The cost of climate change
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
By Joe Nation
Steve Howard, my driver and host, seems like an unlikely match to save the planet. Tall and thin, effusively polite and British, Howard describes how his Ph.D. research here in Kenya more than a decade ago led him to tackle climate change.
Howard, the CEO of the Climate Group, a London-headquartered non-profit, performed his Ph.D. research on the effects of small changes in temperature and rainfall on forests and plant life. We assume, he says, that trees and plants are very resilient. In fact, they are not, he explains. Nor is the planet.
Howard is one of more than 5,000 who have made the trek to Nairobi to the United Nation’s Conference on Climate Change. Like Howard, most here do not need to be convinced that our continued use of fossil fuels is overheating the earth and bound to lead to dire consequences, not just for our grandchildren, but for us in a very short time.
The delegates and observers here in Nairobi are enthusiastic and hoping for a breakthrough agreement to follow on to last year’s Montreal meeting. But at this point, there is as much dissention among delegates and observers as there is agreement. In particular, there is anger from those the developing world, particularly from Africa, which continues to struggle economically and is now facing the early, negative effects of global warming—a crisis created in large part by us in the developed world.
The developing world hopes that the U.S. and others will heed the warnings of the “Stern” report, issued recently in the U.K. The report, although criticized, including by many here, suggests that a business as usual approach to climate change could cost up to 20% of GDP globally. Although that number may be exaggerated, a 20% hit in the developed world is arguably absorbable. But that same 20% decline in economic output in country like Kenya, where basic survival is difficult today, would be disastrous.
As the day progresses, I realize that most of the countries are reading from the same script. They say that they will achieve their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction targets, cite a few examples of progress, then note that they are not sacrificing economic output. They are indeed telling only part of the story. All European countries, for example, will show significant economic progress over the next several years. But most will fall short of their GHG reduction targets; only the U.K. and Germany appear likely to meet their commitments. And the U.S. target? There is none since the U.S. has never ratified the Kyoto Accord.
The failure to meet targets is due in part to the lag time from policy implementation to results. That is understandable. But the failure to meet GHG reduction targets is also due to weak political will. Political leaders around the world are reluctant to ask for significant sacrifices from their constituents—higher heating and energy costs, more fuel efficient cars, and in the case of the developing world, political leaders find it impossible to ask for sacrifices when the developed world, particularly the U.S., has not done its fair share.
At one of today’s side meetings, we heard environment ministers from Quebec, the Basque region of Spain, and Scotland, as well as Governor Schwarzenegger’s EPA Secretary, describe how they are moving aggressively on the challenge of global warming. It is significant that much of the discussion about where we go from here is being led by regions and sub-national states, and not by nations. There is much criticism of President Bush (appropriate and deserved) and the U.S. failure to address what may be the most serious challenge for many generations.
Delegates, however, draw a sharp distinction between the actions of the U.S. federal government and California state government on climate change. I spoke with one African delegate today who was wearing a large badge with an image of the Golden State—and Governor Schwarzenegger with the words “Heroes don’t always wear capes!” He had no idea that I was from California, yet he wanted to be sure that I knew how important California’s actions on global warming were to his country and to his continent. That same view was shared by virtually everyone else with whom I spoke. Washington has failed them, and now they are looking to California, New York, Oregon, and any other U.S. state that will step up on climate change.
One note of optimism from Nairobi. There is a palpable sense of urgency and action among delegates. Most delegates know that time is running out, and they urge significant action by the end of the week. They believe, like Steve Howard, that small changes—not in temperature and rainfall, but by states and cities in the developing and developed world, can save the planet.
Joe Nation, the outgoing Assembly member representing Marin and Sonoma counties, traveled independently to Nairobi to observe the international climate conference.