Climate change is the most important issue of our age, perhaps of any age. If we—individually and collectively—do not act resolutely, extensively, and urgently, the prospects are grim. Average worldwide temperatures could be 10°F above current levels by the end of the century. But even if half of this increase is reached, which is now becoming increasingly probable, this will set in motion a series of devastating effects. Sea levels will rise inexorably and rainfall patterns will be destabilized, with drought conditions and severe flooding far more common. Certain parts of the globe are likely to become uninhabitable, particularly densely populated delta and other low-lying regions. As the planet has only a finite capacity to absorb greenhouse gas emissions without destabilizing the climate, there is the very real prospect that, in the not-too-distant future, the whole world will be faced with catastrophic changes that are irreversible and beyond control.
This is not future-gazing. We are already witnessing the first stages of a disaster of monumental proportions. The greenhouse gases we have been emitting—mainly carbon dioxide from our energy use—will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, in turn causing changes for millennia as the earth slowly reacts. Future generations will bear the heaviest burden for the present generation’s irresponsibility. Time is of the essence. Every year that goes by without an appropriate response reduces the chances of averting an ecological Armageddon and makes the changes required by current and future inhabitants of the planet an increasingly uphill struggle.
None of this is the view of alarmists. It is the considered opinion of international climate scientists, now acknowledged by most governments around the world. Nor is it new. In 1993, Al Gore, then American vice president, observed that our civilization is in denial about its addiction to the consumption of the planet’s nonrenewable resources bringing us to the brink of catastrophe. In emphasizing the need for the development of a strategic environmental initiative, he wrote: “Only the radical rethinking of our relationship with nature can save the earth’s ecology for future generations.”
Since then, global warming and its implications have risen up the political and public agendas. There is now no shortage of rhetoric—whether from politicians, the media, or business leaders—about the importance of the environment. But, remarkably, an air of procrastination still prevails. Greenhouse gas emissions are accumulating at a startling rate, but, in the absence of radical policy change, our day-to-day lives continue as usual. The apparent contradiction between awareness and action can only be explained either by a hope that climate change will turn out to be an ephemeral problem that will somehow disappear, or by a belief that extreme climate change can be prevented as the economy grows because technological advances will enable us to continue enjoying our ever-rising standards of living.
These two myths represent wishful thinking and we challenge both. There is plenty of evidence that climate change is already occurring and its impacts will accelerate in the coming decades. Meanwhile, any objective appraisal of the prospective scope of technology reveals that its contribution to the requisite cuts in carbon emissions in the relevant timescale is limited. This is not to discount its value but to stress the far greater need for us to lower our demand for fossil fuels radically. This will require a fundamental reevaluation of the character and quality of our way of life.
We have written this book because the implications of climate change due to human activity are not taken seriously enough. It is a matter of necessity that greenhouse gases are reduced sufficiently to protect the planet from the devastating consequences of climate change. We also consider it a moral issue: It is our responsibility to see it as such. The difficult issues, where a more complex mix of moral, political, and scientific questions arises, are deciding by how much, by when, and by whom. For a start, should it be the most “energy profligate” nations and individuals who should be obliged to bear the greater burden in the reduction of emissions?
Meanwhile, we need to face up to the fact that the radical transition to far less energy-intensive lifestyles will not happen on a voluntary basis as a result of the aggregate decisions of the billions of people living on the planet today. It will take a major policy commitment from governments around the world to ensure that the requisite changes in the behavior of all citizens are made, particularly about how much energy is used in travel and in keeping warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Individuals will need to call for, accept, and, indeed, welcome rigorous government intervention to achieve sufficient carbon dioxide savings across society with everyone making their fair contribution to the savings. We cannot ignore this issue of fair distribution, both internationally and between generations, of a commodity to which, without question, everyone has an equal claim.
Clearly, climate change is a global problem, the solution to which requires agreement by all countries. We present a radical and innovative strategy that we believe is the only one with a realistic prospect of success. Its framework, called Contraction and Convergence, consists of a year-on-year “contraction” of carbon dioxide emissions by a chosen date, ratcheting down to relatively safe levels, and targeted at the same time as “convergence” is progressively delivered according to a system of personal carbon allowances of the emissions. It is both a transparent and fair international way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is already commanding wide public support around the world. We believe that negotiations on its adoption cannot be deferred much longer.
Some of the messages in this book might at first seem unwelcome, for we challenge the deep complacency in society that we can continue with energy-profligate lifestyles and “get away with it.” However, the book is essentially optimistic. We believe that, with a proper appreciation of the real options open to us, individuals in both developed and developing countries will fully understand and accept the rationale behind the strategy proposed and welcome its implementation. At a practical level, the book also provides the tools for individuals to immediately calculate the contribution their own emissions are making to the problem. And, in light of this, we hope that use will be made of the information and advice offered on how to make the cuts that are highly likely to be necessary.
We do of course acknowledge that climate change is not the only problem the planet faces. There are deeply troubling and unrelenting concerns faced by vast sections of humanity, including war, hunger, disease, and genocide. This book will not speak to them directly, although each of these is a potentially indirect longer-term outcome of global warming. But climate change is also distinctive for several reasons. Humanity as a whole has never before faced such a compelling and urgent threat to its very existence. People and ecosystems everywhere will be affected by climate change, albeit to different degrees.
Climate change raises a profound philosophical question about what kind of moral beings we are. On the one hand, we could leave behind for our children and grandchildren a world that is rendered virtually uninhabitable for most and a correspondingly bleak set of social institutions. A small minority of powerful and wealthy individuals will probably try to secure higher ground and resources and build walls around themselves, putting the poor and weak in greater misery than ever before. On the other hand, we could make a unique commitment to saving our planet by making an ethical choice to share our resources equitably. In doing so, we could create a new global order that is based on principles of social justice and humanity, thus paving the way to take serious steps to address other major planetary problems. Indeed, we have an opportunity to save the planet in more ways than one by taking a sensible and ethical approach to climate change.
The book has three parts. “The Problem” sets out evidence of the damaging impacts of climate change and the prospects of these worsening; excessive energy use as the source; and the inadequacy of the public response to the situation, reflecting a disturbing failure of the government to communicate both its gravity and the contribution we individually are making to it. Part II, “Current Strategies,” analyzes the role and prospect of technology allowing for the maintenance of our current lifestyles; the extent of the U.S. government’s response to the impending crisis; and the international efforts that have been made to avert it. Part III, “The Solution,” presents what its authors see as the only strategy that can now address the global problem comprehensively, and sets out the means whereby it can be adopted and brought into force through a system of personal carbon rationing. It highlights why economies around the world need to be fundamentally restructured in a way that differentiates between those elements of growth that are deleterious and those that are beneficial to the future health of the planet. It concludes by questioning the morality of continuing our current lifestyles when doing so can lead only to the planet’s being passed on to future generations in a parlous state.
By the time you have finished reading this book, the following twelve key points will have been covered:
1. Why the threat posed by climate change to human welfare and the environment, both in the United States and worldwide, is so grave and immediate.
2. How our use of fossil fuel energy is the main source of the threat.
3. What we use energy for, and the forces that are driving its consumption ever higher.
4. What excuses people use to avoid taking climate change seriously and why these lack validity.
5. Why our current collective response to the threat of climate change and its implications is totally inadequate.
6. Why the technological options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, such as greater energy efficiency and far more use of renewable energy, are limited in scope.
7. Why only the principle of equity can realistically be applied in international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
8. How a system of personal carbon allowances based on this principle, and carbon caps for business and the public sector, will ensure that each country contributes its fair share in an international agreement.
9. Who the winners and losers will be under this system.
10. What we can do as individuals to audit our emissions and reduce them.
11. How a transition toward the necessary year-on-year targets aimed at stabilizing the world’s climate can be achieved within the limited timescale now remaining.
12. Why complacency and procrastination on the issue of climate change must stop.
We hope you will agree with the case set out in this book and will be encouraged to join in promoting a radical reappraisal of personal, collective, and political decisions from a climate change perspective. Individuals need not only to adapt their lifestyles but, more important, to press for the national and international change that is the only way out of the impasse into which our head-burying instincts have led us. Widespread public support is vital now. Time is running out fast! Copyright © 2007, 2008 by Mayer Hillman with Tina Fawcett and Sudhir Chella Rajan. All rights reserved.
Mayer Hillman is Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Policy Studies Institute in London. He is one of the first proponents of personal carbon rationing as the way for the world’s population to prevent serious damage from climate change.
Tina Fawcett is a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.
Sudhir Chella Rajan is a professor of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and a Senior Associate at the Tellus Institute in Boston.