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An Optimistic View on Tackling Climate Change

Man-made climate change faces us with unprecedented challenges. A global warming of significantly more than 2°C might trigger irreversible tipping points in the Earth system and cause a transformation of global ecosystems with an uncertain outcome. Little scientific research has yet been conducted on the effects that such a change in the Earth system would have on a future global population of nine billion, the world economy and international security. Existing knowledge indicates, however, that in such a process of non-linear ecosystem change a considerable pressure to adjust would bear on the four foundations of any civilisation: the availability of food and agricultural land, drinking water, climate stability and the energy basis, which has hitherto consisted primarily of fossil energy sources. The world community is thus creating for itself a global risk potential that extends well beyond the global interdependence problems that already exist, such as the instability of international financial markets, fragile states as sources of international destabilisation, cross-border pandemics and crime. At stake are the long-term foundations of human civilisation. Only the threat of the Earth’s nuclear destruction provides an analogy with the climate crisis – with some major differences: nuclear self-destruction was something that people, having seen the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, could grasp and understand and, after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, became a very real threat. These perceptions may well have helped to avoid a nuclear confrontation.

On the other hand, there are many robust mechanisms obstructing an effective response to climate change. A profound change to the Earth system far exceeds our imagination and our past experience. Although man has stored away in his memory what hyperinflation means and that the collapse of the world economy may trigger world wars, modern human civilisation has evolved in a stable climate-space without experiencing major changes to the Earth system since the Neolithic revolution some 10,000 years ago. As a result, we can hardly imagine – or perhaps not imagine at all – a world three or even six degrees warmer than it is today.

Furthermore, the starting point for global warming, unlike the nuclear threat, is not a “battle”, an attack or a datable event for which we might prepare ourselves. Climate change is more akin to the slow melting of a glacier that has been triggered by our global patterns of production and consumption and, at a certain point, becomes unstoppable. Human beings, and political systems and businesses, too, react to events rather than lingering threats. Moreover, a glacier-like change to the Earth system would have a massive impact not only on the present generation but, above all, on future generations. Mankind therefore has to take preventive and far-sighted action without already being seriously affected by global warming.

Another paradox is that the prosperity achieved throughout the world has never been so high and has never reached so many people as today. The “climate crisis” is, of course, being accelerated by the very fact that many regions of the world, especially Asia, are at last succeeding in deriving some benefits from economic globalisation. Although harbingers of the destructive effects of global warming are already to be seen in some regions of the world, climate change is something highly theoretical for most people. Many inhabitants of the developing countries even see the climate discourse as an attempt (of “the North”) to deprive them of their opportunities to develop. An added factor is that climate researchers (including the author) are often no less shocked than the confused general public by the data emerging from scientific climate research on the consequences of warming in the decades and centuries to come. The prophecies of doom of which some (in climatology and in society generally) are so fond are joined by a widespread tendency to suppress anything that causes fear or uncertainty. Politicians, too, prefer (understandably) to address problems that appear easy to solve rather than challenges that call for answers not to be found on the beaten track.

What the end of the fossil fuel era signifies

Bidding farewell to the fossil fuel era means four things in particular. First, man must at last take global responsibility for the Earth system and learn to protect it as a global public good (ethical and pragmatic challenges, collective action problems). Second, global capacity for political action and cooperation must be mobilised to preserve the Earth system (challenges in the areas of power politics and global governance, complexity problems). Third, economic development and the growth of prosperity must be organised within the “planetary boundaries”[i] for an impending world population of nine billion (innovation, new concepts of prosperity and consumption, new models of economic development and efficiency). Fourth, mankind and the international political system must, on the one hand, produce innovations to accelerate the slow processes of international politics, or it will be impossible to meet the challenges posed by climate policy or to complete the necessary conversion of the world economy into a low-carbon economy. On the other hand, long-term orientation must become the watchword of the institutions of politics and economics if there is to be any chance at all of addressing changes in the Earth system and the destruction of ecosystems (e.g. the melting of the polar ice-caps and glaciers; desertification), which is due to current activities, but will not become visible for decades or centuries (new “time regime” for the post-fossil fuel era, intergenerational justice).

These four steps in the transition from the age of fossil-fuel industrialism to the global low-carbon economy will be far from easy. They call for ethical reorientation, breakthroughs leading to cooperative global governance, technology thrusts and accelerated innovation processes for decarbonising the global economy, new concepts of prosperity and institutional and social innovations in the economy, politics and society to cope with the enormous complexity in the transition to a climate-compatible global economy – in other words, a comprehensive transformation process. There are many good reasons for considering such change unlikely. They will not be discussed in the following. Instead, an outline will be given of how such a dynamic of change might be set in motion. The reason for this approach is that radical changes are possible only if people are able to envisage new scenarios for the future and ways to reach them. Behavioural economists[ii], evolutionary anthropologists[iii] and institutionalist social scientists[iv] agree that people need “stories”, narratives, if they are to be able to cope in a complex world. Narratives are shared conceptions of the world that serve to reduce complexity, point the way and generate trust in routine processes and cause-effect relations (i.e. the reliability of expectations). The predominant narrative of the past two centuries was a model of prosperity based on the unlimited availability of fossil energy sources (and of other resources). What is needed now is a new “story” for the further development of human civilisation and of what we understand by ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’. This is easier said than done. John Maynard Keynes was surely right when he said: “The difficulty lies not in developing new ideas, but in escaping the old ones.”

So what should happen if the transition to a climate-compatible future is to succeed?

Global cooperation revolution

Climate change cannot be effectively contained without a global “cooperation revolution”[v]. The still available global greenhouse gas budget that would be compatible with limiting global warming to 2°C is enough for only another 20 years or so, provided that emissions are stabilised at their 2008 levels[vi]. Without global cooperation this distribution problem for climate policy cannot be solved. And without a global approach to the protection of the great forests the 2°C target is similarly unattainable. Four changes are vital:

First, greenhouse gases must have their price throughout the world, so that greenhouse gas efficiency is rewarded and factored into the global economic system. Possible options here are taxes and / or an international emissions-trading scheme. Examples are to be found in many countries and regions of the world, including Europe. The more international the solutions are, the lower the risk of climate protectionism that will emerge if governments with ambitious climate policies impose levies on goods from economies where emissions have no price. Global warming is unlikely to be halted without these price signals.

Second, a transition of this kind will be possible only if the industrialised countries, which are mainly to blame for climate change, help the developing countries to adjust and develop climate-compatible energy sources and infrastructure. The German Advisory Council on Global Change (WGBU) has drawn up a proposal for an international climate regime that would reward greenhouse gas efficiency and also entail a global development partnership[vii]. Decision-makers must understand that without international justice there can be no escape from the blockade of climate policy. This is a large field for development policy, not least in Europe, and one that is not being adequately addressed at present.

Third, the sluggishness of international negotiating processes must be overcome. Each round of world trade talks and each debate on reforms in the multilateral system drags on for a whole decade. If climate policy continues at this pace, the dangers of climate change will become imminent. That there is another way is evident from the reactions to the international financial crisis. Within a few days and weeks hundreds of billions of Euros and were pumped into the financial sector to avert its collapse. The West’s response to the 9 / 11 crisis was similarly massive, rapid and costly. Politics can thus act ‘radically’ when immediate crises need to be resolved. Climate policy should learn lessons from the Apollo Mission. In 1960 the Kennedy Administration announced the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade, at that time an undertaking that seemed as utopian as the current goal of largely decarbonising the world economy by 2050. The US Administration invested US$ 25 billion (a huge investment at the time) and employed 400,000 people on the project. The “climate-compatible world economy mission” and the conversion of the world energy system would be more ambitious, since it would be a worldwide project and call for innovations in many sectors of the economy. Yet the basic model would be similar: clear objectives, a narrow time-frame, an innovation offensive, absolute priority given to the project.

Fourth, the current global governance blockade, which is the outcome of an international power vacuum, must be breached. The wide dispersal of power and problem-solving resources in a multi- or even non-polar world order and the absence of a progressive climate protection alliance of powerful states are preventing progress in climate policy. Copenhagen showed that no one is willing to make a move because the others are holding back. And there is at present no leading group that might persuade or press other actors to pursue a progressive climate policy; a classic collective action problem. In addition to and in support of the UNFCCC negotiations, Europe should therefore stimulate alliances of climate pioneers. Ambitious governments should jointly chart a course towards a climate-compatible economy with a view to accelerating the UN process of negotiation among the 192 member countries. The development of such pioneer networks requires a geopolitical climate policy in which not only environmental politicians but, above all, foreign affairs specialists must participate.

The economy as the driving force of decarbonisation

Climate policy is, in essence, innovation policy. The goal is the decarbonisation of the economy. Climate policy therefore needs to be narrated afresh, as a challenge to the innovative capacity of our economies (and societies). The “high-carbon economy” is the problem to be overcome, but creative businesses are also a vital part of the solution. Business leaders, too, are becoming increasingly aware that the old high-carbon business model is reaching its limits. These limits vary in nature: the more obvious the risks inherent in climate change become, the more high-carbon growth loses social legitimacy in society. Businesses, too, depend on functioning ecosystems and on calculable costs of climate change. The foreseeable limits to oil reserves and the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico are signs that alternatives to fossil energy sources will gain in importance in the future.

More important than these limits, however, are new ideas and perspectives. There are many indications that the next long innovation wave in the world economy will be based on resource-efficient and climate-compatible innovations[viii]. “Low-carbon innovations” will lead to profound change in many sectors: not only in the energy industry, the automotive industry, chemicals and materials, the IT economy and logistics, but also in urban planning and design. “Green business” and “low-carbon investments” are no longer niches, but probably form the largest growth market in the world economy.

A boom in new low-carbon businesses is conceivable, especially if subsidies for fossil energy sources are reduced[ix]. In the 20 largest non-OECD countries alone these subsidies amount to some US$ 300 billion each year; worldwide, annual “high-carbon subsidies” are estimated at US$ 600 to 900 billion. Yet the aim is not only to reduce distortions of competition, but also to tap the potential for savings as the transition is made to a climate-compatible economy. Exploiting the potential for energy efficiencies alone could save US$ 1 trillion worldwide in investment in the energy infrastructure that would otherwise be necessary[x]. Against this background, most studies come to the conclusion that, although the climate-compatible conversion of the world energy system will entail higher initial investments than a business-as-usual strategy, the costs over the whole investment cycle until 2050 are likely to be similar. These calculations do not, however, take into account the costs of dangerous climate change that would accompany the continuation of fossil-based growth, a cost that is difficult to calculate. Seen from a macro-social and macro-economic perspective, then, the development of a low-carbon economy is good business.

Science as the driving force of innovation

Times of radical change are golden times not only for Schumpeterian businessmen but also for creative scientists interested in planning for the future of society, the economy and politics. This is primarily true of young scientists, who find it easier to forget “old narratives, world views and models” (cf. Maynard Keynes) and to develop new concepts. The average age of the Apollo Mission specialists in the 1960s was around 25! The change to a climate-compatible world economy will require fresh knowledge and offers scientists the opportunity not only to be creative but also to promote knowledge-based processes of change. As in the economy, positive competition to answer the great questions of the future could be set in motion in science.

The challenge for science is to research questions that are complicated and essential to mankind. If these challenges are to be met, science must reorganise itself: the walls between the various disciplines must be broken down, because all the real problems in the transition to a climate-compatible world economy have multiple causes. In particular, the social sciences, the natural sciences and engineering must learn to work together so that they may produce, under pressure, integrative analyses and solutions more quickly than it is possible when each acts in isolation. Research must also become even more transnational so that problematic situations may be considered from very different perspectives from the outset. In particular, developing countries must be given more opportunities to engage in international research networks, and western research networks should quickly open their doors to the scientific systems of the “rising powers”. The conclusion drawn by the Indian philosopher Homi Bhabha that “we need to learn that all our perspectives are radically incomplete” points the way.

Finally – man can be cooperative

Topping the list of all the questions outlined above is the question of man’s general ability to cooperate. For without cooperation, thus the underlying tenor of this essay, the climate crisis will not be prevented. Do people, then, tend to be, in principle, individual profit-maximisers and free-riders? Or are individuals capable, in communities and contrary to their short-term self-interest, of coming to agreements and adopting patterns of cooperation that produce better results both for the group and for the individuals concerned than opportunistic, short-sighted and obstinate behaviour? “In other words, how do groups of individuals gain trust?”[xi].

Pointing to the extensive research that has been done by the natural and social sciences and the humanities, Ostrom / Walker (2003) single out four mechanisms that characterise behaviour in groups needing to cope with social dilemma situations. These mechanisms refer to fundamental patterns of human behaviour: (a) the most direct communication possible increases cooperative behaviour; (b) the possibility of opportunistic behaviour being penalised increases willingness to engage in cooperative behaviour; (c) people do not act on the basis of objective “rational choices”, but against the background of learnt, internalised and tested heuristics, norms and rules, which may favour cooperative behaviour or impede or even block it; (d) as people tend to react positively to the positive behaviour of others and negatively to negative behaviour, this orientation towards reciprocity is translated into incentives to gain reputation and trust by keeping promises (in a context which is not, in principle or in structure, hostile to cooperation) and fostering cooperation even if it gives rise to short-term disadvantages, for which expected long-term gains may, however, compensate. This interpretation corresponds to the findings of the cognitive sciences, evolutionary anthropology and behavioural economics, according to which trust and cooperation and distrust and opportunistic behaviour are “learnt” through processes of social interaction.

In a world of “narrow-minded egoists” and states geared solely to their short-term interest in power the diktat of the “Nash equilibrium” dominated. In the real world of multiple rationalities, in which patterns of cooperative, opportunistic and antagonistic action are possible, the task for individuals, political actors, states and businesses is to create conditions and incentives which strengthen cooperation, trust and empathy. For our societies will be at least as dependent on these factors during the transition to the post-fossil fuel era as on “competition” to stimulate innovations and discoveries (Friedrich A. von Hayek). If Akerlof / Shiller (2009), Dunbar (2010) and Tomasello (2002)[xii] are right to claim that cooperation and trust can be learnt and unlearnt, what is needed in this context is not only individual ownership but also education and training in cooperation and societal discourse and debate on sets of values and norms to which our communities feel committed. These elements are no guarantee of successful cooperation, but they are prerequisites for improving its chances. Elinor Ostrom has succinctly summarised the state of knowledge on this question. “What the research on social dilemmas demonstrates is a world of possibilities rather than one of necessity. We are neither trapped in inexorable tragedies nor free of moral responsibilities for creating and sustaining incentives that facilitate our own achievement of mutual productive outcomes. It is our responsibility to build relationships on the basis of trust, reciprocity, and reputation – and to build these three core values themselves. We cannot adopt the smug presumption of early group theorists who thought groups would always form whenever a joint benefit would be obtained. We can expect many groups to fail to achieve mutual productive benefits owing to their lack of trust in one another or to the lack of arenas for low cost communication, institutional innovation, and the creation of monitoring and sanctioning rules”[xiii].

By. Dirk Messner


[i] Rockström, Johan et al. (2009): Planetary boundaries. A safe operating space for humanity, in: Nature, 461, pp. 472-475

[ii] Akerlof, George / Robert Shiller (2009): Animal Spirits, Frankfurt

[iii] Dunbar, Robin (2010): Warum die Menschen völlig anders wurden, in: Ernst P. Fischer / Klaus Wiegandt (eds): Evolution und Kultur des Menschen, Frankfurt, pp. 244-269


[iv]Ostrom, Elinor / James Walker (eds) (2003): Trust and Reciprocity, New York

[v] p. 47 WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) (2009): Kassensturz für den Weltklimavertrag – der Budgetansatz, Berlin

[vi] WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) (2009): Kassensturz für den Weltklimavertrag – der Budgetansatz, Berlin

[vii] WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) (2009): Kassensturz für den Weltklimavertrag – der Budgetansatz, Berlin

[viii] OECD (2010): Eco-innovations in industry: Enabling green growth, Paris

[ix] p.29 ff UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (2010): Energy for a sustainable future, New York

[x] p.11 ff UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (2010): Energy for a sustainable future, New York

[xi] p.19 Ostrom, Elinor / James Walker (eds) (2003): Trust and Reciprocity, New York

[xii] Akerlof, George / Robert Shiller (2009): Animal Spirits, Frankfurt, Dunbar, Robin (2010): Warum die Menschen völlig anders wurden, in: Ernst P. Fischer / Klaus Wiegandt (eds): Evolution und Kultur des Menschen, Frankfurt, pp. 244-269, Tomasello, Michael (2002): Die kulturelle Entwicklung menschlichen Denkens. Zur Evolution der Kognition, Frankfurt.

[xiii] p.62 Ostrom, Elinor (2009): Toward a behavioural theory linking: Trust, reciprocity and reputation, in: Ostrom, Elinor / James Walker (eds) (2003): Trust and Reciprocity, New York

Source: Open Democracy

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  • Anonymous on October 29 2010 said:
    For the last 24 years of crisis warnings, the IPCC climate scientists have continued their unified consensus that the consequence of Climate Change are still estimated to be anything from “catastrophic” and “unstoppable” warming, to negligible consequences if any, and may or may not include more extreme weather events.

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