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Combating climate change

by Hugh Cortazzi

When Alice said to the White Queen in “Alice Through the Looking Glass” that “one can’t believe impossible things,” the queen replied, “Why I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Creationists, who believe the world was created 4004 years before the Christian era, are like the White Queen. So, of course, are Japanese politicians who sometimes still seem to believe the myths about the divine creation of Japan and its Imperial family.

Unfortunately there are intelligent and educated people who, while not believing totally impossible things, tend to believe what they want to believe.

In this category are those who reject the scientific evidence about the effects of carbon emissions on climate. They argue that the records do not go back far enough to justify the conclusions drawn by climatologists and that some of the observations and prognostications of climate scientists have been inaccurate.

They do not deny all the evidence of global warming but assert that this could be part of natural climate change and point to periods such as what has been termed the mini-ice age of the 17th century in Europe as an example of natural climate change.

Behind their skepticism lie the economic arguments against taking early action to slow down global warming. Economic growth could be slowed down by diversion of resources to green energy and Western economies could lose competitive advantage to developing countries exempted from strict restrictions on carbon emissions.

But much of this skepticism is wishful thinking and is dangerous especially for future generations. This winter Britain has had the worst floods and rainfall since records began nearly 250 years ago. America has suffered terrible snowstorms; yet the West Coast has had to endure a searing drought.

Australia has in the past few years suffered droughts and destructive fires but also damaging floods. The Philippines were hit by a calamitous typhoon.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has calculated that overall temperatures have risen by 0.85 percent over the last century. Every year the North Atlantic ice cap continues to shrink. Some countries in the Pacific such as Tuvalu could disappear under the sea.

Despite some unresolved questions there is an overwhelming consensus among eminent scientists that human activity and in particular their carbon emissions have contributed to climate changes, and have resulted in increasing spells of exceptional weather. We all need to press our government to stop shilly-shalling and making excuses for inaction. Much more effective international agreements to curb emissions are needed and soon.

Much more also needs to be done without delay to secure our cities and countryside against flooding and extreme weather. How much should we spend? After the recent floods in Britain, David Cameron, the British prime minister, famously declared that the money would be found, but there must be a proper cost benefit analysis and the risks balanced. That decision will inevitably be a political one that no doubt takes due account of electoral considerations.

Precautions against natural disasters are only one element in trying to balance the risks against the costs. Similar considerations apply to changes in energy policy, although these can be even more tricky.

After Russian aggression toward Ukraine and Russian support for the Syrian regime, which has perpetuated the devastating civil war in Syria, a major consideration especially for the European powers must be to reduce European dependence on Russian gas and oil. Similar considerations applied in the past when the Western powers had to confront the OPEC cartel. Unless effective steps are taken, Europe will continue to be subject to Russian blackmail.

The prospects for developing alternative sources of green energy have improved greatly. Around Britain a plethora of wind-powered turbines have aroused local opposition. Some put their faith in tidal power but there are formidable problems to overcome before this source can provide power at reasonable cost.

Britain, if only for climatic reasons, cannot expect as much from solar power as other climes. Britain has retained the option of nuclear power and new nuclear power stations are planned, but they will require subsidies and the environmental issues, particularly the disposal of nuclear waste, mean that atomic power is unlikely to provide anything close to as much electricity in Britain as it does in France.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seems determined to bring as many as possible of Japanese nuclear power stations back into use so that Japan’s economic recovery can be boosted. The economic case is clear, but the environmental and political objections cannot be so easily set aside.

The history of nuclear power development in Japan was not reassuring even before the Fukushima disaster. Tokyo Electric Power Co. and the government nuclear energy authorities have been accused of bamboozling the public with arguments and so-called evidence, which was full of holes.

The new commission responsible for overseeing the development of atomic power in Japan is supposed to consist of fully independent experts not subject to influence from either the government or the power companies.

But Japanese and foreign opinion will require a lot of convincing that members of the commission will not behave in what some observers regard as a traditional Japanese fashion covering up the mistakes of their fellow commissioners and putting loyalty to the interests of Japanese industry and commerce above all else. Individuals have not been held responsible for the deception and falsification that allowed the Fukushima disaster to happen and to become increasingly damaging.

If the risks and benefits involved in restarting Japanese nuclear power stations are to be properly assessed, it is essential for the sake of Japan and the rest of the world that the balance should be set only after a wide-ranging and thorough public debate in which scientific considerations are given due weight and the arguments of those who would gain most from restarting Japan’s atomic power stations are exposed as self-serving.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

  • phu

    I think Mr. Cortazzi is thinking of “young Earth creationists.” Not all creationists believe in a 6000-year-old Earth. This is not to say I find them any less deluded than is suggested here, but the example has the potential to take away from the rest of the piece.

    In the same vein, perhaps things are different elsewhere, but in the US it’s not so clear-cut that those denying human contributions to climate change are always or even usually motivated by an economic agenda. Most of the people doing the arguing here are so obnoxiously, single-mindedly political (and usually polemical) that partisanship is at least as likely to occupy this role.

    Future generations will certainly pay for our bickering and posturing, as will — more importantly — much of nature. The planet itself will survive, but we continue to put ourselves and everything else living on it in more and more jeopardy for selfish and short-sighted reasons.