Climate Change – more diplomacy needed
Climate Change is a serious issue. The condition and functioning of the planetary system of the atmosphere, the oceans, and life on earth – including the role of forests and animals is extremely complex. Solar activity and volcanic activity both have an important influence on our atmosphere, oceans and the biosphere. Natural causes led to climate change before and there will be climate change in the future. We had ice ages and warm times. Science has made a lot of progress, but we still do not fully understand all the factors that work together to form what we call the climate.
Some climate sceptics conclude from our incomplete knowledge that we should not care about the global climate. That is a position comparable to somebody who believes that health and safety are unimportant because we do not know everything about all life risks, or to somebody who would reject a life insurance because nobody knows exactly when his or her life will end. Not to care is an irresponsible behaviour.
During the last four centuries the industrial revolution has changed the composition of the atmosphere. After the industrial revolution happened, this human influence on the global system has accelerated dramatically. Today the belief that human activity is only marginally responsible for global climate change is just a wrong belief. Scientific evidence shows that this is just not true. We may still know less than we would like to know, but what we know is enough to be alarmed.
I have great respect for those who fight for a better climate policy, especially in non-governmental organizations. The different green movements have contributed to put the issue on the agenda. However a certain alarmism is inherent to that form of activism which I believe is less helpful to resolve the problems of climate change.
Alarm is a human emotion helping to avoid dangers. Alarm can also be an important agent to bring about necessary change. However, alarmism can be politically abused to spread panic. Panic is a widespread dysfunctional reaction to an alarm. Responsible behaviour must attend the alarm but avoid panic. We need to convince people not scare them.
Science has to be sober and rational, emotions must be kept under control. 16-year old girls might stir up emotions and help to make more people aware of climate change. But awareness of the climate issues is no longer the main problem. Few people are now unaware of the dangers, even less people deny it, mainly boring idiots. Most people just do not have a clue what exactly has to be done to avoid a damaging climate change. This can only be resolved by learning more about it, by science and education. Instead of leaving school on Fridays to demonstrate it would be a good idea for young people to attend school also on Saturdays to learn more on science.
Our knowledge about our climate has recently increased very much, but we still know little about the trigger points where peacemeal changes may become a chaotic avalanche. It is like studying earthquakes: we know that they will happen, where they will happen – but not when they will happen. The same is true about the effect of the thawing of permafrost soil in Siberia: will the methane set free trigger catastrophic effects or will climate slowly adapt to more such emissions – we just don‘t know enough about this. We also need to know more about the effects of human behavioural change on our climate. The interdependence of population growth and energy consumption, the availability of resources to replace damaging emissions, the trade-off between better control and freedom must be included in our research.
Scientists must get more resources to get even better knowledge about the interdependent mechanisms that rule climate change and have to be taken into account if we want to do the right things. Otherwise we risk to do one thing right while at the same time causing other havock.
When electromobility is promoted as the solution to avoid CO2 emissions, there must be more studies about the environmental effects of producing batteries, and about the global availability of raw materials to produce the number of batteries needed for introducing electromobility not only in some rich countries. The alternative to use hydrogen fuel cells is still rather inefficient. More engineering development must happen before this technology is mature for the wider markets. In any case belief in unicorns or wishful thinking are unhelpful. We will need both technologies – but let us be realistic about what is possible.
Wind energy needs a grid of power lines to distribute energy from places where there is enough wind to places where there is no wind. However, the same people who do not want climate change often demonstrate if a power line has to cross their own garden.
Solar energy needs better storage. Batteries have become better. But their limited lifetime may make the energy costly and use of raw material resources to make batteries is still too wasteful. Other forms of energy storage exist, but they are all too limited to have a global effect. Some of them, like storage in water reservoirs may also have unwanted environmental effects.
Raw material policy, energy policy and climate policy must be combined taking into account the many interdependencies between these factors. The network binding the set of policies together must get stronger because otherwise isolated measures may be annihilated by side effects with unknown consequences.
Policies need to be convincing. It is people who have to be convinced, people who have to decide what to do, people who are affected. These decisions need long-term planning, climate change cannot be tackled with short-term measures. Long-term investment is needed – and like all investment this is risky. When in the mid of the twentieth century nearly everybody believed that nuclear energy was the solution for human energy consumption, investors put billions into building nuclear power stations. Beliefs can change and have changed, but the investment remains there for a long time, possibly as an inverstment ruin. NGOs often underestimate that investors will not be won by blaming them for all the evil of the world but by convincing them, that their financial risk is under control and that their efforts are recognized.
There is a form of activism that wants to go back to nature and roll back technological progress – anti-technology activism is dangerous because without advanced technology there is no solution. There is a form of activism that blames capitalist industry for all evil brought on our environment. Having lived in the former Soviet Union for some time I know that the so-called „real socialism“ was a real environmental catastrophy. An effective climate policy has to use capitalism and finance because without investment and sustainable finance there is no solution.
The main problem is how to organize global cooperation to combat any damaging climate change. Not only are the views about what has to be done quite different – some want to impose drastic measures, others believe that this would only destroy any acceptance and prefer voluntary change of behaviour. There is also a lack of trust between states and governments, and the fear that somebody could escape global responsibility as a free rider. Global climate challenges need global cooperation – convincing the governments of the world that a common understanding is possible. Convincing other governments is called diplomacy. The Paris accords have been an important step forward although they are just what some people call a foul compromise – the alternative would be no deal and confrontation.
Emotional outbreaks may be impressive especially for the media world, but they are utterly unhelpful to bring about international cooperation. Activists may demonstrate and send a strong message to influence the opinion of many people, they may help to change perceptions in democratic societies. However, if they show a tendency to panic, if they try to force their views instead of getting majorities by convincing voters, their honourable efforts may backfire. Activists want immediate activities. There is no doubt that we cannot wait until the last idiot is convinced, the global climate does not wait for humans to agree. But governments and parliaments need time and debating space for complicated decision making – otherwise the dialogue breaks up.
International cooperation needs all governments including the best and the worst. Diplomacy cannot choose with whom to work together, this is dictated by necessity, not by sympathy. The same activists who demonstrate for more efforts against climate change often demonstrate the next day against the immorality of cooperation with some unsavioury regimes. Sorry about that, but as a diplomat you must not take that for serious – diplomacy is no love affair. It is a heavy workload to convince the most stubborn partners and there is no time to wait for regime change.
Science must prepare convincing proposals to make mankind able to cope with climate change, diplomacy must prepare the ground for governments and people to make mankind willing to cope with climate change. Some believe in a strong will and overestimate their abilities, others believe that we have all necessary abilities but a lack of will. Both views, voluntarism as well as hybris and resignation, are not helpful for a forceful climate policy.
Since our human and material resources are limited, politics has to decide which of them to use and for what purpose. The backbone of politics is to make funds available and decide how to distribute the money. The art of politics is to convince a majority of what is thought to be the right way to do this. We know what we want to avoid – but we have to choose a path how to achieve it, because we are unable to go through all alternatives at once.
Most solutions have their downsides. Old Dutch windmills were enrichting landscapes. Painters loved that view. Modern windmills are not really beautiful – painters would rather suffer to see the landscape destroyed by the wind machines. Birds are killed when flying into the windmills, and the necessary power grids are resented by some people. Batteries and electronic devices for solar energy use raw materials from conflict zones, enriching warlords or exploiting slave-like labour. There are good reasons against doing anything. But doing nothing is the worst climate policy.
Using natural gas can reduce CO2 emissions by more than half compared to coal fired power stations. We just had that experience in Berlin. However this is still fossil fuel, there is still carbon dioxide emitted. Some energy resources could be good for an intermediate stadium. But how long can this be? How long will it need that investment in transitory fuels is amortized. Activists often reject all intermediate alternatives, including using more natural gas. But I believe there is no way to an effective climate policy without that, especially not in China and India. The US and Canada may need fracking for shale gas to avoid more coal to be used. Activists reject that – but the alternative could be clinging to coal for far too long.
Burning coal must be stopped, but the social consequences can be disruptive for any society living from coal mining. Without social engineering the change may never happen. Countries who have massive coal resources but neither oil nor other resources may be tempted to use their own resources before disrupting their trade balance by paying enormous sums for imported energy. They often resent getting dependent on unreliable or even unfriendly trade partners.
Demonstrations in the street may sometimes impress the local government, but a protest against coal mining or gas fracking in Berlin does not really impress the Chinese government or President Donald Trump in Washington. Activists are mostly honourable idealists, but if they disdain political realism they may get lost in a cloud-cucoos-land.
Global Climate Change Conferences under the auspices of the United Nations have helped a lot to build an international consensus that climate change has to be adressed. The participation of thousands of representatives from non-governmental organisations gave these conferences a stronger legitimacy. They created a feeling that what must be done can be done. However, NGOs do not like compromise. But only a compromise between quite different views in the US, China and India can bring forward any agreement. This needs hard, tedious, slow, intense and often secret negotiations.
Organizations like the International Energy Agency can be very useful to give advice how to find such a compromise. If we want to reduce global CO2 emissions we need the cooperation of the three largest emitters, China, the USA and India (otherwise the effect may be marginal), we need the avantgarde role of the European Union (even if not perfect this can show the technical feasability of some proposals not tried out otherwise), we need cooperation from Africa and the Middle East where population growth is all but neutral on energy consumption (otherwise there would only be a shift from China and India to these regions becoming the main sources of CO2).
My conclusion is: demonstrations for awareness are now rather useless because awareness is not the problem. Saying: something must be done, but being unable to say what exactly must be done does not resolve any problem. More scientific research on mechanisms and interdependencies of climate change and especially on the effects of different paths for a solution is necessary. NGOs can help to find popular acceptance for necessary measures, but in the end it is governments which have to act. To convince them a more efficient climate diplomacy is needed.
We must convince countries still using fossil fuels to use them more efficiently – in a first stage use less coal and more natural gas, and at the same time invest in long term development of better alternatives. We need a thorough study on the resource effects (including price effects) of different paths to tackle climate change. It makes little sense to bet on electromobility if raw material for batteries is getting scarce or battery production uses more resources than it helps to spare. We need more research on alternative technologies. And: in the end we must think about a different lifestyle not just in rich countries but globally. But that is for another essay.