Moving forward on climate change

Before the Apollo 8 mission captured Earth’s first self-portrait in December 1968, there was little sense of our collective fragility and interdependence. Presciently, the astronomer Fred Hoyle had suggested that when earthlings grasped how tenuously they exist within the vastness of interstellar space, a new era of self-awareness would begin. The epochal “Earthrise” image that the Apollo mission brought home forced us to acknowledge, in Carl Sagan’s unforgettable words that: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

The climate agreement just concluded in Paris is one outcome of the decades of profound self-awareness that were galvanized by that image. Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and James Lovelock’s Gaia: A new look at life on Earth, have deepened our sense of involvement with ecosystems and other homeostatic planetary mechanisms, and they have taught us that unilateral solutions to global problems, like a disappearing ozone layer, or anthropogenic climate change are meaningless.

The Paris Agreement on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is the most comprehensive of its kind in a generation. If nothing else it sustains the hope that modern governments can address complex problems disinterestedly and at least entertain the prospect of common solutions. Sceptics have been quick to note that its carbon reduction targets are voluntary and that current estimates of the parties’ emissions will still have the global temperature rising 3° Celsius above pre-Industrial levels rather than the more desirable maximum of 2°. Nevertheless, setting aside these concerns – some of them inevitable, given the scale of the proposals being considered – there is widespread hope that the Paris agreement will reinvigorate current efforts to reduce our runaway carbon emissions, and set the stage for further reforms.

A recurring problem in collective action of this kind is the self-interested temptation to ‘free-ride’ on others’ efforts. Since few countries will reap sufficient short-term benefits to justify the reallocation of resources that a genuine commitment to climate change will entail, those who doubt the collective resolve to enact reforms can adopt a wait-and-see strategy. This was the fate of the Kyoto protocol and it has hamstrung subsequent efforts to devise market-driven abatement policies.

One possible solution to this dilemma is outlined by Gernot Wagner and Martin L Weitzman, a policy specialist and economist respectively, in their recent book Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet. Wagner and Weitzman argue that only intelligently adapted global market frameworks can correctly price the true cost of carbon and sufficiently remove current incentives for free-riders; they write: “It’s capitalism with all its innovative and entrepreneurial powers that is our only hope of steering clear of the looming climate shock.”

Harnessing capitalism’s innovative energies for the good of the entire planet will ultimately require not only unprecedented maturity from our leading industrial nations but also the sort of shift in consciousness that followed the Apollo photographs in 1968. For the Paris agreement will only produce results if its hopeful agenda is tempered by the knowledge that 50 years after we first glimpsed what our planet looks like from the vantage of space, there is still no indication that “help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

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