All sensible commentators acknowledge that asking people to make big voluntary sacrifices to fight climate change is a strategy unlikely to succeed. People will fight to keep the benefits they have acquired, as well as their capacity to acquire yet more in the future. They will turf out or overthrow leaders who demand heavy sacrifices from them – especially if people in other places are not making the same ones.
If we accept that contention, we are left with a number of possible outcomes:
- Painless technological triumph: technological advances allow us to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations without big sacrifices in current or future standard of living.
- Disaster provoked changed priorities: a big and undeniably climate related cataclysm convinces people to buckle down for the sake of their own safety.
- Inaction with fairly benign climate change: people do little or nothing, and it turns out that climate change is not as harmful as predicted.
- Unmitigated disaster: people do nothing or act too late and slowly, causing global disaster.
Intermediate outcomes are clearly also possible. The differences between several of these have to do with unknown facts about the climate system. Will it throw up a few big and undeniable disasters before a slippery slope is reached? What is the actual sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gas concentration increases, once feedback and adaptive effects are included?
The first option is certainly the one most popular among politicians. Virtually everyone likes technology and progress: it creates jobs and economic growth while increasing the welfare of those already alive. What big technologies are people hoping might make the difference?
- Renewables: sound in theory and partially demonstrated in practice. New transmission capacity and incremental improvements in efficiency required. Potentially high land use.
- Biofuels: politically popular but increasingly scientifically discredited. There may be hope for cellulosic fuels.
- Nuclear fission: works in practice, with big non-climatic risks.
- Nuclear fusion: promising in theory, but nobody has made it work.
- More efficient machines: highly likely to occur, unlikely to be sufficient, may not cut total energy use.
- Carbon capture and storage: theoretically viable, undemonstrated in practice. May divert attention from technologies with longer-term potential.
- Geoengineering: desperate last ditch option, unlikely to work as predicted.
The question of whether climate change can be tackled without a substantial reduction in standard of living remains open. So does the question of whether climate change mitigation can be compatible with the elevation of billions in the developing world to a higher level of affluence. Given the above-stated unwillingness of anyone to undergo avoidable sacrifice, we should be hoping that technology does a lot better than expected, or some potent force changes the balance of risks and opportunities in the perception of most people.