Let’s Reframe the Debate on Climate Change

By Jon Crooks

Climate change is happening. It’s OK though, because when the chips are down, we’ll find a solution, probably just in the nick of time. Humanity always finds a way, right? And in the meantime we just have to accept it and hope that we can survive the effects by building flood barriers and new ways to tackle wildfires. Our agricultural land is already suffering the effects with falling yields in a world of rising populations. But don’t worry, there’s no rush. Besides, it would be a waste to leave all that coal, oil and gas in the ground.

No!! If you were an alien looking down on Earth you’d be astonished at our lack of action on dealing with this threat. We haven’t even agreed on how to go about it. There’s no global agreement. The truly astonishing thing is, we know what needs to be done, but despite this we carry on doing what we’ve been doing all along. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, but largely just carrying on with business as usual. It’s like rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.

The EU, for example, have agreed an emissions reduction target of at least 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2030. OK, but how many countries will follow this lead? The problem is that we are approaching this problem from completely the wrong end. Laurence and Alison Matthews have explained the problem like this:

“Suppose you had a garden hose connected to a sprinkler. If you wanted to save water, would you try to block up holes in the sprinkler? Of course you wouldn’t; you’d simply turn off the tap a bit. By controlling the fossil fuels coming into the system (the tap), we can automatically control the emissions created further down the line (the sprinkler). This would be simpler, cheaper and would focus attention on the root cause of emissions: the extraction of fossil fuels.”

Earlier this year, Nature published the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than two degrees of global warming. As George Mombiot pointed out in his article at the time, to deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2° of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel ‘reserves’ in the ground. ‘Reserves’ of course are just a small fraction of the total ‘resources’ (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The ‘reserve’ is just the proportion already discovered, quantified and ready to go.

The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. Two degrees is dangerous enough, but at present we’re on course for around five degrees by the end of the century.

The only sensible response is a global agreement to leave these these fossil fuels in the ground. Mombiot suggests that companies could buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a result, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as renewables, much better investments. The energy companies would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirty fossil fuels and into clean technologies. The money from the auctioned permits could be used either to compensate poorer nations or help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2° – will inevitably occur.

But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted. Researching Don’t Even Think About It, one of the most important books published on climate change in the past few years, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or paper on limiting fossil fuel extraction put forward during international climate negotiations.

No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part” – US President Barack Obama at the University of Queensland, Australia, 15 November 2014

Most people unthinkingly accept the viewpoint that sees the world as a collection of countries. Attention immediately focuses on national statistics, national commitments and negotiations between nations. Global policy becomes inter-national policy.

But what about a single, worldwide solution for the planet as a whole? Wouldn’t it be better if the Paris talks later this year were to ditch the national posturing in favour of a unified, transparent system that put an immediate embargo on any new exploration of fossil fuels and a cap and quota system in place for extracting what remaining fossil fuels we can afford to burn?

Almost every country around the world is pursuing the same policy: maximising the extraction of fossil fuels whilst paying lip service to the idea of minimising emissions. There’s no attempt to resolve this contradiction or even to acknowledge it. And let’s be clear, if the stuff keeps coming out of the ground, it will be burned, without regard to the feeble policies seeking to limit its consumption. National governments will resist global solutions, since each government wants to control what happens in its own country, but global emergencies need global action. After all, we’re not dealing with international warming.

If the climate talks in Paris in December are to have any meaning or purpose, the world’s governments need to regulate the source of the problem and abandon the approach of allowing each and every country to voluntarily set its own target of reducing emissions and we must stop companies exploring new sources of fossil fuels in vulnerable places like the arctic, the Virunga National Park in the Congo, where around a quarter of the last remaining gorillas live, or the Galilee Basin in Queensland, Australia where a massive new coal mine with a life of 35 years has been approved; or by fracking the hell out of our own green and pleasant land!

This should be the focus of our campaigns. Through groups like 350.org, Avaaz, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, we must drag our governments out of the clutches of the fossil fuel industry.

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