Essay by Keith Rankin.
Earlier this week the final report from the IPCC (press release) on climate change was released. While it indicates that it is still technically possible to limit global warming to 1½ degrees; such an outcome is both unlikely and may require more than lots of trees to pull excess carbon from the atmosphere.
While climate change is a major ‘existential’ issue – and may prove to be the most important of such issues – it is hard to focus on it at the moment, with two other more immediate existential issues facing us, neither of which are going to go away in a convenient manner: pestilence, and Putin. (Covid19 is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the broader pestilence issue, which was unleashed into our consciousness in 2020; the wider issue relates to the socioeconomic causes and consequences of disease, and other forms of contagion – which are not viral in the microbiological sense.)
There are three determinative options re climate change: prevent, adapt, and hope. These are not mutually exclusive; we (humankind) can and should seek to do all three. But these options represent three different emphases of action or inaction.
This is not about hoping that the science of carbon gas emissions, global warming and climate change is wrong. Instead it is about gaining a better understanding of what science is and is not, and about the ‘stochastic’ nature of all prediction; including (indeed especially) scientific prediction, which is based on an incomplete and evolving knowledge base.
‘Stochastic’ means that there is a range of statistically possible outcomes, even if our knowledge of the present and past (‘the science’) could be perfect. The ‘unmodified future’ is based on the midpoint of a range of projections (or predictions). If accurate (ie unbiassed), there is a fifty percent chance that the outcome will be ‘worse’ than predicted, and a fifty percent chance that the outcome will be ‘better’ than predicted.
Thus, we may hope that – in the absence of any substantial global or national policy initiatives – the climate change outcome will be substantially better, by pure chance, than the midpoint prediction. Aligned with this, we may hope that, by chance, future scientific discoveries will lead to favourable modifications of our present range of predictions.
As a rough ballpark estimate, I would suggest that the chances of a fortunate outcome following a strategy of inaction might be around five percent; maybe even ten percent. On the opposite extremity of this probability spectrum there would be a similar five to ten percent chance of a truly catastrophic outcome (eg similar to the sea-level impact of Canada’s Laurentide ice sheet melting, just over 10,000 years ago).
Assuming the current midpoint scientific prediction, there are – it is argued – policy options that must be implemented in the early 2020s that would lead to a midpoint outcome which falls within the ‘acceptable range’ of 1½ degrees of global warming. (Note that, if we bring this midpoint prediction just to the cusp of the 1½ degree threshold, there is still a fifty percent change of breeching that threshold in practice.)
The question here is: What is the chance that the required political interventions will take place? Given our track record so far – and given the noted existential distractions – the chance that correct and sufficient interventions will take place is about one in a million. Possible, yes, but highly improbable.
This does not mean that preventative policy strategies should not take place; such strategies could increase the chance of a hopeful outcome (eg to twenty percent), and diminish the chance of a truly catastrophic outcome (eg to two percent).
Important in this context is that we may need to adopt a ‘lesser evil’ strategy. And the most important such strategy – increasingly discussed – is a nuclear power strategy.
(Another possible strategy, or even complementary to nuclear power expansion, would be for people to increasingly settle in sunny environments near coasts – including desert environments – whereby solar power could be abundant, and water supplies would be extracted via solar-powered desalination of sea water. This would mean less human encroachment on good farmland, and possibly an increased reliance on urban-hydroponic ‘market-gardening’ for food supplies. And, similar renewable technology could facilitate the development of technologically-advanced hybrid shipping to enhance the supply chain. ‘Hybrid’ could include a greater role for wind, solar, and uranium as fuels for freight transport.)
Nuclear power is clearly a classic example of a ‘lesser evil’. There are well-understood risks of catastrophic accidents with very long-lasting environmental impacts. Further, nuclear power plants are obvious military targets, making it possible to conduct nuclear war without the use of nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, we (in the west) have been lax in developing nuclear technology in ways which minimise such risks. This is despite that fact that nuclear fuels – especially uranium – are less concentrated (than oil and gas) in politically problematic countries such as Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
China has been less lax. Indeed China, for all its faults, has probably actually done more to decarbonise the earth than any other polity. First, through its post-1980s’ industrialisation, it has enabled much deindustrialisation to take place in the west. This is significant. Second, China has not been afraid to do the research and development work required to bring about twenty-first century nuclear technology, as well as solar and wind generation.
The west can work with China. To some, such cooperation would fall into the ‘lesser evil’ category. The west could start by cutting back on the excesses of ‘political gaslighting’ of China that have been increasing in recent years.
I read the following in the New Zealand Listener (12 March 2022) in a story titled ‘Sino things to come’: “China is happy with nuclear reactors, with 54 of them producing power and another 14 under construction. It has built a new kind of reactor, which doesn’t run on uranium but on thorium. This weakly radioactive metallic chemical element has the potential to produce safer and cheaper nuclear energy while generating a much smaller amount of long-lived radioactive waste.”
This is the kind of initiative that Germany, for example, should and could have been undertaking; instead of becoming reliant on Russian gas while supposedly both decarbonising and denuclearising. What has happened is that Russia has ‘played Germany’, Russia’s greatest historical rival. Whatever happens in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has already defeated Angela Merkel in his politico-economic gamesmanship. And this ‘victory’ of Putin is as much a part of the west’s problem in dealing with him today as is his possession of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Germany is dependent on Russia.
Just about anything we can do to tilt the odds away from environmental catastrophe can be a good thing; albeit with the understanding that replacing one scenario of catastrophe with another less probable scenario of catastrophe should be undertaken with eyes open.
As noted, the probability that our climate-change political target will be met is probably about one in a million. (Anything that helps is better than nothing, of course, though bearing in mind that unintended consequences from political actions – possibly arising from wilful blindness – can undermine the overall success of political interventions.)
Thus, we must adapt to the environmental consequences of our past, present and likely future ‘bad habits’. A commitment to adaption need not undermine preventative policies; it need not be a case of either/or. Adaption strategies should not be seen as acknowledgement of political failure; rather they represent survival realism. Further, the ‘expected investment return’ on a pure adaption strategy would most likely be substantially higher than the expected return on a pure prevention strategy.
We need to learn how to live in, and insure ourselves in, a warmer and stormier world. An important part of this will be indirect, enabling a more equitable world in which it is in the interest of everyone to look to the future as well as to subsist in the present. Further, if we as free(ish) agents are given sufficient autonomy, we can make better choices without looking to governments to make those choices for us. Such ‘civil society’ choices can facilitate a lessening of climate change as well as adaptation to it.
Adaptation to climate change is a mitigation, a lesser evil. Elimination of a problem is clearly better than having to live with a problem. Nevertheless, that’s how life works. Through realism. Our lives are imperfect. Yet we survive, by making difficult trade-offs and by performing practical balancing acts.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.