Kyoto as Cliche

Tim Flannery nailed it when he reflected that one of the obstacles to decisive action on climate change is that the whole idea of global warming has become a cliché even before it has been understood.

There are many ways to interpret this, as global warming means different things to different people. To some it’s a looming catastrophe, to others it’s a business opportunity, to many of us it’s something to worry about once we’ve taken care of other things. (To still others it’s a communist hoax, but let’s focus on people who are trying to do something helpful.) What this means is that even though we all agree that we have to do something, it is far from clear what something is.The dominant global warming cliché right now is Kyoto. I call it a cliché not because I don’t like it, but because we’re so used to talking about it and hearing about it that we’re no longer dealing with substance. This may seem like an unfair assessment of public discourse, but here’s what I mean.

Why do we debate whether Kyoto targets are achievable? If your boat is sinking, do you worry about whether this or that rate of bailing is achievable? No. You start bailing for all you’re worth, and if you’re not making it, you bail faster. In other words, if you want to talk about whether Kyoto targets are achievable, you don’t understand the problem.

That is even more true here in Canada, where we’ve already signed the treaty and are bound to its terms (which we helped negotiate). So why dither over whether or not we can get the job done? Does anyone seriously suggest we withdraw from it? Of course not. That would be political suicide. Well, if we’re going to remain part of the process, we have to keep in mind that there are consequences to failure. Any shortfalls will simply be carried over to the next phase of the treaty. And it’s just like making the minimum payments on your credit card. The bill gets much, much steeper if we wait. The penalty for carrying forward carbon debt makes it 30% more expensive.

Again, chinwagging about whether we can do what we’re obliged to do just misses the point. Try it with your credit card company.

But there is far more to this than the fact that most developed countries are already committed to Kyoto whether they realize it or not. The fact is any country that is should be delighted about it. And any country that isn’t needs to ask itself some hard questions about how it came to occupy such an untenable position.

Much of the opposition to Kyoto has focused on the cost. It’s expensive to migrate to new technology. And it seems expensive to take advantage of Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism, which allows countries that have fallen short of their targets to buy credits. I’m sure governments and businesses would rather have that money to spend on something else.

Wouldn’t any of us rather spend money on just about anything other than insurance? After all, we know that the chances that our houses will burn down, or that we’ll crash our cars, are pretty slim. But we still pay good money to protect ourselves against something we don’t expect to happen. Why on earth would we refuse to protect ourselves against something we have every reason to expect will happen?

It’s a classic risk management model. We’ve got two scenarios: one in which catastrophic climate change arrives and we’ve done nothing; another in which we prepare, and catastrophe fails to arrive. Which scenario causes more regret? The answer is easy, of course. That’s the one we need to avoid.

The Stern Review provides some figures to fortify this argument. Sir Nicholas argues that we need to be spending 1 percent of GDP to tackle climate change. In other words, many billions. A lot of money. But here’s why we need to spend it: because if we don’t, global warming is going to cost us 5 percent of GDP. That’s a lot of regret. The upper limit of Stern’s estimate is 20 percent of GDP. That is easily the worst economic disaster in the history of civilization. That’s more regret than we can imagine.

So asking whether meeting Kyoto targets is going to be easy or cheap is not the right question. It’s time to move on.

But the heartening fact is that we’re capable of spending vast amounts of money when it is the right thing to do (think of the Second World War) and when a project captures our imagination (think of the race to the moon). We don’t undertake challenges only when they’re easy.

So let’s stop cherry-picking the challenges we face, and get on with making some smart decisions.

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