The big picture on climate change is one of the composition of the atmosphere and the thermodynamic balance of the planet. It is a very complex and long-term story, some of which requires considerable scientific knowledge to grasp. The basics of it come out to this:
- Humans are changing the climate.
- Further change is profoundly threatening for humanity.
- We need to stabilize how much greenhouse gas is in the atmosphere, and do so at a safe level.
- This requires fast, deep cuts.
A lot of attention has rightly focused on emission targets and timelines: where we need to be by when to achieve the kind of outcomes we want. The trouble with this debate is that it is largely artificial. Candidate X might say: “Cut to 50% below 2000 levels by 2050” and Candidate Y might say: “Cut to 65% below 2000 levels by 2050.” The difference between the two outcomes would be important for the climate. At the same time, the difference between the candidates is actually much less about the targets and much more about the means of implementing them. Candidate Y might say: “Voluntary measures, technological progress, and magical future technologies will do the job” while Candidate X might say: “We will limit total emissions from our economy to 3% below this year’s level next year. We will charge firms for the right to emit this much. We will use that money to foster a transition towards a low-carbon economy.” Needless to say, the results of each plan will differ significantly by the time you get to 2050.
The critical thing right now is to bend the path of global emissions. Rather than moving ever-upward, it needs to turn downward and start the long decline towards a low-carbon economy. Achieving that is all about immediate measures, not about emission projections that delay most of the reductions for decades. While it is certainly cheaper to cut a notional tonne of emissions ten years out, it is also the case that starting the transition will be more difficult than maintaining it. As such, it would be good to see states and political parties competing over who will cut emissions more in the immediate future, rather than across timespans during which today’s leaders will be enjoying their retirements.
Of course, the political risks of cutting emissions now are comparatively large. When it becomes evident what that will involve, it might prove expensive and politically unpopular. Protecting the welfare of present and future generations might evoke the wrath of voters during the next election. Unfortunately but honestly, no politician can be expected to show such bravery. Even so, there is an opportunity to recast the narrative. Firstly, we need to stress that this transition simply needs to occur. The alternative to acting now is simply delaying to the point where the transition will cost more and the impacts of climate change will be more severe. Secondly, this is an epic opportunity for humanity and for individual states. We can finally move beyond a post-Industrial Revolution economy based on constantly borrowing from the welfare of future generations. We can create states and a global society than run on sustainably produced climate-neutral energy.
The action required to start doing so is needed immediately. Choose someone who promises to change something by next year, and turf them out if they don’t.