If We Took Climate Change Seriously

on NJR's Prose Blog

Even though people now mostly accept that climate change is real, and largely anthropocentric (“human-caused”) and might even be quite bad, we still don’t act as if we believe it. We don’t act as if we only have a few years left to have any real possibility of limiting warming to 2ºC. We don’t act act as if we fear our children and grandchildren becoming climate refugees or victims of resource wars. We don’t act as if we think sea-level rise will really reshape our landmasses. We don’t act as if we think our children and our children’s children will find it dangerous to go out in the sun or struggle to grow crops.

What would we we do if we took climate change seriously? If we saw it as an existential threat like a large meteor impact or a much-worse Coronavirus?

Here are some things I think we’d do.

  1. We’d leave most of the remaining hydrocarbons in the ground, with falling extraction quotas every year.

  2. We’d introduce a carbon tax (really a greenhouse-gas tax), at source, that would be almost impossible to avoid and whose level would rise steeply and inexorably.

  3. We’d ban cars from most urban areas completely, following Amsterdam, Copenhagen and, more recently Paris and build out low/no-carbon mass-transit and medium-to-long-distance transit systems.

  4. We’d insulate all our buildings properly and replace almost all our gas boilers, probably with heat exchangers.

  5. We’d start a slew of “Manhattan Projects” for climate—tasked with developing practical energy storage solutions (“batteries” etc. for smoothing supply from intermittent energy sources). These might also include projects to see whether there are specific steps we can take to preserve the permafrost (rich in methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas) and arctic sea ice, carbon sequestration, efficient transport solutions and more.

  6. We’d begin to value and nurture, conserve and replenish key ecosystems and develop ways to preserve rainforests, allow forest regeneration and rewilding across large areas of the world, and to preserve important habits such as wetlands, peatlands, boglands etc.

  7. We’d radically reduce meat and dairy consumption (“grow food not feed”) and invest in farming approaches that regenerate our soils, some of the biggest carbon sinks in existence.

  8. We’d massively reduce aviation, particulary domestic aviation and axe its subsidies.

  9. We’d eliminate most business travel and build on some of the transformations developed and accelerated during COVID-19, including video conferencing and remote working.

  10. We’d fix the leaks (of methane) in the gas extraction and distribution system before winding almost the whole system down (see 1).

These are extremely high-level changes, and would just be the beginning. I haven’t talked about the obviously huge and dislocating effects of these and the vast complex of other measures that would needed to protect and compensate those who would otherwise bear the brunt of these changes but would be unable to do so. Of course this is necessary, and of course this applies both within countries and between them. Within countries, governments will have to find suitably targeted ways to use tax revenue from new taxes to enable people who would otherwise not be able to heat their houses, eat properly, travel as necessary and so on to do so. Internationally, the richer countries (which have contributed most of increase in greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution) will have to bear the bulk of the cost of decarbonizing the world. The rich countries need to do this for their own self-interest as well as in the name of equity: the changes need to be global if any of us are to avoid potentially cataclysmic climate change.

Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) take climate change seriously enough to embark on tackling it urgently, vigorously and sufficiently unrelentingly while we might still have a fighting chance of limiting warming to 2ºC. So unless something changes soon (and the signs are not good) we’ll have to wait for more fires, more extreme weather events, more flooding, more climate refugees, more desertification and more resource wars before it becomes harder to ignore the problem than to face up to it.