Blog Type, IPT Blog, Industry Sector, Ethics & Sustainability, Energy | January 2016

Why Climate Change is "The Issue from Hell."

Climate change necessarily involves trying to understand and model long term futures, especially the consequences of past Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. And the future climate partly result from events and social practices that are yet to occur. It is not surprising that estimates of future temperature increases vary widely.

We can date the initiation of climate change as a major issue to 1998, a year of record temperatures. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established and leading climate scientist Dr James Hansen, at the time of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, announced in US Congressional hearings that anthropogenic global warming had started. Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the UK’s Royal Society added to a growing sense within policy circles that human activities were indeed transforming future climates. She argued that the system of the planet was subject to a massive ‘experiment’.

The exponential upward curve of both emissions and temperatures seem to indicate that the earth system had moved beyond the natural variability exhibited during the Holocene period. Many now argue that the earth system entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene where human activities constitute a ‘great force of nature’. Al Gore thus describes climate change as the “issue from hell” - its complexity, scale and timeframe all making its causes and solutions so difficult to resolve, this often being termed a wicked problem.

One aspect of this wickedness is how ‘climate change’ is not a simple problem that could be ‘fixed’ through for example adjustments within a specific system, as arguably the hole in the ozone layer caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in refrigerators was fixed. Indeed ‘climate change’ is not a single ‘cause’ nor a single set of ‘effects’. There are many elements: increases in Arctic temperatures, reduced size of icebergs, melting of icecaps and glaciers, reduced permafrost, changes in rainfall, reduced bio-diversity, new wind patterns, more droughts, dust storms and heat waves, and greater intensity of tropical cyclones and other extreme weather events. Climate change increases the probabilities of such events.

Many climate scientists calculate that future temperature increases should be limited to no more than 2˚C with the implication that rich societies need to cut emissions by up to 80%. Such a programme cannot be simply delivered by new or different kinds of energy - it cannot mean ‘business as usual’. It is now thought there is a maximum carbon budget, with societies having already burnt through two-thirds of this. The implication is that more than half of current fossil fuel reserves should remain unexploited and left under the ground, with many financial consequences for fossil fuel companies.

One economic sector that understands the likely scale of future climate-related developments is the global insurance industry. Its many reports document the rising scale, impact and cost of climate events, such as the $65 billion cost of Hurricane Sandy occurring in New York/New Jersey in 2012. Insurance losses worldwide have seen substantial increases, with extreme weather being principally responsible.

The major reason for why climate change is a wicked problem is even as far back as 1998 it was realised that it necessarily concerns human activities and not just physical or technological futures. The varied climate sciences have shown how it is ‘human activities’ that are principally responsible for increased emissions and hence for changing climates. This means that how societies have been, and will be organized in the future, is critical for anticipating future emissions and. temperatures. The problem of the climate is people and their patterns of life. This is why this is the issue from hell. Can anything be done here we should ask.

I want to note three pieces of relatively good news about those 'human activities'. First, the increase in CO2 emissions is actually recent, stemming from the Great Acceleration of burning fossil fuels from around 1950, after which its increase was exponential. It could be argued that we need to return to lifestyles similar to those we had in the 1950s, before consumption levels of diverse goods and services really took off. In this previous period there was a perfectly good standard of living for most, indeed in many societies wellbeing seems to have been higher. And there are interesting examples of how in periods of war where ‘everyone’ can be seen as being in the same boat, wellbeing in a paradoxical way was higher. During the Second World War, Britain almost ceased leisure driving, public transport use doubled in the US, there was a marked growth in biking and car sharing in most Allied countries, two-fifths of fresh vegetables in the US were grown in ‘victory gardens’, there was a big emphasis upon recycling and mending, and it was stated in the US: “if you drive alone you drive with Hitler.” So there are at least dimly remembered visions of a different kind of society before the development of a pervasive consumerism where people form their social identities through purchasing, using and making symbolic capital out of consumer goods and services produced by others within large energy-intensive factories, offices, shops and places of pleasure. After a point is passed rising growth does not translate into rising wellbeing.

Second, there is thus increasing research into, and acceptance of, ‘managed degrowth’, of reducing GHG emissions by 8-10% per year through turning around the oil tanker of growth and pointing it in the opposite direction. This alternative involves developing and substituting social practices and products that presuppose a substantial powering down of carbon intensity and its global scale. Such a possible future draws upon innovations in thinking and practice involving tens of thousands of experiments, groups, networks, prototypes, laboratories, scientists, universities, designers and activists, and many new businesses made possible through new digital worlds including the App economy. Degrowth would involve ‘transition’ to a smaller scale system of neighbourhoods and cities fragmented into more self-sufficient neighbourhoods without rigid zoning. Powering down thus involves re-designing places in both physical and social engineering terms and then linking the innovations together often in part through various digital worlds. and the example of the internet or fax machines or mobile communications does show that rapid change and the development of new social practices can occur very rapidly. So although people are habitual new habits can form quickly and people cannot imagine how life was possible beforehand.

Third, the EU and various other societies shows that CO2 emissions do not increase inexorably, there being a recent small decrease. There is a longer term decline in UK resource use - material consumption reached a peak around 2001-3 and since then has declined both absolutely and per head. This fall in the rate of material consumption commenced before the onset of the 2007-8 economic and financial collapse. In countless small ways the effects of NGO activities, environmental journalism, government campaigns, innovative small businesses, the developing discourses of sustainability have reduced carbon intensity. Is it possible that these are the green shoots of a ‘great deceleration’ here as human societies get to be powered down with many new but very different businesses springing up to take forward lower carbon human practices?

With thanks to John Urry, Co-Director of the Institute for Social Futures, Lancaster University