I decided to be a bit bold in my submission to this year’s Richard Casement internship at The Economist. They are seeking “a would-be journalist to spend three months of the summer working on the newspaper in London, writing about science and technology”. Every year, they get hundreds of applications. Back in 2007, I applied with an article on hashing algorithms. This time, I decided to call them out a bit on the contradiction between their general acceptance of the need to do something about climate change with their refusal to prioritize decarbonization over immediate economic growth. If humanity really is flirting with disaster, surely climate change mitigation should be a top political priority. My submission to this year’s competition is below.
Carbon stocks and flows
The magnitude of the climate change problem
To date, domestic and international policies intended to mitigate climate change have focused on controlling annual greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol called upon developed states to reduce their annual emissions by set amounts below their 1990 levels, and carbon trading systems like the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme focus on exchanging the right to emit a set amount of pollution in a particular year.
All this may seem sensible enough, given that the fundamental problem of human-induced climate change is that greenhouse gas emissions may dangerously alter the functioning of the climate system. At the same time, a well-informed band of individuals centred around NASA climatologist James Hansen argue that the focus on annual emissions may be misleading and likely to produce problematic policy. Hansen argues that since carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) endures for so long in the atmosphere, the most important consideration in determining how much the planet will warm is what proportion of the world’s reserves of coal, oil, and gas countries allow their firms and citizens to burn. If humanity burns most of the fuels that remain, Hansen argues, the climatic consequences would likely be catastrophic. And yet, governments are not yet advancing credible plans for leaving much of the world’s remaining fossil fuels underground:
“[I]f coal emissions are phased out entirely and unconventional fossil fuels are prohibited, fossil fuel emissions in 2050 will be somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of emissions in 2008. In other words, the reserves of conventional oil and gas are already enough to take emissions up to the maximum levels [of acceptable warming] that governments have agreed on.”
If policy-makers took Hansen’s perspective seriously, climate change policies would look rather different. They would be focused specifically on driving a transition to post-carbon sources of energy, while limiting exploitation of fossil fuels. Rather than being seen as a potential job and royalty bonanza, newly discovered fossil fuel reserves would be seen as tangible risks to humanity, given how they embody the potential to shift the Earth’s climate into dangerous territory. Hansen points to estimates made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the total quantity of coal, conventional oil and gas, and unconventional oil and gas on Earth. Of these reserves, coal and unconventional oil and gas are estimated to be the largest by far, and therefore to represent the largest share of humanity’s climate-changing potential. As such, the key question concerning the effect humanity will have on the planet’s future is how much of the coal, unconventional oil, and unconventional gas people choose to burn.
Hansen describes a dreadful scenario which could take place if humanity goes on to burn most of the coal and unconventional fuel that remains. Over and above the warming that those gases would cause directly, additional warming could arise from the operation of positive feedback effects within the climate system. These include Arctic permafrost melting and releasing planet-warming methane, a greenhouse gas about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. They also include the drying out and burning of forests, and potential release from sub-sea methane deposits called clathrates. If warming fed on itself in these ways, Hansen argues that the Earth could experience a runaway greenhouse effect and experience a transformation akin to that of Venus – a planet that is thought to have had liquid water on the surface, but which now experiences temperatures of over 350°C.
If this runaway scenario is at all plausible, the choices governments make in the coming decades could have a monumental impact on the future of humanity. In the face of such a risk, some would even question whether the focus governments and citizens maintain on economic growth is appropriate, or whether humanity ought to be making an all-out effort to shift the energy basis of the global economy from fossil fuels to a portfolio of low- and zero-carbon options. Avoiding the worst possibilities associated with uncontrolled climate change may require the global economy to largely move beyond fossil fuels by 2050, replacing the unsustainable energy basis that has dominated since 1750 with one that carries less risk and is based upon inexhaustible sources of power.
They probably won’t get many submissions that challenge their editorial stance to the same extent. In addition to being a worthwhile undertaking in itself, it might help mine stand out from among the others.