LONDON — There can be no doubt that the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” compiled by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, has struck a chord worldwide. Checking potential climate chaos and saving the planet from destruction are causes that have gripped the minds of people, especially young people, everywhere.
Unfortunately, while the Gore message provides plenty of material about which to worry deeply, it is not so good at telling nations, governments or individuals what they should actually do to prevent disaster. It leaves open the question as to what incentives are actually required to make people change their lifestyles radically, to change the whole path of industrialization and development and to reshape economic growth — and all for a very long-term objective that is by no means certain.
The reality is that change on a scale involving nothing less than controlling and altering the globe’s weather is going to require an even more compelling agenda than the Gore message if anything is to happen. If much less carbon is to be pumped into the already poisoned atmosphere above us, full cooperation will be required not just of the already industrialized world — which created the problem in the first place in past generations –but also of the developing countries struggling to lift their billions out of poverty and follow the path of economic growth.
It is not so easy to see why the poorer world, or countries like China and India that are at last beginning to take off, should do this. Their priority need is for cheap and plentiful energy, acquired as quickly as possible and by the easiest methods possible. That means burning a lot more coal, as well as oil and gas — the fossil fuels that the crusaders for carbon reduction fear the most.
The developing countries’ argument is therefore bound to be — and already is — that if the richer countries want to take a more expensive route from now on with renewable energy sources and innovative technologies, or if they want the poorer world to do the same, the richer countries should pay up.
However, to most populations, and the governments they elect, even in richer countries, the here-and-now problems of higher utility bills, more expensive gasoline, crime and terrorism and homeland security seem a lot more important than trying to change the climate 20 or 30 years ahead — which is when carbon cutting action now would have an impact.
In the developing world, where millions are worrying where their next meal will come from, carbon reduction must seem remote indeed.
This raises the question of whether the Gore appeal is ever going to be strong enough by itself to get results. Schemes may be multiplying for reducing carbon emissions in richer parts of the world, such as California or Western Europe. But that is not nearly enough. Can other more immediate incentives and arguments be mobilized to reinforce the climate security case, and start to achieve action on the necessary global scale?
One powerfully reinforcing argument, with implications in a far shorter time period than climate change, is the need for energy security and reliability. This is something that China and India seek now, just as much as Europe and Japan. It is an issue that affects just about everybody in one form or another. Without cheap and reliable energy supplies, the developing world is going to find its progress completely blocked — as it nearly has been already by oil shocks and soaring fuel prices.
And the motivation operates not just in the poorer world. A recent opinion poll found that the biggest single concern in the United States is not climate change and greenhouse gases but the need for energy “independence” from imported oil and gas. In other words, Americans worry more about having to rely on oil from unstable regions, such as the Middle East or Venezuela, or even Mexico right next door, than about carbon emissions and weather violence — even after the Hurricane Katrina experience in New Orleans.
This may be completely unrealistic, since America, with its huge energy thirst, is always going to be dependent on the world energy supply chain. But it shows where the real worry points are.
The problem is that the two objectives — energy security now and climate security later — could conflict head-on instead of reinforcing each other — unless very carefully handled.
For example, increased energy security points directly toward burning a lot more gas and coal, and toward a big expansion of nuclear power worldwide. The first two of these alternatives are not at all carbon friendly; on the contrary, they guarantee much more carbon in the atmosphere.
The third option, nuclear power is very unfriendly in a different way, as it leads straight to weapons-grade uranium enrichment and to nuclear weapons — a path now being followed by North Korea — to the deep dismay of Japan and perhaps at last even China — and by Iran.
So somehow these sharply conflicting outcomes must be prevented and the twin aims of energy security and climate security made to work in the same direction, rather than against each other. Somehow a grand unity of aims and purposes must be crafted to mobilize full public support in the richer and poorer countries alike. And it must not lead to the kind of horrors threatened by Kim Jong Il or the fanatical mullahs of Iran.
This will need more than the appeal of Gore or the other low-carbon campaigners. It presents an enormous challenge of persuasion, eloquence and realism to which all the world’s leaders, whether at Group of Eight summits or at U.N. or other forums, have not yet risen.
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