Any hotter, we might be extinct

Oliver Tickell

We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson said last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to the UK department for environment, food and rural affairs. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, “the end of living and the beginning of survival” for humankind. Or perhaps the beginning of our extinction.

The collapse of the polar ice caps would become inevitable, bringing long-term sea level rises of 70-80 metres. All the world’s coastal plains would be lost, complete with ports, cities, transport and industrial infrastructure, and much of the world’s most productive farmland. The world’s geography would be transformed much as it was at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose by about 120 metres to create the Channel, the North Sea and Cardigan Bay out of dry land. Weather would become extreme and unpredictable, with more frequent and severe droughts, floods and hurricanes. The Earth’s carrying capacity would be hugely reduced. Billions would die.

All our policies to date to tackle global warming have been miserable failures. The Kyoto protocol has created a vast carbon market but done little to reduce emissions. The main effect of the EU’s emissions trading scheme has been to transfer about EUR30bn or more from consumers to Europe’s biggest polluters, the power companies. The EU and US foray into biofuels has, at huge cost, increased greenhouse gas emissions and created a world food crisis, causing starvation in many poor countries.

So are all our efforts doomed to failure? Yes, so long as our governments remain craven to special interests, whether carbon traders or fossil fuel companies. The carbon market is a valuable tool, but must be subordinate to climatic imperatives. The truth is that to prevent runaway greenhouse warming, we will have to leave most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground, especially carbon-heavy coal, oil shales and tar sands. The fossil fuel and power companies must be faced down.

National allocations should be scrapped and a single global cap on greenhouse gas emissions, applied “upstream” — for instance, at the oil refinery, coal-washing station and cement factory — placed. Sell permits up to that cap in a global auction, and use the proceeds to finance solutions to climate change — accelerating the use of renewable energy, raising energy efficiency, protecting forests, promoting climate-friendly farming, and researching geoengineering technologies. And commit hundreds of billions of dollars to finance adaptation to climate change, especially in poor countries.

Such a package of measures would allow us to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and long-term stabilisation at 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. This avoids the economic pain that a cap-and-trade system alone would cause, and targets assistance at the poor, who are least to blame and most need help. The permit auction would raise about $1 trillion per year, enough to finance a spread of solutions. At a quarter of the world’s annual

oil spending, it is a price well worth paying.