Vision must replace sandbags in our minds

Recent dramatic floods fit with climate change patterns where exceptional events become more common, writes TONY KINSELLA

Recent dramatic floods fit with climate change patterns where exceptional events become more common, writes TONY KINSELLA

OUR LIVES operate on (at least) two levels. One is filled with the vital clutter of everyday life, the other more strategic. A key function for the leaderships we elect should be to address the strategic level and develop solutions that fit into everyday realities.

When leadership fails, the strategic traumatically erupts into the everyday – as residents of Cork, Cockermouth, and pilgrims en route to Mecca found out last week. Global climate change is considerably less preoccupying than paying the mortgage – until your local river comes sluicing in through the windows or washes the ground out from under your feet.

Cork averages some 1,200mm of rain a year, English rainfall clocks in at just under 840mm, and the Red Sea port of Jeddah gets just 67mm. This discrepancy helps explain why upwards of 80 people perished in the floods in eastern Saudi Arabia last week.


The floods in Ireland, Britain and Saudi fit with climate change patterns where exceptional events become more common. Past patterns no longer provide useful guides to the frequency of future events, according to Dr Gerald Fleming of Met Éireann.

Antarctic ice cores have revealed that the current level of CO2 in our atmosphere, 385 parts per million (ppm), is 40 per cent higher than at any time over the last 800,000 years. Scientists suggest such levels only previously existed on our planet between two and 15 million years ago, during the turbulent Pliocene and Miocene periods.

Over one-quarter of that carbon dioxide has been added since our industrial era began, about 1750, and we are adding to it at an increasing rate – 1.9ppm every year this decade, up from 1.5ppm in the 1990s. Despite our sun being in one of its occasional calm cycles, every year so far this century has been among the top 10 warmest years since instrumental records began.

The key foundation for economic systems and a major contributor to human-generated greenhouse gases is our use of energy. Oil continues to be central to our energy mix, and determining the scale of available oil resources remains a far from exact science.

It is surprising to learn that our technical ability to accurately determine just how much recoverable oil there is in a given oil field is fairly patchy. Estimates of available reserves are largely determined by national governments. As these estimates determine production quotas for members of the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the economic profiles of most oil producers, there is an understandable desire to present the most optimistic figures possible.

The International Energy Agency published its annual World Energy Outlook this month. This report records that global demand for oil in 2008 amounted to 85 million barrels a day. The agency projects this will rise to 105 million by 2030, and that oil production will rise to 103 million, with the balance being provided by biofuels.

The agency has steadily reduced its projections for oil production in 2030 from 123 million barrels in 2004 to the 103 million figure it puts forward this year. Its chief economist, Fatih Birol, told the Guardian newspaper last December that he expects oil production to plateau “around 2020”.This matches the forecasts of Michel Mallet, the general manager of Total Germany. Last April, Mallet estimated realistic global production capacity at “less than 105 million barrels”.

If there is a degree of consensus about oil supply, projections about oil demand depend on the underpinning assumptions used. In the US today there is one car for every two inhabitants, while in India and China the comparable figure is one for every 100. Even a modest increase to one vehicle for every 50 people in the two countries would add another 25 million cars to the global fleet, and car makers have much more ambitious plans.

Over the last 10 years the 4,000 inhabitants of the Danish island of Samsø have reduced their carbon footprint while becoming net exporters of energy. The Danish government guaranteed bank loans for individuals to invest in wind turbines, solar panels and other technologies. It guaranteed an attractive price for any electricity the island could export.

The Samsø experience blends state action, the community and entrepreneurship into an overall success story. The essential lesson to be drawn is that the main barriers to transforming our world are neither scientific nor technological, but ideological.

We need to liberate ourselves from the confines of neoconservative philosophy, with its exclusive reliance on market mechanisms. Neoconservative apologists such as Francis Fukuyama saw the collapse of communism as constituting “ . . . the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. Deregulation, globalisation and increased competition would, we were assured, produce ever greater wealth. Free enterprise would solve all problems of scarcity, as the market delivered ever more efficient solutions. The limits of this approach are now obvious, and if the economic adjustment is painful, the climatic one can be sodden.

The Copenhagen summit is likely to take us in the right direction in terms of avoiding catastrophic climate change and changing energy habits, though probably neither fast, nor far, enough. Global leadership there will come from Brussels, Beijing, Brasilia and Delhi – not Washington. The US Senate will only deign to consider the issue next spring.

Affability and competence have often been determinant in selecting our leaders, but we desperately need doses of imagination as well.

Competent leaders may ensure we have sufficient sandbags to protect our homes, but imaginative ones could save us from needing sandbags in the first place.