Heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., floods in the Philippines, the accelerated melting of arctic sea ice and Japan forecasting yet another El Nino pattern for the fall: These recent news items are showing us that our modest start in global warming is already enough to destabilize our climate and cause havoc and destruction around the world. However we are currently at an average global temperature that is “only” 0.8 degrees warmer than what it was prior to the industrial revolution, whereas we all agreed at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that we should stay below 2 degrees at all costs. The fact that we will reach that limit within the next two decades (see my previous post) is hardly debated anymore these days, the only difference is that the optimists believe that we will touch it as our peak temperature and then trail down because we will have successfully curbed our emissions, while the pessimists say that we remain stubborn and/or ignorant, that we will break through the limit and blindly continue to race on upwards towards our fatal self-destruction.
Irrespective of what side you are on, let us try to imagine what approaching the 2 degree limit will look like. Imagine several hurricanes hitting the US East Coast every year, a North Pole without ice, rising sea levels affecting highly populated areas, more droughts and wild fires, more floods, harvests ruined, sky-rocketing food prices, water shortages, migration of people from areas that have become inhabitable... Is it realistic to think that in such a scenario, the general consensus of the public will still be that we can continue to emit CO2 safely? Is it not safe to assume that by then at least a larger part of the world has come to its senses and started to reduce emissions? And to achieve that, that we have started to put a (significant) price on carbon emissions?
If while reading the previous sentences you are still saying to yourself: No, that is not going to happen; the world’s political systems have proven to be incapable to come to a global treaty on carbon emissions; we absolutely need cheap fossil fuels for our economic growth - then realize what you are implying: The destruction of our civilization is inevitable, all our children can do is try to survive as long as they can and pray for a miracle. Personally I tend to stay away from such fatalism - because then why not simply give up now?
So what does this mean? In the next two decades we will either live in a world with a significant price on carbon emissions, or alternatively, we will live in a dying world where nothing really matters anymore. Accepting this inevitable reality earlier than the majority will give you an advantage.
For individuals this means, anticipate for leading a low-carbon life and start investing in measures to reduce your personal dependence on fossil fuels (e.g. rooftop solar, proper insulation, lower transportation needs, etc).
For businesses, imagine the competitive advantage you will have if you have switched over to lower or less carbon-intensive energy demanding processes. The moment that carbon tax is implemented, you will leave your less-forward-thinking competitors behind in the dust. Companies like Google and now also Facebook, with their huge energy requirements for their data centers, know what is coming and they are acting now - even if their government is still in denial.
Governments too will do well by accepting this reality earlier than later. For policymakers it is important to remember that - bearing in mind the rate of carbon reduction that will be required - decision on long term investments in the power sector made today will have to be turned around before the anticipated payback period is achieved (e.g. a gas-fired power plant that needs to be shutdown before it has reached the end of its economic life).
Just because most frogs stay in the pot that is slowly being brought to a boil, doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. Jump out of that pot, now!