There is a lack of recognition of what are the critical issues facing humanity today. Never have those in power faced such a stark decision. On the one hand is the threat of potential disaster requiring early and adequate sacrifice to counter it: and on the other, there is a very limited choice of ways to go about this, and this choice can be exercised so as not just to counter the threat, but also to encourage solutions to so many other problems it would promote a much better world.
But few of the world’s cleverest and most influential people appear to see this as a no-brainer: it could be that they prefer, collectively, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude in the hope that given time, the problem will become clearer (it probably will): and more easily be dealt with, which is doubtful in the extreme. Any thoughts they do have on these issues are subsumed by lesser things, only seemingly more urgent.
The argument below attempts to get the problem into context: to examine the shortcomings of world leadership in failing to tackle it: to propose a new approach more likely to succeed: and to point up how we might be able to leave our successors with a world not much worse than we ourselves were left; and hopefully happier and safer.
Climate Change is probably the largest and most urgent part of the problem and action here will also help elsewhere. But Climate Change is a symptom that could be largely countered by replacing fossil fuels laid down from the energy of the sun millions of years ago by what the sun provides now or very recently. But this, though essential, will neither solve the problem completely nor lead to all the benefits alluded to.
Let us be clear that the basic problem is a matter of world growth and consumption. It is a natural thing for us all – individuals, companies and other organisations; and nations – to try to better ourselves by growing and consuming: indeed we are encouraged so to do on a daily basis by all in authority, worldwide. The columns of our business pages and the manifestos of our political parties all tell us not only what a good thing growth has been for us, but that it remains the sine qua non of our future. But all this growth threatens the natural world we inhabit. This is today’s Tragedy of the Commons.
These commons are the biosphere we actually live in, the geosphere, troposphere, stratosphere and cryosphere: perhaps even the cybersphere and outer space. The commons are finite: and the increasing world population combined with increasing consumption, and particularly the increasing consumption of world middle classes, are the threat to the commons, which arises not so much from their exhaustion, but more usually is caused by human progression crossing acceptable boundaries.
Nature provides us with assets and services. The assets include the land and water inter alia supporting the agriculture that feeds us; the fish, forests, flora, fauna, fossil fuels and other minerals; plus the air we breathe and the ozone in the stratosphere that protects us from the ultra violet in the sun’s rays. These all come free until we decide who owns them or whether they are held in common. Most of the fossil fuels in the known reserves are going to have to be left in the ground unless compensated for by Carbon Capture and Storage. This, when allowed for, is going to cause a considerable reduction in the value of energy shares in the world’s stock markets (against which we can judge the financial effects of some of the other things mentioned). Peak oil (and coal and gas) will be for us to choose as a result of how we limit carbon in the atmosphere. Other problem elements include nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous all vital to agriculture: and if wasted by run off, cause major damage to waterways and the eutrophication of the oceans.
And preserving nature’s services, the restoration of land and water when overused or polluted by man, will become increasingly expensive in both time and money. We are at a cross-roads and It may be helpful to take a somewhat detached look at the world as if from the outside. For the 12,000 years of the inter-glacial period following the last ice age, what geologists call the Holocene, the climate has been greatly beneficial for man’s development. Mean temperature has stayed within a band of less than a degree Centigrade and it is still, just, within that band ( but not for much longer, and limiting it to another degree or so is only the target of current endeavour and will probably be missed). Great things have been achieved, but those of us now reaching retirement age have got tremendous benefit on the cheap (because we have not paid for our pollution). For us now to put off action and allow the extra costs of nature’s services to fall on the developing world and succeeding generations seems to me immoral in the extreme. Geologists of the future will know of the industrial revolution and the problems we now face in the Age of Man, the Anthropocene: and also whether or not we solved them.
Other global threats arising from human progression are the pollution of the commons by insects, bacteria and viruses that are becoming resistant to traditional control. And then there is the loss of bio-diversity resulting from climate change and our increasing consumption. Some regard these threats as being as important as climate change; and as costly.
No one can know exactly how world population will change over the next few decades. We have to use our judgement of future risks and rewards to guide our plans knowing these may have to be modified in the face of events such as volcanic actions, pandemics or war. Some populations will likely become very old or very young: some parts of the world may have improving climate and others only flood, tempest and drought. It seems likely emigration pressures will be even bigger than they are today. These pressures are likely to be greatest from poorer parts of the world who are the least responsible for the problem. It is obvious we need better global governance in both developed and developing worlds; a concerted attack on the roots of tribalism, and pressure on the markets to favour the long-term.
And what of Robots? We rely on Security to preserve us from suicidal terrorists today. But what sort of new problems will we face from, say, a driverless car? Surely we are going to have to change world culture rather than rely on Security to deal with such possibilities? And there are some more fundamental threats to Capitalism if our leaders have much more robotic assistance than exists today, as I mention again later.
So there is the problem – human progression going beyond what the world can stand. I am not going to speculate on details such as how the timescales and effectiveness of technical advances will contribute to the answer. I shall not compare, say, Carbon Capture and Storage with Concentrated Solar and high voltage DC transmission. This is the wrong approach. I don’t care for the opaque UK process of following European guidelines by ministerial subsidy and bland statements that we are meeting requirements. What we need democratic governments to do is provide an overall global plan: and a rising carbon cost within which companies and individuals can behave and compete to find the detailed answers in a satisfactory timescale. This timescale has to balance the cost of current sacrifice against the need to control future climate change (and the other things). And let us note that when faced with quite small energy price increases, all our political parties once again backed the consumers who are causing the problem. We are getting very short of time for our leaders to act. And people generally, many of whom have problems such as whether they are going to be able to pay the bills at the end of the month, quite naturally find this of more concern than the putative effect of climate change in 50 years’ time.
This is why I think we need a Plan B now. Let Mr Ban Ki-moon set up a small group of about 10 independently-minded but internationally-selected people tasked with the responsibility of reporting annually and worldwide their assessment of the world future over the next several decades on the basis of agreements actually in force and any other arrangements they might recommend as being appropriate. Let us call this group WASG (World Auditors of Sustainable Growth, pronounced WASGee). Perhaps Mr Ban Ki-moon could do this on his own but it would be an advantage if it had the imprimatur of, say, the G20 from the start. A little more about WASG below, but first a word about sceptics and a little more on leadership in today’s world.
Sceptics should realise that some 170 Scientific Academies, worldwide, nem con, recognise climate change as being real and man made. In particular, the US Academy of Science and the Royal Society last year produced comment on the 20 most often raised sceptical views plus answers to specific questions. Their paper can be found by Googling Climate Royal Society with the date 17 Feb 2014. Nowadays, sceptics make much of the pause in temperature rise since the peak in 1998. But climate change is more than global warming of the atmosphere. The oceans are still changing. And 2015 promises to be a moderate El Nino year, when oceans transfer some of their heat to the air. 2015 will be the hottest year on record by some margin.
Leadership has not developed at all well during the last decade or so, just at the time good leadership has been so vital. It is fruitless to put all the blame on politicians who have to respond to what they perceive to be the demands of their electors whose actions are, by definition, short term (and globally, on different cycles). I think they could and should do more, such as by encouraging the media to do more. And Mr Ban Ki-moon’s office tell me he can only act if asked by the Prime Minister or other national leaders.
Similarly, chief executives and company directors of our larger companies, who probably have the most power, have a prime duty to their shareholders, who are often large companies themselves. Their ambitions for their company’s power and money to exceed that of their peers has led to such a bull market in their pay that this effectively prevents them as a group providing needed collective leadership: consequently the standards they regard as an acceptable norm are actually shamefully low. There is no justification for their rewards having risen yearly by so much more (proportionally) than anyone else during the last 15 years or so. We need to pay our entrepreneurs whatever it takes. But ordinary large companies should be prevented from paying top staff more than, say, 20 times the average. We really cannot go on being led by people who regard it as a success that they pay only those taxes that they wish and will move elsewhere if pressed to play a fuller part. And we certainly can’t risk these top companies disregarding the wider good and, perhaps, employing robots rather than pay the living wage.
The media – television, radio, newspapers and periodicals- are a special case. I blame the media more than anyone else for failing to provide the debating chamber for educating and informing us on these matters. Only the BBC World Service on the radio appears adequate and I am reluctant to say this because elsewhere the BBC, with their particular responsibilities, seem grossly ill managed. Some of the media have recently been in the dock for invading people’s privacy; and more generally the media emphasise their responsibility for publicising matters in the public interest. But I submit it is their omissions that are by far the most important. Mr Burt, once D/G of the BBC, recently criticised their present current affairs coverage for failing to join up their news items.
It has been my experience that the media have little interest in the views of those outside their circle, that is, anyone unknown to them as journalists, celebrities or who are otherwise newsworthy. The doors of Editors are tightly closed. If a view that is unique is read at all, it is discarded as out of line with current thinking. Anyone with an unusual prediction will not be heard. Hence the recent failure to predict the UK electoral public view.
It seems we need the world’s academic and professional institutions to appreciate that their accumulated knowledge endows them also with a social responsibility to inform the populace of the dangers that current policies, especially those arising from unrestricted competitive growth and over-consumption, pose to mankind. Communication networks already exist between these groups, but clearly the role of the media in all its guises, in helping to inform, is absolutely paramount. Conventions like the World Economic Forum could help, but again it seems these large get-togethers help those in power protect their positions and do nothing. Hence WASG, a small select group specifically tasked to get our leaders motivated by reporting, annually and to everybody, where their performance is taking us and what more needs to be done.
WASG as a working group should appeal to politicians. By definition, the members would come from some 10 nations and specialisations but they would not represent their own nation. WASG would use assistance from existing institutions such as the IPCC and IPBES, the IMF and World Bank, and would set up its own small supporting groups as necessary. It would consult and negotiate with the larger Nations in particular, and would report in a judicial manner taking into account, for example, the history and interests of developed and developing nations. It is to be expected it would change emphasis from carbon emitting activities to less damaging services; discourage the throwaway society and ensure repair and recycling; promote honesty and simplify regulation. There would be more entrepreneurial action and more volunteering. There would be greatly improved global governance and constant pressure from increasingly united nations on all potential causes of strife.
On dealing with climate change, there is much to be said for the ideas expressed in his book Kyoto 2 (2008) by Oliver Tickell, although he could have chosen a better title (because Kyoto was less than adequate and should have been replaced before its end date of 2012. Another leadership failure). He seeks climate neutrality by 2050 leading to a CO2 level below today’s. He discusses all the approaches that have been put forward and sets down convincing arguments as to why he rejects all but his preferred solution. His system, which is simple and transparent (which is very important), puts a reducing cap on annual emissions by selling permits for extracting the equivalent amounts of fossil fuels. The permits would be sold at auction on the basis of uniform price sealed bids, a similar process as is used by governments to sell bonds. With the odd exception, the market would keep emissions below the cap. Mr Tickell expected (2008) the amount raised by the auctions would amount to approximately $1Trillion per year over early years, but it will probably be a good deal more now because action will start so late. This Climate Fund would be used mostly to promote R and D into new sources of energy, and into agriculture; to help developing countries with their increasingly costly energy needs, and to maintain carbon sinks.
It is fairly obvious that if climate change and other threats to the commons are to be able to be neutralised by deploying sums in the order of $1-2T, then we are also going to have to get the pay of the leaders of our old established companies (but not our new entrepreneurs) under control: and also do something, over time, about the $30T plus in the private ownership of the very richest. It is to be hoped WASG would influence leadership to accept these matters voluntarily leading towards honest self-regulation of affairs which would otherwise need excessive external regulation. The increasing red tape complained of by company executives arises quite often because their companies are less than honest and they are not personally accountable. ( To get rid of much of the excessive regulation, all it needs is a simple rule that Boards will be held personally responsible for dishonesty lower down if they do not have arrangements in place to prevent this (ie effective internal technical audit).
Agriculture is going to have to change a great deal and the detail is well outside what can be covered here. But it is clear we can do things like more organic and less ploughing; placing herbicides, pesticides and water exactly where they are needed; starting forest in areas currently desert; growing plants with deep roots burying carbon, encouraging fungi and peat bogs, and so forth. This is enough to make the point we have to boost arrangements already underway to bring together science, technology, investment and farming so as both to feed our increasing numbers and develop an agricultural carbon sink.
Before leaving the environment, let us quickly mention the environmentalists, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others who have their hearts in the right place but seem sometimes to be lacking in logic, and anti-science. They have negative power and have held up genetic modification, which agriculture needs; and nuclear power also much needed and which, with further development, perhaps with thorium, might solve the whole problem of nuclear waste. We must try to get the greens on board.
That’s nearly it. It has taken a lot of words to try to demonstrate convincing proof of the threat: and to put forward WASG as likely to be needed to push individual nations to agree a global solution. Even if the Paris conference is more successful than I have suggested, we are going to need a transparent answer and a Global Auditor to hold nations to account. To summarise:-
First, there is the problem of consumption that we encounter as climate change and other threats coming from our uses of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium: plus the problems of resistant bugs- insects, bacteria and viruses and the loss of bio-diversity: and robots. Then there is the damage we do to supplies of land and water. Those who don’t think there is an urgent problem which should subsume their seemingly more immediate concerns should ask themselves if their outlook is not so much a difference of perspective but has become more a matter of prejudice.
Secondly, the world powers have not come even close to an answer: and they are plainly willing to take risks enormously greater than those other man-made risks that brought about the recent banking crisis from which we are still not fully recovered (there are reports that energy companies have not been persuaded of effective action and have apparently invested so much money in unusable resources that they may have to be bailed out like the banks. And have those seeking another runway at Heathrow decided they also can carry on regardless?). Maybe December 2015 will produce the solution, but probably not. Hence the need for Plan B, for WASG.
If Plan B is needed, WASG would be able to say what went wrong and suggest what was needed to put it right. It would produce a statement of where the world was headed and what further action was called for: that is, further action to protect the commons. This would continue year after year until satisfactory agreements were reached and ratified by nations and global activities: and further, that actual performance was certified by WASG as meeting these agreements.
One last point and this is the very, very big one. If nations can come to accept the judicial recommendations of WASG, this will mean they have all been persuaded to take this route rather than preserve their own latitude to argue every detail even to the point of global disaster. Nations would be agreeing to give a higher priority to protection of the commons than to what they would otherwise see as their most vital interests. This would be a huge step forward not only in protecting nature but also putting pressure on the whole international community to avoid or resolve current problems, including both the petty pin-pricks often exciting deep national emotions; and the big difficulties of the last half century or so, such as the Middle East and nuclear weapons. It is impractical both to protect the commons and have serious squabbles about lesser things. We can protect the commons only if world powers are united in making this their overriding priority. Then we can make the United Nations united with all that implies.
What is in prospect is a world still full of danger, but with a major change in global culture, much more honest, better led, more cooperative, less greedy and selfish, and arguably a good deal happier. Also we could leave our descendants with a world not much worse than we inherited from our own forbears: and maybe safer as well.
Never has there been such an opportunity to unite humanity for the common good. Nor a greater need.