The Three As of Climate Change
On the eve of COP26 in Glasgow, we have been hearing a lot about "wake-up calls" on climate change, but we have
already woken up, and the last bastions of climate change denial have fallen, or almost fallen, silent. When the Daily Mail
Online publishes a survey headlined "Over 99.9% of studies agree that global warming is mainly caused by humans"
(19 October), we can understand why the perverse views of Nigel Lawson hardly get mentioned now. Of course the near-universal
acceptance of the reality of man-made global warming is more the result of lived experience than of rational persuasion: it
is hard to argue with devastating floods and exceptional heat-waves when they turn up not in a far off country but in our
own green and pleasant land, which may become less of both. But let's not be churlish: for whatever reason, almost everyone
has got there.
The process of coming to terms and dealing with an existential crisis such as global warming (and there are others we
face now) may be summed up by Three As. The first is Awareness, in the sense that the threat is well understood by those scientists
or other professionals who have had the opportunity and skill to study it. In the case of climate change, this point was reached
some forty years ago. In an article in February 1978 summarizing the state of knowledge, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
(BAS) asked "Is mankind warming the Earth?" and answered with an "unqualified yes!" A report from the
US National Academy of Sciences the following year said that there was now "incontrovertible evidence" that atmospheric
concentration of carbon dioxide was steadily increasing as a result of fossil fuel use and land exploitation,
The second A is Acceptance, in the sense that a wider community beyond the scientists, with the power to mobilize public
opinion and implement policy, takes the reality on board. This was achieved a decade later when the United Nations Framework
Convention on Climate Change, set up at the 1992 Rio Conference, was ratified by 197 countries. It committed them to the goal
of "[stabilizing] greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic
interference with the climate system". The argument could now shift to where and how soon to set that level, not on whether
it was needed.
But this brings us to the third A which is Action, and that has proved the most difficult of all. It is true that on
an activity scale, measures to combat the existential risk posed by the climate crisis score somewhat higher than action taken
to avert ahead of time the other major existential risks: the pandemic threat, and the danger of a nuclear weapons disaster
by accident or design. The operative phrase is "ahead of time": we are coping now with the consequences of a general
failure to prepare sufficiently in previous years for the risk of a pandemic outbreak. As for nuclear weapons, where the threat
to human existence is even greater, the steps taken to avoid future disaster have been even fewer.
So on that activity scale, the prevention of nuclear catastrophe would score only one out of ten; guarding against the
pandemic might reach three out of ten. And measures so far taken against global warming could, at a generous estimate, hit
six out of ten. Yet six-tenths success in reaching the target set at Paris in 2015 of limiting the increase in global temperatures
to at least 2, and preferably 1.5, degrees, means four-tenths failure. This will result in going almost another one degree
higher, which is generally agreed takes the world to an environmental tipping point.
This can still be avoided if the nations gathering at Glasgow live up to their pledges to cut emissions. The developed
nations (and China should now be included among them) must stick to their deadlines, indeed where possible bring them forward,
and deliver the aid already pledged to developing nations, who should then not shirk the obligation to develop green energy
alternatives. It is still just about doable, but what is needed from COP26 is the real Three As: Action, Action, and Action.