A demonstration during the World Climate Change Conference in Paris, 2015 ©Chesnot/Getty Images

The fight against climate change is not lost

Despite Trump's bluster
April 13, 2017

Nasa recently announced the discovery of a solar system with seven earth-sized rocky planets, three of which could potentially sustain life. Interesting news, but at 235 trillion miles away, no one is going there soon. In the meantime, we need to look after our only home. We must protect ourselves from climate change. Our fate turns on a race between physics and politics.

The physics of climate change is off and running—we’re not sure how fast, and we don’t truly know the end point. But we do know that in the last century, dramatic increases in fossil fuel burning and changing land use began fundamentally changing the composition of the atmosphere. Warming has already raised sea levels, caused ocean acidification and coral reef bleaching. It contributes to depleted biodiversity, droughts, mass migration and extreme weather events including recently extreme high temperatures in the Arctic, heatwaves in Australia, drought in Bolivia, famine in north east Africa, flooding in the United States.

As for the politics, even before Donald Trump, our response had been too slow. The most instructive single metric is the parts per million (ppm) of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which not merely continues to increase, but to accelerate. Over the last 50 years the average increase was 1.7 ppm; in the last five 2.5 ppm. We need to up our game.

In 2015, it seemed possible to hope after the world came together to tackle climate change in Paris, helped by a newly positive US approach. Then last year, the prospect of a Trump presidency galvanised countries to ratify in record time. The Paris Agreement included a clear statement: in the second half of this century, all man-made emissions of greenhouse gases must be reduced to zero or be captured and stored.

It falls to our generation to make this happen. The difficulty is we must do so through national politics, which find it hard to deal with threats that straddle borders and have an inbuilt time lag so that consequences only unfold in the distant future. The charge that other countries are free-riding is always a powerful excuse for inaction. And that has even more sting now that Trump has begun rolling back domestic environmental protections, and suggesting he may even withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement.

But is Paris, and the multilateral spirit it embodies, really doomed? The UK’s Climate Change Act demonstrates the multilateral merit in setting a unilateral example. A recent report by the Grantham Institute lists over 800 climate change-related laws now in place in 99 countries. Most recently, Sweden published legislation setting a net zero target by 2045, citing the UK’s climate act as its model. Thankfully there are also signs that much of the rest of the world—most importantly China and India—will stick to their efforts to begin to decarbonise and the EU Commissioner during his visit to China this week emphasised the importance of continued EU-China collaboration and leadership.

The toughest challenge is overcoming the fierce resistance of vested interests. Fossil fuels work very well, have made billions of lives more comfortable, and a lot of people very rich. There is always a backlash when they are targeted, and we might expect this to redouble now that these industries have a cheerleader-in-chief in the White House.

But there is reason to doubt that Trump will follow through his threats to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, even if he has previously claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax, appointed a head of the Environmental Protection Agency who denies the basic science and signed an Executive Order to review and repeal progressive climate and energy policies. Reportedly he has sought the opinion of energy company heads with regard to Paris and the line emerging seems to be focused on maintaining US influence within the UN framework, and to pursue a greater focus on capturing and storing carbon from fossil fuels. If this is the way that Washington goes, it will powerfully illustrate how much times have changed. And even if the US did withdraw fully, not everything would be lost.

Trump’s efforts to dismantle environmental protections will be challenged and momentum at the level of US cities, states and progressive corporations will be maintained. For example, the Republican governor of Illinois recently signed a bill to cut the state’s carbon emissions from the power sector by more than half by 2030—a deeper reduction than Barack Obama’s embattled Clean Power Plan would have delivered.

Restricting and taxing greenhouse gases may be tricky, but support for new technologies and alternative energy sources will encounter less resistance. As new industries emerge to play their own part in the lobbying game, the playing field becomes altered. Innovation can help even without subsidy or direct political intervention. The rise of LED lighting is a good example, now thriving, with little government support, simply by being a better, less costly product. Two other trends also challenge the status quo—the increasing use of litigation against companies blocking progress and more direct action against polluting projects. Both increase the cost of business and have the potential to change corporate behaviour and politics.

The root danger is one of human psychology. People do not always respond to the scientific view. As social creatures with complex patterns of behaviour, deep-grained instincts can make us irrational. “Confirmation bias” makes us more likely to reject evidence that doesn’t fit our existing worldview.

And yet we are also adept at problem solving and from it we derive a sense of purpose. And as our community expands to something closer to a planetary scale, thanks to globalisation and the technological revolution, so does the scale of the problems we can address. It is no coincidence that entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, who have built global businesses, now address global problems. Our ability to interpret the world is increasing with the development of sensors, satellites, machine learning and mass data crunching capacity. Artificial Intelligence could provide more solutions—as long as we first rule out the potential conclusion that reducing the human population to zero is the answer.

Can humanity outrun the looming global degradation? I believe we can. People and politicians of all persuasions will ultimately be forced to act. Many already have.