I came across a pair of interesting Quirks and Quarks interviews that provide some fresh insight into climate change.
- Are we witnessing the beginning of a plateau in greenhouse gas emissions?
The first one was with Professor Corinne Le Quéré of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. The Center looks at all global emissions of greenhouse gases, not just from fossil fuel combustion but from deforestation and land use-change also. Recently they have discovered that the growth of greenhouse gas emissions has stalled in 2014-15. There have been pauses in the past, but most of those were associated with global economic recessions. What’s surprising about this particular slowdown is that it accompanied global economic growth. (Mind you, as always, it’s a growth based on calculations that ignore social, health and environmental costs.)
In 2014, there was a growth of 0.6% in fossil fuel burning, and for this year(2015), the growth was about the same or possibly less. Data is still coming in. Contrast this to 2-3% annual growth in emissions since 2000, and it’s quite an improvement.
The big question is: have greenhouse gas emissions plateaued? We need a plateau before entering the next necessary phase of negative emission rates. Presently with our annual fossil fuel-release of 35.9 billion metric tons (3.6 X 1012 kg), plus other greenhouse gases and deforestation, we are headed for an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius. To prevent going beyond that threshold, we would have only 15 to 30 years to bring emissions down to near-zero. The more we destabilize the carbon cycle, the more impact it will have on human health, ecology and ironically on the economy, and it will be subsequently more difficult to make adjustments.
The current pause is mostly attributed to the fact that less coal has been burnt in China. This in turn has happened because their “on-steroids” economy has slowed down. China is planning to gradually move from coal to oil and gas, which produce 2/3 to 1/3 as much carbon dioxide per kWh of energy generated, respectively. They have also been relying more on nuclear and renewable forms of energy such hydro and solar power.
But half of China (the Western Part) is still poor, and rises in emissions could very well accompany an intense infrastructure buildup. Then there’s the fact that 75% of India’s economy is driven by coal. If they use the same development path as China, then India could replace them as the main CO2 polluter, dampening prospects for reaching a plateau.
There is more optimistic news. Worldwide, renewable energy has grown by an average of 16% annually for the last 5 years. A continued pattern of this type could push fossil fuels out of the balance in the foreseeable future. At the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, richer countries, while setting the broader goal of limiting the planet to a 1.5 oC increase, committed to helping other nations develop CO2-free energy sources.
2. While all this is going on, what does public opinion think of climate change?
Climate change researcher Erick Lachapelle of l’ Université de Montréal recently (Sep 2015) randomly surveyed one thousand fourteen adult Canadians in telephone interviews. This is what he learned:
- Canadians want more action on climate change but are less willing to pay for it.
- They are aware of the rising temperatures (82% accept that temperatures are rising), but many still question how important a role humans have played in it.
- 50% feel it’s mainly caused by humans; unfortunately, 30-50% fail to see a human role or don’t see it as the main cause.
- When asked, “how much will it harm you personally?”, 14% feel it will harm them a great deal and 30 %, moderately. But the rest feel that they will experience little or no harm at all from climate change in their lifetimes.
- The majority agree that it’s only future generations that will be harmed.
- Canadians have little clue about cap and trade of emissions— 80% have heard next to nothing. This is surprising since Quebec’s cap and trade program has been in effect since 2012.
- Forty-four percent would be willing to pay somewhere between $1 and $100 per year for renewable energy production. Only a third would be prepared to pay more.(pale in comparison to what it would really cost and also relatively little to what they pay for internet, cell phones and cable). Worse, 25% want to pay $0. Two interpretations of this dismal result is that (1) they feel a collective problem should be fixed by big business who put out the emissions; and (2) given the enormity of the problem, any individual’s contribution seems meaningless to them.
LaChapelle’s interpretation of Canadians’ ambivalence is quite interesting. Here is what he attributes it to:
(1) Unless they are highly motivated, people will not do the necessary research to inform themselves. And climate change is a complex problem with technical aspects.
(2) They rely on heuristics as an alternative, hoping that media will fill them in on all the facts. But media coverage of environmental issues has been episodic. (and typically it throws everything into a pot of minestrone of less critical issues that still serve as attention-grabbers.)
(3) The public takes hints from elite cues, but the previous Canadian government was committed to fossil fuel exploitation, and for a decade avoided discussing any environmental issues associated with the combustion of carbon-based fuels.
(4) The worst effects of climate change have not surfaced yet. So people are not getting the experiential cues , and they overlook the uncertain impacts on the future.
(5) Ideological predispositions influence interpretations. Some people don’t want an increase in the role of government, which they fear would come about if we take more serious action against climate change.
He goes on to say that we have to appeal to a more universal concern for public health, security and economic consequences of climate change. Elites must act and then people will follow their masters. This reminds me of an article I wrote regarding social revolutions. Citing one of the conditions needed for a revolution to occur, historian Jack A. Goldstone points out that part of the elite must oppose the status quo and feel alienated enough to mobilize the population. The ambivalence that the public is currently experiencing comes from the fact that for a long time in Canada (and elsewhere), the wealthy class and governments that they successfully lobby heavily have not seriously pondered the consequences of minimal action.