Climate change: the tough task of getting from words to deeds

Before Christmas there was some much needed good news about global warming. In the wake of a deeply uninspiring climate ‘summit’ at Poznan in Poland, we cheered up as Barrack Obama appointed people who know and care about climate change to the key science and environment positions in his soon-installed administration. It looks like he really means to bring the US into the game as a player for change and definitively quit the coalition of the unwilling, the short-sighted and the bloody-minded obscurantist. As we say in the technical jargon of the global warming debate, at bloody last.

But – and of course there’s a but, an oceans of buts, a melting ice sheet of them. The one I want to look at here is the problem of delivery, of actually getting it done.

Carbon trading and other mysteries

Following the debate on climate change sometimes, you could be forgiven for thinking the whole thing is about technical measures to restrict emissions of carbon dioxide through carbon trading. This sends the discussion veering off into intricacies that most people find impenetrable. And because it’s so very hard to follow, it’s disempowering. I would hazard the guess – totally without evidence to support it – that one reason for scepticism about climate change and passivity about energy efficiency in offices and homes is the alienating way the issue is too often discussed.

Carbon trading is basically a process of buying and selling rights to emit carbon, which is a weird idea in itself. There are different kinds of scheme. In one, big emitters (like the US) can buy rights from low emitters (like poor countries). The European Union has a different kind of system that puts a cap on emissions from major installations such as power stations so the different emitters can buy and sell allowances.

I first heard about this at a seminar in Amsterdam not far short of 20 years ago. It seemed radical, almost wacky and just about the only way that big commercial and economic interests might commit themselves to a programme to save the planet. But there has been a raft of criticisms of carbon trading for inefficiency and low impact.

Beyond carbon trading

But this is a very limited way of discussing what to do about climate change. Pretty much everything we do today emits carbon, so cutting carbon emissions in order to slow down global warming and eventually reverse it requires fundamental changes in behaviour. By this, I don’t just mean how individuals behave, though that is a part of the story. I mean how institutions of all kinds behave – governments, companies, municipal authorities, universities, international organisations, banks, public transport agencies, the lot.

And change in behaviour on this scale is not going to be achieved through carbon trading, especially if few people understand it.

To get a handle on this, let’s take the example of the British government, which has enacted the law on climate that binds us to 80 per cent reductions in emissions by 2050, but which is consistently criticised for not living up to its own commitments and fine words on reducing the UK’s carbon emissions. While the critics harass the government for bad faith and have a go at it for its love of air travel and extra runways, what I think the record shows is that it is difficult to reduce carbon emissions. Genuinely difficult.

When we broaden the focus and think not just about what any one country will do, but the developed countries as a whole, and not just them but the fast developing countries like China and India, Brazil and Russia, and not just them but the poorest countries and most fragile states in the world, and when we recognise that this is a task that crosses national borders so it is not just for governments but for regional and global organisations, and then note that what happens at the local and household level is a key part of the solution so the relationship between citizens and their state is also part of the story (and a bad part in many places in the world) – then we start to understand the scale and complexity of the task.


Moreover, even on the most optimistic assumptions about what the next climate summit will achieve in Copenhagen in December 2009, the effects of climate change will continue to unfold for two to three decades because the consequences of earlier carbon emissions are still working their way through the system. Glacial melting will continue, producing destabilising cycles of flood and drought. Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and cyclones will increase in frequency and intensity, as they have been doing for several years. In other areas drought will be longer and worse. The worst of these effects will be felt in poor countries that are least able to adapt to face them, and significant international assistance will be needed so that adaptation is possible. If not, there are some developing countries that face three or more decades of unparalleled disaster.

The need for new institutions

One agreement, one conference, one international mechanism (or even two) will not be enough for these tasks.

We need an ambitious and inclusive agreement at Copenhagen – ambitious targets for cutting emissions, including everybody – and we also need agreement on setting up new institutions and reforming old ones so climate policy can work at all the different levels – global, regional, national, local.

In fact, we need new types of institution, ones that can handle uncertainty (the science of climate change is strong on trends but still fuzzy on important details) and respond to fuller knowledge about where and how climate change is hitting as it unfolds. This new type of institution will probably have to respond to the proverbial ‘black swan’ – an event that is so different from the norm that it is not simply unexpected but falls right outside the framework of what is believed to be possible. Institutions that can handle challenges like this will be forward looking, led by ideas, innovative and resilient.

The task for the Copenhagen conference in December 2009 is not only to cut a new deal on climate change – and let us hope Obama’s new appointments will help us along that road – but also to get agreement on the institutions needed to run the carbon market, monitor mitigation, coordinate adaptation, absorb the latest scientific research, make sure the funds are available – and keep wayward governments in line, including the US administration after Obama.

Issues and questions

What do the right institutions look like, who should run them and how, and who are the people who should staff them?

Where best to locate these institutions – in governments, or in international organisations, or both?

Do we think it’s best to give new tasks to existing institutions like the World Bank and the UN, or set up new ones, or a mixture of both?

How do ordinary people get a voice in these institutions so that responses to climate change are in tune with local as well as national and international needs and realities?


This is a much edited version of a post that first appeared on 22 December 2008 on my previous blogging site.

One thought on “Climate change: the tough task of getting from words to deeds

  1. Pingback: Environment and nature » Blog Archive » Climate change: the tough task of getting from words to deeds

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