When Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner published The Wrong Trousers in 2007, they famously attributed the failure of the Kyoto Protocol not to the fact that the developing countries did not have legally binding commitments as it was fashionable to do. Rather, they argued that a tame solution of a top-down international treaty was being imposed on a fundamentally wicked problem. In other words, addressing climate change was inherently different from negotiating reductions in nuclear warheads or ozone depleting substances where targets and timetables make sense.
Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark in The Burning Question resuscitate the numbers game again. And, they do so with frightening lucidity. Opening with an honest admission by Bill McKibben in the preface about how “ineffective” the fight against climate change has been over the last 20 years or so, the book initially walks us through a few figures. For example, if we want a 75% chance of staying below two degrees of warming, we can burn 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. However, as we are growing emissions at the rate of around 3% per year, we will exhaust this budget of 565 gigatons within the next 16 years.
By itself, 565 gigatons might not mean much. But, when McKibben compares this number against the total carbon dioxide equivalent of proven fossil fuel reserves of 2,795 gigatons, we are forced to reckon with the reality that we would need to keep 80% of these reserves under the ground to stay below two degrees of warming. Perhaps indicating the recalcitrance of fossil fuel-heavy companies and revenue-dependent states, these are proven reserves and have already entered the balance sheets of companies and revenue forecasts.
The climate convention has long avoided tackling this elephant in the room. As Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of UN climate convention, prepared her remarks for the World Coal Summit, hosted concurrently with the annual climate negotiations in Warsaw, activist organizations cried foul and asked her to deny any legitimacy to the summit by not attending. Fortunately, she pressed forward, arguing that she should not just be preaching to the choir. This shift perhaps could be more momentous than is being recognized. As Berners-Lee and Clark would recommend, we may finally be starting to address both the users and producers of fossil fuels.
Greater engagement with this industry would also mean that developing carbon capture technologies is not an admission of defeat but of relentless pragmatism. After all, the authors reveal energy resources rarely vanish away- they merely get dwarfed as total energy consumption keeps going up.
With the IPCC announcing climate change as “unequivocal,” and climate skeptics being pushed to the fringes, all of this ultimately begs the question -- if the science is this clear, why have we as collective humanity not woken up to this threat? How are we to understand political inaction with scientific consensus?
Why are we not more outraged about this? What can we as individuals do? If we are only squeezing the balloon by opting for a metro ride instead of taking the cab, what really is the point of living green? Or, how do we justify promoting many such autonomous actions if they really have no discernible effect on emissions?
The answer perhaps lies in the space that these actions create — both within our larger communities as well as our own psychological processes. Even more, if these actions can create these social ‘ripple effects’ so that the groundswell takes over, they will be what could save us.
Yet, will this cultural change come in time for us to act before we hit climate tipping points? The case for outrage becomes quite strong.
At the end, we may come back to square one. If we need a global deal based on a carbon budget, this will inevitably involve devising a burden sharing agreement. But that is exactly what countries have tried to do so far and they have failed. They failed to such an extreme that we have reverted to the exact opposite: we have instituted a bottom-up system where countries announce what they will be doing. And, developments in Warsaw indicate that this seems to be the direction we are heading in for the foreseeable future.
However, it would be unfair to stop there. Berners-Lee and Clark’s effort at making the carbon budget so tangible is meant to rankle and awake.
We may not end up following the path to a global agreement they outline but they will have woken us up in the process. And, that would make reading The Burning Question worth it.
THE BURNING QUESTION: Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark; Profile Books Ltd., London. Hachette Book Publishing India Pvt. Ltd., 4th & 5th Floors, Corporate Centre, Sector 44, Gurgaon-122003. Rs. 599.