the wrong road to a warmer world?

analysis, bbc radio 4, 3 april 2008

KENAN MALIK   Imagine. A hot sunny day. A shimmering breeze. The scent of bougainvillea wafting across the olive groves. But this is not the French Riviera, it's the Swiss Alps.

JOSE ROMERO   We are in the suburbs of Bern, some thirty kilometres in the northern part of the Alps at an altitude of four hundred metres above the sea level. The Alpine region where Switzerland is located is rather sensitive to global warming.

KENAN MALIK   Jose Romero, chief advisor to the Swiss government on climate change.

JOSE ROMERO   We may expect radical change given the fact that snow will be scarce. The third component of the Swiss gross domestic product is tourism, and in particular Alpine tourism, so if we have less snow there will be a need for adapting to the new conditions. Maybe there is an opportunity there to have further expansion of tourism. We may define new activities for winter tourism, for example - to replace snow activities with other activities.

KENAN MALIK   In fifty years time, as the snows melt in the Alps and the Mediterranean coast becomes too hot, Switzerland may well become the new Provence - and the Swiss are already preparing for this. For years politicians have been urging us to change our lifestyles to slow down global warming. Now many are coming to see such warming as inevitable. And not just the Swiss. Publicly, the message from the British government is that we all have to do more to reduce our carbon footprints - turn down the heating, say no to plastic bags, think again about that cheap foreign holiday, and recycle, recycle, recycle. Privately, though, there seems to be a growing acceptance that such exhortations may not be enough.

JOAN RUDDOCK   I'm sure we have to do something now, otherwise we are all doomed, but that is not a message that I think any of us want to give to the public. What we want to give to the public is very much it is extremely important that we take action now. Even if we were to end all our emissions today, we've still got thirty to forty years of temperature rises and probably a hundred years of sea level rises built in, so adaptation has now become as important to us as mitigation.

KENAN MALIK   Joan Ruddock, Britain's Minister for Climate Change. Mitigation and adaptation. Two words we’re going to have to get used to. For they're at the heart of the latest battle over climate change. Over the past few years the key debate has been about the science - is the world really hotting up and, if so, are humans responsible? There's still a minority of sceptics who question the idea of man-made global warming. The consensus, though, is that the earth is getting warmer - and that humans have helped turn up the thermostat.

The new debate that's splitting scientists, economists and politicians is not about whether the world is getting hotter but about how we should respond. And that's the debate we'll be exploring in this week's Analysis. The key question is whether we should pour all our resources into mitigation - reducing our carbon emissions. Or whether we should accept that the world is going to get warmer anyway. Rather than worry too much about emissions, should we adapt to global warming by building better flood defences and developing drought-resistant crops? For many Greens, shifting the debate from mitigation to adaptation is tantamount to treason. The biologist Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers and voted Australian of the Year for his campaigning on climate change.

TIM FLANNERY   To me that shift represents a little bit of you know Chamberlain with the white paper in 1938: it's giving into what is undoubtedly a big and formidable issue, but giving in in I think a fundamentally wrong way. We need to limit climate change. We need to in my view address mitigation. I don't think we can shift our effort from mitigation to adaptation. That would be to invite disaster. And I have said it's tantamount to genocide if we get that wrong.

KENAN MALIK   For years environmentalists have drummed into us the need to ditch our profligate, low-cost, throw-away lifestyles. Consume less, pay more, feel the pain has been the message. That message won official support through the influential Stern Report. In October 2006 Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank Chief Economist, produced the most comprehensive review ever carried out on the economic challenges of climate change. It's become the Bible for mitigationists.

DIMITRI ZHENGHALIS   The Stern Review was effectively aimed at trying to assess both the impacts of climate change and the cost of dealing with climate change.

KENAN MALIK   Government economist Dimitri Zhenghalis, author of the mitigation section of the Stern Report.

DIMITRI ZHENGHALIS   What we found effectively was that the costs of action are significantly lower than the costs of inaction. However you try to quantify them, the case for action on climate change we found was compelling. What the science does tell us - is that if we do carry on as we are, we will probably reach levels of greenhouse gas concentrations by the next century, which gives us at least an even-stevens chance of having temperatures rise by five degrees or more. Humanity has never experienced anything like that. The last time we saw a five degrees warming relative to present levels was about fifty million years ago in the Eocene period when there were alligators close to the Poles and the world was dominated by swampy forest. It is inconceivable that the physical and human geography of the planet wouldn't be changed in such a way as to cause substantial problems and incur huge costs.

KENAN MALIK   What kind of carbon emission reduction are you looking for?

DIMITRI ZHENGHALIS   We found that in order both to try and secure a likely probability that we can avoid the most dangerous aspects of climate change you would want to stabilize at somewhere below 550 parts of a million CO2 equivalent. That means that for most of the world, you would look for emissions - that's the annual flow into the stock of greenhouse gases - to fall by something like 50% relative to 2000 values by the middle of this century. And the earth can only absorb about 5 to 10 gigatonnes of CO2 a year. We're currently emitting 40, and by the middle of the century we're looking to go towards 80. So it's an ambitious challenge, but it can be done.

KENAN MALIK   The Stern Report came after years of campaigning from environmental groups to force governments to take action over climate change. The only way to safeguard the future of the planet, the activists argued, was to reduce radically the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. And this would only happen if every industrialised nation made huge cuts in energy consumption and if every individual drastically changed their lifestyles. Many Greens think that the Stern Report actually underestimates the reductions we need in carbon emissions. The writer and environmental activist Mark Lynas.

MARK LYNAS   I think essentially what we need to be aiming for is to go zero carbon, so there's obviously an endless debate in the UK about whether we need to be 60%, 80%, whatever. I think basically it needs to be 100% and probably higher than that. We need to be talking about actually removing the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is going to drive warming up to dangerous levels. I think we need to be going zero carbon and beyond if we’re to stabilize the climate at a safe level.

KENAN MALIK   Whether it's 60%, 80% or 100% - the emerging consensus is that we need drastic cuts in carbon emissions. The reports of the IPCC, the main scientific body investigating global warming; the Kyoto Protocol; and the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali last year all concur. They have all been dominated by the idea that only way to combat global warming is through drastic reductions in CO2 emissions. And the consequences of not doing this? Global catastrophe and the end of civilisation as we know it.

But now a new breed of thinkers is emerging to challenge this conventional - not to say gloomy - wisdom. The Stern Report, they say, far from underestimating the problem, exaggerated it, by taking the most pessimistic assumptions and the worst-case scenarios. The economist Richard Tol, who we'll hear from later in the programme, suggested that if one of his students had presented the Stern report as a course essay, he'd have been failed for making basic economic mistakes. This new school do not deny the reality of climate change. But they do question current policies to combat it - in particular the focus on mitigation. A low carbon economy would be good but it also has its costs. It may be far more effective, they suggest, to stop fighting climate change and instead adapt to it. Roger Pielke is a climate policy expert at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

ROGER PIELKE   Adaptation is something that human beings have been doing on Planet Earth ever since we evolved from apes into humans, and even before perhaps. Adaptation means we take steps to reduce the negative impacts of climate on human activities and to take advantage of the positive aspects. So, for example, when we build farms, factories, shipping ports and so on, we do so in recognition that our choices of where we build them and place them are to take advantage of the climate system. When we build buildings in areas exposed to floods, hurricanes, other storms, we build them in specific ways to reduce the impacts when those extreme events occur. We are talking about taking steps to make ourselves more resilient or robust to an uncertain future. Adaptation involves steps that we can take today and which will have impacts tomorrow. If you're concerned about flood impacts in Great Britain, there's many steps that can be taken to affect outcomes the next time the floods happen to occur. Mitigation involves steps that we take in the short-term, but their effects on the climate system necessarily won't be realised for many decades.

KENAN MALIK   Mitigation, in other words, is a long term process. Even if all human activity ceased tomorrow, so there were no man-made carbon emissions, it would still take decades before we noticed lower temperatures. The world is going to get warmer whatever we do now. So we have no choice but to adapt. But, Professor Pielke argues, adaptation should not be seen as something that humans have been pushed into by climate change. It's something we've always done. Climates are naturally variable, and humans have always responded to the challenge, being quite capable of living both in the Sahara and in Siberia. Rather than be obsessed or frightened by climate change, we should just get on with the job of dealing with it. Professor Richard Tol, an economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, agrees.

RICHARD TOL   There's a whole lot we can do against the impacts of climate change apart from mitigation. Impacts of climate change are very many and very complex, so you can't just talk about adaptation to climate change but you really need to split it down by sector. And sea level rise is a good example where besides greenhouse gas emission reduction, you can build dykes, you can build levees, you can build sea walls, and you can gradually retreat from the coast. There's a whole range of other options that one can take.

KENAN MALIK   The trouble is, says Roger Pielke, international policies on climate change actually prevent countries from taking adaptive steps.

ROGER PIELKE   Let's say you are in a developing country where you experience the impacts of floods or typhoons and you experience impacts and you want to get international aid for it. Under the International Climate Convention, in order for that aid to be provided you have to show that the impacts you experience can be traced to greenhouse gas emissions from climate. It's not sufficient to show that there were many, perhaps thousands of people who died, and tremendous economic loss. You have to separate out climate change from somehow normal climate variability. In practice, this is an almost impossible test to do.

KENAN MALIK   So are you suggesting that our concern or even obsession with climate change is distorting the kinds of infrastructure, say, that poorer countries are able to build?

ROGER PIELKE   In some ways, yes. Under the Kyoto Protocol and its parent body, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, climate change is defined only as those changes that result from the human emission of greenhouse gases - so if perhaps the sun were to get a bit brighter tonight while we're all sleeping and we wake up tomorrow and there's massive climate changes or ocean circulation has changed for some reason, those are not considered climate changes. So under the Kyoto Protocol, the focus is only on those changes from greenhouse gases. The climate disasters and events that might occur through natural variability are off the table. So what this means is that better adaptation to climate is also off the table. So by definition, the Kyoto Protocol focuses our attention away from the sort of strategies that make sense in any kind of sustainable development context and back onto mitigation.

KENAN MALIK   The debate about how best to combat climate change is perhaps most bitterly contested when it comes to its impact on developing countries like Bangladesh - countries that are most vulnerable to the ravages of global warming. Richard Tol believes that the policies the international community has so far adopted - namely mitigation - may have the same effect on poor countries as locking the door on someone in a sauna.

RICHARD TOL   Stringent greenhouse gas emission reduction would be expensive to implement, would slow down economic growth in the countries that do that - say the countries of Europe. As a result, these countries will import less from developing countries, which as a result those developing countries would grow less fast than they otherwise would and then they have simply less money to spend on their primary and secondary healthcare and as a result diseases like malaria and diarrhoea would increase. What we see at the moment is that a lot of money is flowing towards mitigation, whereas spending that money on adaptation would be money better spent and would save lives.

KENAN MALIK   When you say a lot of money is flowing towards mitigation, do you have any idea of the proportion that's going towards mitigation as opposed to going to adaptation?

RICHARD TOL   I would think that for every pound that is spent on mitigation, a penny is spent on adaptation.

KENAN MALIK   That little?


KENAN MALIK Is it a kind of zero sum game - that the more money spent on mitigation means less money spent on adaptation?

RICHARD TOL   By and large, yes. I mean we have only so much income and we can spend every pound only once.

KENAN MALIK   When you talk to policymakers, what would you say to them about what they should be thinking about in relation to climate change and how they should spend either on mitigation or on adaptation?

RICHARD TOL   I think at the moment the most important message is that mitigation takes away money from development aid and takes away money from economic growth. And I think that actually stands a good chance of increasing the impacts of climate change rather than reducing it. At the moment a lot of emissions are reduced through the so-called Clean Development Mechanism. That is, Europe pays countries such as China and India to reduce their emissions. If you look at where the money that is being spent on the Clean Development Mechanism comes from, then most of it actually comes directly from the official development aid budget and that means that essentially we're taking away money from the poor countries to give to the poor countries, but rather than spending it on development that is important to them, we're spending it on an issue like climate change that is important to us.

KENAN MALIK   For Richard Tol and Roger Pielke, throwing everything at reducing carbon emissions is to condemn poorer countries to watch helplessly as the waters rise and the deserts creep forward. For environmental activists on the other hand, the idea that we should accept a warmer world and adapt to it is both unrealistic and immoral. It ignores humans' impact on other species. And even when it comes to humanity, Tim Flannery says, the adaptationists haven't thought through their arguments.

TIM FLANNERY   I'd simply ask them what they think they're adapting to. And if they can predict the future and look in their crystal ball and tell me that sea levels will only rise by ten centimetres or twenty centimetres or fifty centimetres, well that’d be fine. But the truth is none of us know, none of us can predict the future. And you know when an investor comes to me and says, 'We're making a water front property development here. I want you to tell me how much leeway I have to leave to allow for rising sea levels over the next fifty years', there's no way anyone on earth can tell that developer that. It's very expensive often to provide that leeway and the difference in providing a ten centimetre leeway or a fifty centimetre leeway is very substantial indeed. And you know if you opt for the ten centimetre option, you may have wasted all your money if sea level rise turns out to be more rapid than the current models are suggesting. So that's the key issue that I have with adaptation.

KENAN MALIK   You've talked about adaptation as a form of genocide, haven't you?

TIM FLANNERY   I have and the reason I have done that is because the extent to which any of us can adapt is directly related to our economic heft. So, for example, the Netherlands may be able to pay for large dyking infrastructure in the face of rising sea levels and we could call that a form of adaptation. The people of Bangladesh - there is no way they could pay for that sort of large scale infrastructure that's required. And Bangladesh and the Netherlands are equally vulnerable to sea level rise. You know there's ten million people living within one metre of sea level in Bangladesh. So you know unless you move forward with that sense of reality in your mind, what you're doing is putting the lives of probably millions of people at risk.

KENAN MALIK   The economist Dimitri Zenghalis - one of the authors of the Stern Report - has another objection. Adaptation, he says, rests on the assumption that the world will continue getting richer, so that we have the resources to adapt. But that assumption is wrong.

DIMITRI ZENGHALIS   As we become richer, it is certainly true that we will become more able to adapt, our vulnerabilities will reduce. It's important to note that not everyone will be richer in the future and there is always a mass of people who are at the poorest end, who are hardest hit by these impacts. I don't think you'd be doing Bangladesh a favour by saying 'Let's just carry on emitting as we are and you'll be, by the way, underwater probably within fifty to a hundred years, but we're going to give you quite a lot of money now to help your more pressing concerns'. It's important to recognise that across the spectrum of impacts on climate change, the actual costs of adaptation do not just rise in proportion to the degree of global warming; they rise much faster. So, for example, think of water levels either through floods or sea levels. Water levels rise by a certain amount. You can start taking some small flood defence measures, you can pay for higher insurance to insure your house. They rise by that same amount again because of a little bit more global warming - you really have to beef up your levees and build up your flood defences. They rise by the same amount again and actually it pays to completely move the community. There is serious talk in the Netherlands about stopping pumping and shifting millions of people. There is a grave risk of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people in Bangladesh having to move. That impact increases, as you can see very obviously, more than proportionately to the degree of global warming. So the cost of adaptation does not rise in a linear manner. The costs rise much more than proportionately with the temperatures. So not doing something about mitigation runs the risk of very, very high costs of adaptation further down the line.

KENAN MALIK   For many environmental activists there's a touch of the Marie Antoinettes about the argument for adaptation. Telling Bangladesh to build dykes is a bit like telling the poor to eat cake. Adaptation is unconscionable because it's a rich man's strategy - the poorest countries simply cannot be able to afford to adapt. But that’s only because they're being held back by current policies, responds Richard Tol. Stop pouring resources into mitigation and even the poorest might be able to build dykes – and probably eat cake, too.

RICHARD TOL   The impact of sea level rise in Bangladesh is by and large a problem of poverty. There's other countries in the world that are in a very similar geophysical situation as Bangladesh is - that is a very low-lying delta very vulnerable to sea level rise - but other countries can cope because they are much richer and they have much better developed technology. The Netherlands is below sea level for two thirds of the country and the approach is one of adaptation that is large scale engineering. So if the Bangladeshi economy grows less fast and that means that they have less money themselves for building dykes.

KENAN MALIK   The debate about the relative merits of adaptation and mitigation has only just begun and is likely to dominate policymaking on climate change over the next decade. But why has this debate only just begun? Why have policy makers till now talked almost exclusively about the need to reduce our carbon emissions, ignoring the issue of adaptation? Indeed, why do they still do so? Joan Ruddock.

JOAN RUDDOCK   I think there's no doubt that the climate change debate has been led by the international scientific bodies and what they’ve told us is that it's imperative that we reduce our emissions and so everyone has been engaged in doing that. I think that's entirely understandable. But what we now know is that even if we were to end all our emissions today, we've still got thirty to forty years of temperature rises and probably a hundred years of sea level rises built in, so adaptation has now become as important to us as mitigation. But I think it's understandable the way in which the debate has developed and that has obviously resulted in the government itself having had a priority on mitigation. But we have now absorbed the information that we have and we know how important it is, and I think also people see that climate change is underway. So we have got adaptation up there with mitigation.

KENAN MALIK   Isn't it partly also because mitigation is about changing individual behaviour? Whereas adaptation is about collective social action, the kinds of scientific technological innovation that you might need to meet the challenges not just of climate change but more broadly about the kind of climate variability that we might face. And to a large extent governments are more willing to talk about individuals changing their behaviour than about the kind of broader social changes that we might need.

JOAN RUDDOCK   I think both mitigation and adaptation are equally dependent on everyone and every sector taking their own actions. So, for example, where it comes to mitigation, one of the most important things we can do is to deal with major infrastructure questions such as energy production coming from low or no carbon sources. That's very much a government priority which has got to involve business and industry. Of course we want individual actions as well on mitigation, but in terms of adaptation again both government, business, industry and individuals all have to play their part. So I don't think that there are any significant differences in approach between mitigation and adaptation, but simply that mitigation and the discussion of that has been well ahead of adaptation.

KENAN MALIK   In Joan Ruddock's eyes policy must make room for both adaptation and mitigation, and for both individual action and collective change. This seems to be a significant shift in official thinking. But does this mean that the government will now heavily invest in and promote investment in new green technologies that will both reduce carbon emissions and allow us to live with a warmer world? So far, public policy has focused almost entirely on mitigation. So what's its record on innovation here? Pretty appalling says James Woudhuysen, Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University. There's more hot air coming out of government ministries than all the coal fired power stations in China.

JAMES WOUDHUYSEN   I think the record is lamentable. You know what we ought to be talking about is a high innovation economy. There's been very little really major innovations in energy. If you look at energy R&D, for example, it's in the same shoddy state as energy investment. We've lost sight of the supply side and innovation. We're not interested in laboratories the way we were. I think if you really look at the evidence, you'll find that human beings have had the most important effect in both warning the planet and dimming the planet. And the striking thing about that is we did all of that unintentionally. We did it all inadvertently. Think what we could do intentionally and advertently. I think what we really need now is not just learning to live with the problem of climate change, but we need a much more human-centred view of our relationship to the environment. Learning to live with climate change isn't enough. We've got to take control of nature much more. It's a programme of transformation rather than just adapting.

KENAN MALIK   So perhaps the real debate is not between mitigation and adaptation but between stagnation and innovation. Given proper large-scale industrial investment we could have both a low carbon energy supply and high-tech adaptations to a warmer world. Proper investment would allow us to mitigate - develop new technologies, from renewables to nuclear, that move us away from a reliance on traditional fossil fuels without having to cut back on individual consumption or economic growth. And that in turn would give us the resources to build the infrastructure we need to adapt to a changing climate - sea defences, irrigation systems, health innovations to battle malaria. But this requires us to think not small and local, as so far we've been urged to do by climate change activists, but big and industrial. And if we do, it might even solve the problem of guilt at leaving the TV on standby. James Woudhuysen.

JAMES WOUDHUYSEN   Consciousness applied to today's production of energy would make the biggest difference. The more thoughtful we are in energy supply, the more thoughtless we can be - thank god - in energy use. You know we can do the washing up without looking at the meter all the time. We can actually think or read a book. You know we can get a life instead of worrying about our carbon footprint all the time. So let's get thoughtful about the next thirty or fifty years of energy supply.

KENAN MALIK A guilt-free, low carbon, high-tech economy. Seems too good to be true. But perhaps it's no more unimaginable than the idea of the Swiss Riviera. And if the Swiss can plan for the future, why can't we? So here's to that zero carbon pina colada on the sun-drenched slopes of the Matterhorn.