29 June 2011
Climate Change: Addressing the leadership dilemma
A phenomenon that has no respect for national boundaries or sovereign states. All nations contribute to the problem and all are affected. Whatever the changes triggered by global warming, a new approach to international relations is required.
During the last 200 years, earth has grown warmer - far warmer than the historical average and much warmer than would be expected from natural cycles in solar radiation. Though this fact is well established by global temperature readings and historic proxy records, the cause of the change has been a source of intense debate. Is human activity causing climate change and if so is there anything we can do about it? The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report has pretty much put an end to this scientific debate - the answer is yes, human activity does have a large part to play.
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2,500 scientists) has provided the world community with first class assessments of the soaring temperatures the world is facing, the devastating impacts of these rises and the ways in which we can try and avoid the worst effects of global warming. We now know climate change is real and the hand of humankind in this warming is becoming clearer and clearer.
Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), quoted in "UN Offers to Answer Bush's Climate Change Doubts" Environment News Service 2 Apr 01
Based on the work of some 2,500 scientists in more than 130 countries, the IPCC Report concluded that humans have caused all or most of the current planetary warming. Human-caused global warming is often called anthropogenic climate change. Industrialization, deforestation, and pollution have greatly increased atmospheric concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, all greenhouse gases that help trap heat near Earth's surface. To put it simply, the Report confirmed that humans are pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than plants and oceans can absorb it. These gases persist in the atmosphere for years, meaning that even if such emissions were eliminated today, it would not immediately stop global warming. Therefore, the big questions for the current and future inhabitants of our planet are: What should be done about climate change? And can we act in time to prevent cataclysmic disaster?
Context and Apparent Drivers of Climate Change
Over the last two centuries, the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere has risen dramatically - from 275 ppm to about 380 ppm. Along with a number of other major greenhouses including methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons, the result of rising carbon dioxide (CO2) has been to increase the amount of solar radiation that is trapped in the earth’s atmosphere. Much of this radiation is captured by greenhouse gases thereby keeping the planet warm.
This is no coincidence. Since the dawn of the industrial age, mankind has seen economic growth and development at an unprecedented rate. Human productivity, technology and economic markets have grown immensely and many factors have played a part. The development of the modern steam engine in the 18th century, which birthed the industrial revolution in Britain, heralded a new era that was centred on the exploitation of vast amounts of fossil fuels (primarily oil, coal and natural gas) to power new technologies in electricity, transportation, information technology and the production of industrial and consumer goods.
INSERT IMAGE: GLOBE IN MATCHSTICK
Due to the significantly elevated levels of atmospheric CO2, a certain amount of warming in the near future is inevitable. Established lifestyles in Western nations are highly energy dependent, most of which is derived from CO2 producing sources. Although there is an increasing sensitivity to the ways in which daily activities produce CO2, and of the need to moderate lifestyles to reduce energy consumption, massive inertia exists and adjustment towards more energy efficient lifestyles will take some considerable time and infrastructural changes. This is exacerbated by sustained and rapid global economic growth as nations like China and India develop at an accelerated pace and consume increasing amounts of fossil fuels to feed their production of goods and services.
Climate change is a phenomenon that has no respect for national boundaries or sovereign states. All nations contribute to the problem and all are affected. However, there is not a direct correlation between the magnitude of contribution and the magnitude of effect. Ironically, the nations affected most by climate change may be the ones with the least part in creating the problem. The USA for instance, emits 36% of global CO2 emissions. But by far the larger portion of the costs for adapting to the effects of global warming will fall on developing nations, and in particular small-island developing states. This is a gross inequity which has to be addressed in the name of justice and future economic and social stability.
Source: Combat Climate Change Initiative (www.combatclimatechange.org) Responses to climate change
Although there is still much uncertainty over the ultimate consequences of climate change, it is clear that economic shifts will take place due to unstable global environmental conditions. Mass migration is inevitable as certain parts of the world become inhospitable. Military conflicts will take place over resources such as fresh water: there are predictions that the main conflicts in Africa during the next 25 years could be over access to scarce fresh water resources. We are already seeing some of the consequences of climate change, including accelerated melting of glacial ice, rising sea levels and temperature, bleaching of coral reefs, desertification, loss of habitat, and more unpredictable and extreme weather events.
What is needed at this time? Structural changes to energy systems are necessary in order to avert more catastrophic rises in global temperature. Aggressive action must be taken now that will affect the nature of our future emissions, e.g. heavy investment in renewable energy systems. However, not only does a response to climate change require relatively rapid implementation of new technology and equally rapid dismantling of conventional energy systems, but a deeper assessment of the root causes of the current dilemma. Because climate change is rooted into the basic economic processes of human society, the systemic values that undergird the international political economy form the basic drivers of the problem itself and a basic obstacle to any efforts to address it. The world’s response should not be to simply treat symptoms, but to address the root cause of the problem. Otherwise, the fundamental values and norms from which the problem originates are neglected. Climate change forces the world to examine not just the technologies but the philosophies that are at work (e.g. intense consumerism, and extreme and hostile competition).
On the global stage there is much discussion and report writing but little real action by the international community to address climate change concerns. To date, no substantial changes have taken place in energy infrastructure. In fact, consumption of carbon-based fuels is increasing every year. The only real international strategy at this point in time is the Kyoto Protocol, which is really just a starting point for the deep international collaboration that is required to address climate change. Since its inception in 1997 there has been much political hand-wringing over its implementation. There is still broad uncertainty as to what will happen in 2012 when the Kyoto agreement comes to an end.
Global leaders are faced with a great dichotomy as climate change is forcing a revision of how nations interact with each other. We can surmise that whatever the changes triggered by global warming, the best possible response will only be achieved by a new approach to international relations. The basic philosophy of competition and competitiveness at the heart of how nations relate will forever be at odds with the preservation and administration of global common goods such as the environment. The world is in need of a new paradigm to address this issue – one which cannot be rooted in self-interest but rather in a sight of the pre-eminence of global interests above national interests.
And yet, global leaders are obliged to protect the interests and sovereignty of their own nations. Many actions to address climate change may be politically unpopular on a national level and may lead to a perceived reduction in the quality of life for citizens. In a largely democratic world, few political leaders are willing to sacrifice domestic popularity. Those that are, may find that their term of office is cut prematurely short and they lose any leverage to address the issues for which they compromised political power. Nevertheless, the greater good requires that the leaders of some nations deliberately take actions that will reduce the growth of their economies and limit the freedom of their citizens, all for a gain that may not be realised for years to come.
Any leader that has to lead his or her people into sacrifice for a greater good must be utterly convinced of the importance of the cause, must be a visionary, and must be a vision-creator. Democracy demands that, to a greater or lesser extent, the people support the direction taken by its elected leadership. So the leaders have to be convinced and the people have to catch the vision. Leaders have to demonstrate exceptional personal qualities that are generally foreign to politicians. For a start, they have to be more interested in their cause than the elevation of their own status.
The dilemma of climate change is forcing vast shifts in economics, international relations, and leadership capabilities. It is a time of change not only in the climate but in the very structures of life. The future of the planet depends on the emergence of a new calibre of leaders in all spheres of society that are able to reconcile the complexity and pace of changes taking place; leaders that can navigate themselves and society as a whole into a radically different era with minimal collateral damage.