I feel like I ought to introduce myself, since Dave just upgraded me to contributor, but maybe I’ve already been introduced. I’m the “more inconvenient truths” guy!
But I take the point. The expiry date has passed. I won’t say it any more. Not much anyway. All I ask is that nobody say “tipping point” either. Or “building momentum.” Nobody imply that technology is going to save us. And I won’t say “inconvenient truth” ever again.
Actually, there is this one other little thing. I’ve managed to convince myself that the entire climate movement can be divided into two schools: the “building momentum” school and the “inconvenient truth” school — and that the trick is to find a way to straddle the two sides, to help “get the ball rolling” without sacrificing the “right speech” end of the deal.
Here’s an example of an “awkward thought” I’ve been on about this week.
David Miliband, the vigorous young Laborite who is now the U.K.’s Environment Minister, has been somewhat less coy about the situation than most U.S. politicians. Here’s what he had to say (in Newsweek International) in February of this year:
If all industrialized countries took on emissions-reduction commitments of 60 to 80 percent, according to the U.N., and if they purchased half of their reductions in the developing world, and if the carbon price were at least $10 per ton, then the global financial flows would be of the order of $100 billion per year.
This sort of money could help bridge the gap between high- and low-carbon development. It could help fund the extra cost from carbon capture and storage technology that reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by 85 percent. It could make the difference for governments choosing between "cheaper" fossil-fuel power plants and more expensive hydroelectric projects. It could help make solar power a reality.
Now there are at least two interesting things about this quote. One is Miliband’s off the cuff estimate that industrialized countries would purchase “half of their reductions” in the developing world. The other is the absurdly low carbon price that he’s using to do his admittedly back of the envelope calculations.
Still, he’s at least giving us something to work with, something solid enough to support a few observations:
First, “half of their reductions” is a lot. It means that a lot of money would be flowing to the developing world, money that, as Miliband notes, could be used to support a rapid clean-energy transition and therefore make a truly global crash program possible.
Second, it also means that the actual physical emissions reductions projected for the rich world would only be half of what’s now being advertised. Not 20 percent by 2020, but 10 percent, not 60 percent or 80 percent or 90 percent by 2050, but 30 percent, or 40 percent, or 45 percent.
Third — and this starts getting at the real problem — it means that the rich world is going to feel like it’s in crash program mode — after all, it’s making these huge payments as well as these huge reductions — when it’s not, not really, and even as the South is running smack into the wall of an exhausted global emissions budget. Which is (and I’m not going to start drawing graphs here) just what’s going to happen, because we’re now so late in the game that, all else remaining equal, there simply isn’t enough remaining atmospheric space for the South to develop to anything like the economic level that the rich countries currently enjoy. Not without blowing the global emissions budget. Not without a truly heroic effort (as in “crash program”) to break the link between carbon emissions and economic development.
The problem is that, particularly in the U.S., we’re not talking — at all — about what’s going to have to change. We’re barely even talking about the fact that, even as the South hits the wall, it’s going to be suffering huge impacts. Because (grim irony here) the poorest people in the world also happen to be the ones that are most vulnerable to the coming droughts, the rising waters, and all the rest of it. And please recall that, even as the South hits, and crashes through, the emissions wall, it’s going to be staring across the development gap at a rich world that, though far more energy efficient than it is today, is still, well, rich.
But maybe I should just shut up.