Global warming is one of the few scientific theories which makes us examine the whole basis of modern society. It is a theory that has politicians arguing, sets nations against each other, queries individual choices of lifestyle and ultimately asks the questions about humanity's relationship with the rest of the planet. There is very little doubt that global warming will change our climate in the next century; our best estimates suggest an average temperature increase of 1.4-5.8°C, a sea-level rise in the order of a metre, significant changes in weather patterns, and more extreme climate events. This is not, however, the end of the world, as envisaged by many environmentalists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but does produce some major challenges for our global society, the most important of which are the moral dilemmas that global warming has precipitated. First, how do we ensure that the Third World develops as rapidly as possible, while preventing a massive explosion in production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases? Second, is the question of whether the money we plan to spend on stabilizing global warming, $8 trillion or 2% of the World's GDP, to protect future generations is better spent on alleviating current global human suffering? Ultimately, 2% of the World's GDP is a very small cost if we can ensure that the world economy continues to grow by 2-3% per year over the next century as predicted. So ultimately global warming is an issue of morals and global economics.
So what are the solutions to global warming? As we have seen, it is unlikely that global politics will solve global warming. Technofixes are dangerous or cause problems as bad as the ones they are aimed at fixing. Even the idea of using energy more efficiently seems rather inadequate when there are another five and half billion people in the world aspiring to have the energy use enjoyed by the Western world. So the ultimate solution is for humanity to develop cheap and clean energy production, as all economic development is based on ever-increasing energy usage. Though great strides forward have been made in alternative energies, it seems unlikely that these will produce energy on the scale we require in the next few decades.
As I am a great believer in humanity's adaptability, I am sure these will be available before the end of the century. But a considerable increase in investment is required if we are to convert to renewable energy by the end of the century; for example, current
US investment in renewable energy is just $200 million per year.
Even if renewable energy technology does become available, there n o is no guarantee that it would be made affordable to all nations, l since we live in a world where even life-saving drugs are costed to ° achieve maximum profit. Nor is there any guarantee that if we had unlimited free energy it would prevent us from continuing to abuse the planet. Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University, commenting on the possibility of unlimited clean energy from cold fusion, suggested it would be 'like giving a machine gun to an idiot child'.
We cannot pin all our hopes on clean energy technology, nor our ability to use it wisely, so we must prepare for the worst and adapt. If implemented now, a lot of the costs and damage that could be caused by changing climate can be mitigated. This requires nations and regions to plan for the next 50 years, something that most societies are unable to do because of the very short-term nature of politics. So global warming challenges the very way we organize our society. Not only does it challenge the concept of the nation-state versus global responsibility, but the short-term vision of our political leaders. To answer the question of what we can do about global warming, we must change some of the basic rules of our society to allow us to adopt a much more global and long-term approach.
I leave you with thoughts of redesigning our global community with the excellent words of Professor Wally Broecker of Columbia University (USA):
'Climate is an ill-tempered beast, and we are poking it with sticks.'
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