How can we put a value on the natural environment?by Frances Cairncross / October 15, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
It was, as it happens, an economist who first suggested 40 years ago that more than 2°C of warming would “take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.” William Nordhaus of Yale University compared humanity’s approach to climate change to spinning a roulette wheel: “Every year that we inject more CO2 into the atmosphere we spin the planetary roulette wheel… and the more we continue increasing the emissions that warm the planet the more the odds are stacked against a favourable outcome.”
The roulette wheel has continued to spin. Last year the World Bank argued that “present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward” 4°C warming by the end of the century. Indeed, 2014 was the hottest year on record, and this year looks like being hotter still. The proportion of scientists who believe that warming is at least partly the result of human activity has steadily increased. So has the evidence that warming may bring with it not just higher temperatures, but more cataclysmic climatic events, such as hurricanes and floods, and events of greater severity and violence.
Grim stuff, and in spite of innumerable meetings, politicians have made only modest progress. True, China and the United States are talking more seriously about policies to cut their soaring output of warming gases, but it is now almost a quarter of a century since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change first created an international agreement to tackle the greenhouse effect. Since then, the world has spewed out more carbon dioxide pretty much every year, and we burn even more coal—the most damaging fuel—than ever before. When the UN climate change conference assembles in Paris at the end of November, it will be the 21st gathering of the nations which signed the framework convention, and the eleventh meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol which succeeded it. No wonder the conference’s aspiration, to achieve a legally binding and universal agreement on the climate from all the nations of the world, has been met with some scepticism.