12 January 2013

If we need a war footing to rebuild the physical economy, why can't we talk about it?

by Philip Sutton, Manager, RSTI

A 2009 WWF report says
"a 'war footing' may be the only
option" to re-industrialising
at the necessary speed
At the end of last year a very useful discussion was opened up by a number of climate scientists in different parts of the world calling for climate change action to be put onto a war footing.
    John Connor, CEO of the Climate Institute, questioned the desirability of pursuing this approach. But how valid was John's critique? And is there a better response to the call from the climate scientists to go onto a war footing?

This is what John said in the Climate Institute's 13 December 2012 newsletter (emphasis added):
If you are not scared or getting scared, you are not paying attention. Yet another rollercoaster year for climate policy and investment is ending as a remarkable chorus of conservative voices from the World Bank, the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Energy Agency and others state that climate change is happening and on track to get much worse in terms of danger and expense. These are realities, not just risks.

     That the UN talks in Doha didn’t reflect that urgency was frustrating. But they made painstaking progress towards a global agreement by 2015 covering all major emitters. By establishing a framework for monitoring and verifying the commitments and action of countries, such an agreement is required for the trust and ambition needed for the multi-decadal, multi-national challenge ahead. Getting the vastly greater ambition needed on to that platform (or sooner) requires a reset within member nations with leadership, not just from politicians but from community, business and investors.
     Since its establishment in 2008, The Climate Institute’s Asset Owner’s Disclosure Project has both sought from and assisted leadership from Australian investors, particularly those looking after your and my retirement savings. This week with the AODP, now an independent body chaired by Dr John Hewson, we launched the results of the first global survey of superannuation and other funds’ management of climate risks. As Dr Hewson said, it found greenwash and reckless mismanagement, among some signs of progress. We will continue our focus on these investors in the new year. In the meantime, congratulations to Local Government Super for topping this year’s index.
     We are about to enter an election year without the carbon price scares but with plenty of sound and fury across the political spectrum. Australia’s high carbon economy is a high risk economy with high levels of political, economic and cultural inertia that needs to be engaged.
     We should focus on reducing Australia’s carbon addiction. But that shouldn’t convert into carbon nationalism which ignores the off-shore atmospheric reductions that can be driven by our carbon laws.
     We should recast investment and political agendas, though I admit to being troubled by war effort analogies. This is a rescue effort of mammoth and multi-decadal proportions. Some yearn for Churchillian efforts and other hero figures,. While I respect where they are coming from, I struggle to see how a war and sacrifice agenda can sustainably surmount our political, media (social and traditional), cultural and economic forces of inertia.
     The challenge is one of redefining prosperity, re-focusing on carbon and energy productivity, re-aligning investment and risk horizons and re-engaging people as citizens not consumers. It is also a challenge of holding to account those in politics and business who refuse to recognise the risks and ignore the opportunities in responding to climate change.
     We’ll have plenty of challenges and roller coaster rides next year, so I hope you all get time to rest and recharge with your families.
This message is quite amazing. It starts by saying that we should be scared about the fact that, barring some extraordinary effort, the world is now locked into a trajectory of catastrophic climate change — with no sign that governments are matching their action to meet this challenge — and he then goes on to say that he is "troubled" (!) by calls to tackle the problem with a wartime-style mobilisation driven by a Churchillian-level of leadership.
     On the face of it, these two points are completely contradictory. But the juxtaposition of the two ideas is obviously central to the message that John has written. So what is he really trying to say? I think the key to what John is saying lies in these sentences:
This (ie. what is required to solve the climate problem) is a rescue effort of mammoth and multi-decadal proportions. 
I struggle to see how a war and sacrifice agenda can sustainably surmount our political, media (social and traditional), cultural and economic forces of inertia.
My guess is that John feels that:
  • We live in a society dominated by (a) culture of short-term-focused self-interest, consumerism and outright selfishness and (b) the money power of business, with politics and media serving both, and
  • People will not be able to maintain a highly focused and united sacrifice mode for more than a few years (in the absence of overwelming here-and-now necessity like a total war);
  • By the time climate impacts have grown to match the losses inflicted by WW2 it will be too late to rescue ourselves because of the massive physical intertia of the climate systems (eg. the energy stored in the oceans);
  • The transformation of the economy to make it climate friendly will take many decades.
So, according to my reverse engineering of John's argument, most of the needed action must occur before a wartime mobilisation model can become feasible and the work of economic transformation will take longer than a wartime mobilisation can be held in place, so we therefore have no choice but to use self-interest motivators, such as business opportunity, to drive the needed change, supplemented by civic pressure to create modifications to the marketplace so the playing field is tipped to amplify the business opportunities of building a climate-friendly economy.
     This line of thinking seems pretty compelling until you consider how long it will take to build the climate-friendly economy using a reform-as-usual process.
     What recent World Bank, World Meteorological Organisation and International Energy Agency reports have been saying is that the current reform process globally is not going to be able to hold global warming to 2 degrees C.
     As John says, this is pretty scary, but maybe the solution is ramp up to a more vigorous reform process, but still within the change paradigm that John thinks can work? Is that possible?
    In 2009 WWF released a very important report called Climate Solutions 2: Low-Carbon Re-Industrialisation. This report scoped the physical changes needed in the economy to have a 50:50 chance of avoiding 2 degrees C or more of warming. It then estimated the upper limits within a market economy of the rate at which new industry sectors could be grown (consistently over decades) and tested the rate of industrial transformation required to meet the climate target against these limits.
     In the foreword to the report, James P Leape, Director General, WWF International, concluded:
The progress of climate change has not paused while our leaders have debated the issues over the past decades. The clock has continued to tick, inexorably counting down to the moment when, even if we do act, it may be too late to avoid runaway climate change.
     Climate Solutions 2 models this point of no return. It shows that the constraints of our industries, working in a market economy, leave us with just five years before the speed of transition required puts a viable solution beyond our reach.
     If we started today, the transformation required to move to a low-carbon world would need to be greater than any other industrial transformation witnessed in our history, but research shows that it can be achieved. This report not only indicates the size of the challenge, it shows us how it can be met and how we can proceed to a clean energy future. It also highlights the extraordinary opportunities for those investors and countries that move early.
     No matter how strong our desire for a transformation to a low-carbon world may be, the ability to make this transformation is restricted by available resources, manpower and technologies. That is why we only have until 2014 to set the wheels in motion. Beyond this, a "war footing" may be the only option remaining, with no guarantee of success".
So, according to this WWF research estimate, we are just one year off the time when the only possibility of avoiding a 2 degrees C temperature increase, using conventional technology (i.e. without solar radiation management), lies in transforming the physical economy by going onto a war footing.
    At the end of last year, the big global consulting firm, PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PwC), released its 2012 Low Carbon Economy Index Report. This report concluded:
The world will have to cut the rate of carbon emissions by an unprecedented rate to 2050 to stop global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C this century.
     To limit the global temperature rise to below 2 degrees C (3.6 Fahrenheit) carbon intensity would now have to be cut by over five percent a year to achieve that goal. That compares with the actual annual rate of 0.8 per cent from 2000 to 2011.
     Because of this slow start, global carbon intensity now needs to be cut by an average of 5.1 per cent a year from now to 2050. This rate of reduction has not been achieved in any of the past 50 years. (In an accompanying PwC video, Jonathan Grant said that a reduction of this magnitide had been achieved in the Second World War.)
     Climate scientists have warned that the chance of limiting the rise to below 2 degrees C is getting smaller. Even if the five per cent rate is achievable in the long term, decarbonisation will not be ramped up immediately, meaning that future cuts would have to be far more. Even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees C warming by the end of the century. To give ourselves a more than 50 per cent chance of avoiding 2 degrees C will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonisation.
Unfortunately though the reality is worse than indicated by both the WWF and PwC reports. The extreme weather events that have been assailing the world for the last ten years show that the earth is already way too hot, even with just under 1 degree C warming. We are already in the era of dangerous climate change now, heading fast into the era of catastrophic climate change.
    If the conclusions of the WWF and PwC reports are valid, then we do indeed need to go onto a war footing to rebuild the physical economy, and it seems pretty likely that we will need leadership to get us there that could legitimately be called Churchillean.
    But that presents us all with the dilemma that John has drawn our attention to, that is, it is likely to be very difficult to get onto a war footing soon enough and hold it there long enough to be able to prevent the worst climate impacts.
     I think however John's response of wanting to discourage people from talking about getting onto a war footing to tackle climate change, is counterproductive.
   A better approach, in my view, would be to raise the difficulties of getting onto a war footing and then challenge people to come up with new social change strategies that make such a mode of action politically and socially feasible, fast enough.