We summarise the thoughts of Martin Wolf, the FT’s chief economics commentator here, because Localise West Midlands’ aims and policies are designed with his ‘politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy’ in mind. He wrote, yesterday:
“Last week the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was reported to have passed 400 parts per million for the first time in 4.5m years. It is also continuing to rise at a rate of about 2 parts per million every year. On the present course, it could be 800 parts per million by the end of the century. Thus, all the discussions of mitigating the risks of catastrophic climate change have turned out to be empty words.
“Collectively, humanity has yawned and decided to let the dangers mount . . . clutching at straws “
“(H)umanity is conducting a huge, uncontrolled and almost certainly irreversible climate experiment with the only home it is likely to have. Moreover, if one judges by the basic science and the opinions of the vast majority of qualified scientists, risk of calamitous change is large . . . “
Meanwhile, Wolf notes, ‘deniers’ clutch at straws: “It is noted, for example, that average global temperatures have not risen recently, though they are far higher than a century ago. Yet periods of falling temperature within a rising trend have occurred before”.
Bequeathing a planet in climatic chaos is a rather bigger concern than leaving a burden of public debt
“What makes the inaction more remarkable is that we have been hearing so much hysteria about the dire consequences of piling up a big burden of public debt on our children and grandchildren. But all that is being bequeathed is financial claims of some people on other people. If the worst comes to the worst, a default will occur. Some people will be unhappy. But life will go on. Bequeathing a planet in climatic chaos is a rather bigger concern. There is nowhere else for people to go and no way to reset the planet’s climate system”
So why are we behaving like this?
- The first reason is that, as the civilisation of ancient Rome was built on slaves, ours is built on fossil fuels.
- A second reason is opposition to any interventions in the free market. . . to admit that a free economy generates a vast global external cost is to admit that the large-scale government regulation so often proposed by hated environmentalists is justified. For many libertarians or classical liberals, the very idea is unsupportable. It is far easier to deny the relevance of the science.
- A third reason may be the pressure of responding to immediate crises that has consumed almost all the attention of policy makers in the high-income countries since 2007.
- A fourth is a touching confidence that, should the worst comes to the worst, human ingenuity will find some clever ways of managing the worst results of climate change.
- A fifth is the complexity of reaching effective and enforceable global agreements on the control of emissions among so many countries.
- A sixth is indifference to the interests of people to be born in a relatively distant future. As the old line goes: “Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”
- A final (and related) reason is the need to strike a just balance between poor countries and rich ones and between those who emitted most of the greenhouse gases in the past and those who will emit in the future.
What might shift such a course?
Wolf: “My view is, increasingly, that there is no point in making moral demands. People will not do something on this scale because they care about others, even including their own more remote descendants. They mostly care rather too much about themselves for that . . .
“A necessary, albeit not sufficient condition, then, is a politically sellable vision of a prosperous low-carbon economy. That is not what people now see. Substantial resources must be invested in the technologies that would credibly deliver such a future . . .
Institutions must also be developed that can deliver it
Neither the technological nor the institutional conditions exist at present. In their absence, there is no political will to do anything real about the process driving our experiment with the climate.
Yes, there is talk and wringing of hands. But there is, predictably, no effective action. If that is to change, we must start by offering humanity a far better future. Fear of distant horror is not enough.
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