A global climate control OS

Discussing climate change with a group of campaigners and activists yesterday, I was struck by the fact that, despite all the recent attention for the issue, we still lack a common language for talking about possible solutions.

With Bali fast approaching, it seems clear to me that, without this language, negotiators will largely be talking past each other – a confusion that the media will happily amplify.

Any strategy for checking climate change has to start with a global stabilisation target which places a ceiling on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The need for a stabilisation target is absolutely fundamental. It’s a concept that, by now, should be as deeply embedded in public discourse as key economic indicators such as the inflation rate.

Leave aside for a moment, the dwindling number of people who utterly reject the existence of man made climate change, and imagine that the others can be divided into two groups:

  • climate control hawks, who believe that we face impending disaster and must act immediately; and
  • climate control doves, who expect temperatures to rise gradually and believe we have many years to switch to a low carbon economy.

Whether unconsciously or not, both groups share the assumption that the concentration of greenhouse gases can only be allowed to rise to a certain level. Like interest rate hawks and doves, they disagree on how high we can afford that level to be.

As my co-editor Alex Evans puts it, the principle of a stabilisation target acts as a core element of an operating system for global climate control.

My opinion is that the existence of a stabilisation target is paramount, but it matters much less what initial level for that target is agreed.

The European Commission talks about 450-550 parts per million (this figure expresses all greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide equivalents). The upper end of this range (or even higher!) would be fine by me.

Just set a stabilisation target. And do it now.

Next ask scientists to review the latest evidence every so often and offer advice on whether the target is too high, or too low. Governments can then choose to respond to this advice or explain to the world why they are ignoring it.

The equivalent would be a central bank that did not set the interest rate itself, but gave its finance minister an independent opinion on what the rate should be.

Why is this so important? Three reasons.

First, it will be much easier to set the first stabilisation target if climate control hawks are prepared to allow the doves a little latitude. The US, for example, is never going to agree to a super-stringent stabilisation target based on its current interpretation of the science. Fine, we should say. But what target could you live with?

Second, it allows both hawks and doves to hedge their bets a little. Doves can await scientific evidence that will show that we’ve all got a little carried away with the doomsday scenario. Hawks will grimly expect our understanding of the consequences of climate change to steadily worsen. In practice, real world climate events – or the absence of them – are likely to force our hand.

Third, it provides a chance that some pace will get injected into the negotiation process. Nowadays, it is fashionable to dismiss Kyoto, but at least that accord showed that agreement was possible.

We badly need a new climate control framework and we need it quickly. We also want that framework to have a permanency, even if its provisions are periodically made more or less stringent.

A global climate control operating system should be negotiated once and once only. From then on, we will merely be tweaking its variables.

(More on sharing out emissions later…)