EYE ON THE WORLD

Davos rallies behind need to act on climate change now

Time is running out for governments to get their act together, experts warn

 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

FOUR million people remain homeless today in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines last November.

A year earlier, Superstorm Sandy shut down much of the southern parts of the city of New York, and left US$60 billion (S$76.7 billion) of coastal damage.

Both were devastating extreme weather events - and signs of things to come.

This was the warning that rang out last week from Davos, a ski resort in Switzerland that hosts the World Economic Forum's influential annual meeting of top decision-makers and opinion-leaders. Amid the plethora of issues discussed, climate change and the urgent need to address it was high on the agenda of the four-day meeting that ended on Saturday.

The leading lights of climate science and sustainable development were present at a string of discussions with titles like "Decoding climate signals" and "The impact of a warmer world".

Former United States vice-president turned climate activist Al Gore featured prominently among them. Sounding like a man on a mission to tackle what he calls the "climate crisis", he cited a Nasa study published in August 2012 which said that extreme weather events, such as heat waves that have triggered wildfires and droughts around the globe, "almost certainly would not have occurred" without global warming.

Nasa climate scientist James Hansen, former director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, had sparked a controversy when he asserted in an opinion article in the Washington Post in August 2012: "The climate dice are now loaded... and a new category of extreme climate events is occurring with increasing frequency.

"Our analysis shows that it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change.

"To the contrary, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change."

This marked a significant shift, as climate scientists have long been reluctant to link an extreme weather event to climate change, as such events can also occur naturally. Asserting, let alone proving, a causal connection has been difficult and highly controversial.

The Hansen study, however, made clear it believed that extreme weather events were not random ones, like the rolling of a six on a die. Rather, the dice have now been loaded, through greenhouse gas emissions, making extreme events more likely to happen with greater frequency and intensity.

In other words, recent events of extreme weather conditions were signs to be decoded. The world has been warned.

Price of inaction

CLIMATE experts have said that freaky, extreme weather events are likely to become more commonplace.

For countries such as the Philippines, which has suffered several bad typhoons and floods in recent years, this means having to prepare for such conditions better.

Unfortunately, the price of climate change is now hidden and therefore largely unaccounted for in more ways than one, argued Mr Gore in Davos.

First, there is no price for polluting the air with carbon dioxide. As most countries have shied away from adopting carbon pricing, businesses and communities have tended to treat the atmosphere "like an open sewer", pumping greenhouse gases into it with impunity.

No price is also ascribed to the risk of extreme weather hitting any community since it is hard to know when or where such conditions may occur.

In the same vein, there is no price for inaction, since the effects of climate change are usually assumed to be felt "somewhere else, by somebody else".

Politically, there is no cost to be paid for doing nothing, compared to the electoral risk of voter backlash against green measures and initiatives, which might raise their cost of living or constrain their choices.

"There ought to be a price for denial," charged Mr Gore, referring to those who reject the growing scientific consensus that human activities have contributed to global warming.

He hit out at the "IBGYBG" - "I'll be gone, you'll be gone" - attitude towards climate change, even as recent events and the latest scientific evidence show clearly that human activities are giving rise to dangerous climate change. Many people assume the effects will be felt only in the long run and, as economists are wont to say, "in the long run we are all dead".

He warned: "The effects of the climate crisis will be felt in our lifetimes and that of our children.

"Have no doubts about it, we will prevail in this argument, we will win this debate. But the longer we delay, more will suffer from the impact of climate change."

Not everyone will agree with these assertions, of course, and there are still sceptics who may dispute that the scientific evidence is as definitive as Mr Gore suggests. Even if they did accept his assumptions, there are many who would point to other pressing concerns that are in need of global attention and solutions.

Mismatch in time frames

BUT in Davos at least, there was a palpable consensus among panellists and participants that climate change, which has been on the back burner in recent years as the world turned its attention to more immediate concerns like the financial crisis or terrorism, is in need of urgent attention.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, lamented the mismatch in time frames between experts who study climate change and those who make policy on it. Disruptive changes to the climate could be felt in the next few decades - a "blink of an eye" in geological terms.

"But decades is far too long for politicians to care about. That's not the case for my scientist friends, many of whom are saying to me, Jeff, our studies are showing that things are really worse than we thought."

Time is also running out for governments to get their acts together before the deadline for a new climate agreement to be reached in Paris next year to bring greenhouse gases under control, and set the world on a safer course for dealing with the worst effects of climate change, he said.

To give things a push, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon told delegates in Davos that he was convening a special summit on climate change this September, and challenged government leaders to come prepared with ambitious plans to help tackle the problem.

He invited business leaders to get on board, adding a call to non-government groups to "make your voice heard" if they felt their leaders were not doing enough.

Most political leaders, however, are loath to take the lead on this issue, remarked Prof Sachs. They fear the electoral consequences, not only from voters, but also from strong business lobby groups which finance their campaigns, he charged.

He had this parting shot for his audience: Given the urgency of agreeing to new climate initiatives, "Tell the politicians - do your jobs, just this once!"

This outburst drew warm applause, as a common view among those who spoke at the forum sessions was that while scientists have made the case for climate change action with growing certainty, this has not been matched by a greater political will to act in many countries.

Former Mexican president Felipe Calderon hopes to change that. He now chairs the recently established Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, an initiative sponsored by seven countries, including Britain, Indonesia and South Korea, to study the economic benefits and costs of acting to address climate change. He was in Davos to launch the commission's latest initiative, dubbed the New Climate Economy. Working with several leading think-tanks around the world, the commission hopes to publish a major report in September, ahead of the UN summit on climate change.

"Our aim is to show that it is possible, feasible and necessary to combine economic growth with efforts to address climate change," said the retired president, who now teaches at Harvard University. Benefits from taking action could include jobs created through the deployment of new green energy sources; savings from designing more energy-efficient cities; and first-mover advantages for countries leapfrogging to more sustainable technologies.

He also plans to draw on his experience in government, such as the difficulties he encountered when he pushed through reforms to cut fuel subsidies in his country.

That was "politically costly" for him and his party, even though it was acknowledged by most experts that it was the sensible thing to do, he said in an interview with The Straits Times.

Many countries, he noted, are grappling with a similar challenge, and case studies on how some governments have managed to wean consumers off expensive subsidies, while supporting those most in need, might be helpful, he argued.

The New Climate Economy project, he said, will seek to produce a "disruptive" report, one which stirs up a debate, and makes plain that climate change initiatives are imperative, and not just the concern of green do-gooders.

"We need pragmatic arguments, we need to make the economic case, to show that this delivers economic benefits, it creates jobs, brings growth and better lives for people. We have to make this a vote winner."

To be sure, that would help, but it would take a massive sea-change in political attitudes across the globe.

Beyond the circle of affluent and high-minded participants in Davos, many voters and their leaders remain lukewarm about the need, or urgency, for action, given the long list of other pressing concerns.

What the climate change experts are asserting though is simply this: We have been warned, and hopefully it will not take more of the tragic devastation wrought by superstorms like Haiyan and Sandy to focus minds on the challenge at hand.

warren@sph.com.sg