism on climate change issue


Despair, bordering on panic, attends today’s opening of the Cancún conference, writes FRANK McDONALD

NOBODY EXPECTS much to emerge from the latest UN climate change conference which opens today in the Mexican resort of Cancún. Unlike all the hype that preceded last year’s Copenhagen summit, it has barely registered in the public consciousness. And in any case, people are preoccupied by more pressing issues.

Environmentalist John Gibbons, who blogs on, says there is “no doubt but that climate change has fallen off the public agenda compared with, say, 12 months ago. Then, there was cautious optimism pre-Copenhagen. And Obama still looked like he might deliver on “cap-and-trade” [in carbon emissions].

That was then . . .

Now, he senses “an enormous sense of frustration, bordering on despair, in both the ‘traditional’ and ‘pragmatic’ environmental camps. Despair in some quarters is bordering on panic, as the numbers keep getting worse and worse”. For example, average temperatures in Greenland went up by 3.8-8.8 degrees last winter.

This was “way ahead of projections” by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As a result, the New York Times reported on November 13th, many scientists now say that the melting glaciers will cause sea levels to rise by nearly one metre by 2100, and this “would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over”.

The year drawing to a close has been marked by “extreme weather events”, such as the record-breaking heatwave in Moscow last July and August when temperatures soared to nearly 40 degrees, or the monsoon floods in Pakistan, which submerged nearly a fifth of the country, affecting the lives of 20 million people.

The political context is not encouraging, particularly in the US. Last July, a climate change and energy Bill that would have inaugurated a “cap and trade” regime for carbon emissions was abandoned by Democrats in the US Senate after it ran into opposition from Republicans and even some fearful Democrats.

Although President Barack Obama put his name to the G20’s recent Seoul summit declaration reaffirming “our resolute commitment to fight climate change”, the issue was far down the agenda – on page 16 of the 17-page document, way behind measures to promote “strong, sustainable and balanced [economic] growth”.

The blinkers are on nearly everywhere. When Coal India, a huge government-owned company, offered 10 per cent of its shares to investors, the 510-page prospectus didn’t once mention climate change – even though coal is the most carbon-potent of fossil fuels and burning it contributes significantly to emissions.

Former Greenpeace climate negotiator Jeremy Leggett, now executive chairman of Solar Century, noted with exasperation that the offering was oversubscribed 15-fold – mainly by foreign fund managers. Thus, Coal India’s shares soared on the first day of trading (November 4th), effectively valuing the company at €36 billion.

“Those ending up owning stock include some 484 foreign funds, 195 mutual funds, 44 insurance companies and many banks. Many of these investors were using ordinary citizens’ money, and this would have included the nest eggs of many people worried about global warming and its dire impact on the world by the time they retire.”

Even campaigning Guardian columnist George Monbiot has thrown in the towel. “In terms of real hopes for global action on climate change, we are now far behind where we were in 1997, or even 1992 . . . When talks fail once, as they did in Copenhagen, governments lose interest. They don’t want to be associated with failure . . .

Yet the scientific evidence continues to accumulate. As Monbiot noted, the first eight months of 2010 were as hot as the first eight months of 1998, which were the warmest on record, according to the US National Oceanic at Atmospheric Administration. But paradoxically, “the stronger the warnings, the less capable of action we become”.

The disappointing outcome of last December’s Copenhagen summit contributed to this crisis of confidence. Although world leaders cobbled together an “accord” recognising the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be kept below 2 degrees, no specific measures were adopted to achieve this objective.

This paralysis is causing unease and dismay even in the corporate sector. On November 16th, some of the world’s largest investors (with collective assets totalling $15 trillion) called on governments to “take action now in the fight against global warming or risk economic disruptions far more severe than the recent financial crisis”.

The 259 signatories included such major players as Allianz Global Investors and HSBC Global Asset Management as well as many of the largest European pension funds and a dozen US public pension funds and state treasurers. It was claimed to be the largest ever group of investors to call for international action on climate change.

What they’re seeking is a set of clear policies that would encourage private sector investment in low-carbon technologies.

Although global clean energy investments are expected to exceed $200 billion this year, they said this was “substantially less” than the $500 billion required annually by 2020 to keep warming below 2 degrees.

To boost this investment, they called for short-, mid- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets; “strong and sustained price signals on carbon emissions”, new policies to accelerate deployment of energy efficiency, renewable energy, green buildings, clean vehicles and clean fuels, and a phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies – pledged by the G20.

The phase-out of such subsidies, estimated to be worth $312 million a year, has also been endorsed by the International Energy Agency (IEA). In a report published earlier this month, it said that abolishing them would “enhance energy security, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution, and bring economic benefits”.

In its World Energy Outlook 2010, the IEA warned that the long-term cost of governments pursuing weak policies on climate change – as most of them are doing now – would be an additional $1 trillion to cut carbon emissions after 2020, or run the risk that the rise in global temperatures would reach a disastrous 3.5 degrees.

“This is not good for anybody – neither for energy producers nor consumers. That is why we are ringing the alarm bells strongly with this report,” IEA chief economist Fatih Birol told the European Energy Review. “What is needed very badly is a clear signal for the energy sector to transform itself.” And so far, that signal hasn’t come.

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson and others have recently set up the dramatically titled “Carbon War Room” with the aim of harnessing the power of entrepreneurs to implement “market-driven solutions” to climate change and create a post-carbon economy.

It will be making waves in Cancún. The only question is whether anyone will notice.