Today's Editorial

08 December 2017

A wicked problem


Source: By Anup Sinha: The Telegraph


Two recent news items regarding India and climate change are cause for concern. The first is the vulnerability of India in the Global Climate Risk Index 2018. India has suffered considerable damage in terms of monetary value and lives lost. The second is the announcement that India is likely to change its stance in the Conference of Parties in Bonn, taking a position closer to that of the United States of America. It may be noted that President Donald J. Trump has decided to opt out of the Paris agreement, and has made clear his reservations about the authenticity of climate change as a phenomenon. Alongside these news items came the story of acute hazardous pollution in New Delhi.


Very few citizens really know what climate change is all about, and why it is considered so dangerous. One reason why not many people know, or care to know more, about the problem is that it is extremely complex. Understanding all the aspects of the problem requires looking at it from many different areas of knowledge. Scientists give us the basic data about the accumulation of green house gases and what that might imply for the rise in the average temperature of the planet. This is of course; open to scientific debate and estimation errors. Scientists can give us probabilities and likelihoods at best. Probabilities of events that have never taken place are very difficult to quantify.


Secondly, there is the ethical question of how we want to treat future generations that will populate the planet say a hundred years from now. Should we be concerned about human beings only, or all life forms? Should we do anything at all, or go on with life and business as usual? If we agree to do something to prevent future catastrophes, then who bears the costs, and how much should we sacrifice? Philosophers consider climate change a wicked problem where there are many stakeholders with different views and interests, the solution is known, but implementation is very difficult.


Climate change is arguably the most difficult problem facing humanity today. It is part of a bigger problem of sustaining the process of development as we know it - through greater industrialization and economic growth. With the advent of the industrial revolution and the use of mechanical and electrical energy, the human enterprise we call economic development multiplied many times over. Per capita consumption of energy increased fivefold in the past 200 years and world population increased seven times. The total consumption of energy, therefore, increased by about 35 times.


The overwhelming bulk of this energy was sourced from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. The burning of fossil fuels has created an accumulation of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that help trap unused heat energy and contribute to raising the average temperature on the earth's surface. It is not that nature cannot flush out the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, if the rate of accumulation is faster than the rate of decay, there is bound to be a growth in the stock of the gas.


If the rising stock of greenhouse gases raises the average temperature by anywhere between two to six degrees celsius, there could be a major impact on local climate, with a greater frequency of extreme weather. Health, agricultural productivity, biodiversity, the fertility of the top soil, availability of freshwater - everything would be adversely and irreversibly affected.


According to scientists who study climate change, the world has had remarkably stable climate during the past 10,000 years. There was a variation of only one degree celsius. Now we are looking at the possibility of larger changes. Most scientists claim that we are already into a climate change of more than one degree celsius. We are now trying to prevent a temperature rise of more than two degrees celsius. Scientists are not claiming that the world will end. All they are claiming is that humanity is entering an unknown zone not encountered before. We do not know what the problems will be, and whether we can resolve them without incurring extremely large costs.


This is not the end of the matter. First of all, there are debates within the scientific community regarding the safe level of the stock of greenhouse gases beyond which there would be sudden catastrophic changes in weather. Secondly, to keep the stock within safe bounds, the additional flow of greenhouse gases we emit, especially from vehicles, industries and power plants, has to be curtailed. This means we have to move to a low carbon economy. Thirdly, even if we agree to a target stock, what is the time horizon within which we should attain the target?


Poor countries have claimed that they should be given more time to pollute and grow so as to reduce poverty through higher growth. This may be ethically appealing, but what matters is the total stock of greenhouse gases, and China and India are the highest and the third-highest polluters, respectively. The US takes the second spot. Finally, there is another bone of contention. If the largest part of the existing stock of greenhouse gases has historically come from the developed countries of Western Europe and North America, then does not the obligation of bearing the biggest share of costs of reducing emissions fall on them? Yet, if there is catastrophic climate change, the poorest countries of the world would be the worst affected. Indeed, the Sundarbans would be one of the first areas to get inundated if ocean levels rise due to the melting of the polar ice caps. Hence the urgency ought to be more for these countries to ensure that aggregate emissions are reduced.


Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases entails two things. First, we have to innovate to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Second, we have to change our own lifestyles by reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Both of these are difficult. Our idea of innovation during the past 200 years was never based on the concept of energy efficiency or lower use of materials. In fact, we had done exactly the opposite. Repeated purchases of disposable goods were the key to business profitability. Even durable consumption goods like cars and refrigerators were built to last for about five or six years. Hence, our idea of what constitutes innovation has to change dramatically. Secondly, asking people to change lifestyles is harder still. We are seldom aware of the bigger impact of our individual actions. As long as we are paying for the energy we use, why should we even bother?


There is little doubt that industrial capitalism has brought us many marvels of modern living. But it has also brought us to the brink of a disaster that could jeopardize life on earth. Can capitalism change its business-as-usual model to prevent climate change beyond two degrees celsius? Or do we need a radically new social and economic order that focuses on living in harmony with nature and sharing the planet's resources with all other life forms?

Our government seems oblivious to the deeper problems of climate change. The urgency is therefore missing in its actions. The obsession with macro economic growth and business as usual has to be replaced. It is important to keep in mind what an economist once mentioned out of irritation: growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.



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