To Avoid Climate Catastrophe, Give Everyone a Reason to Fight

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Avoiding the devastating consequences of global warming means taking steps that will incur costs now. Those costs can be painful, as illustrated vividly by the social unrest in France, triggered in part by President Emmanuel Macron’s since-rescinded fuel tax. For some, such as the New York Times’s Bret Stephens, the lesson is clear: Forget reducing carbon dioxide emissions, because people won’t stand for it, and the cure “is worse than the disease.”

This rather confuses the real drive behind the protests, which is mostly found in a desire for fairness and political inclusion. Macron’s planned tax — part of his proposal to shift France closer toward adopting cleaner energy — was far less a motivator for the gilets jaunes than corrosive levels of socioeconomic inequality, the recent weakening of the nation’s labor laws, a reduction of taxes on the wealthy, and people’s shared perception “of not being represented, that the laws that are voted in never go in the direction of the people, of the majority.”

But Stephens’s argument also assumes that we can, in some miraculous way, avoid painful social and economic change altogether, that lack of action now won’t amplify our problems tomorrow. It’s awful to see thousands of protesters burning cars and defacing monuments, but if we follow our current climate path, these protests may be nothing compared to the social chaos that will be unleashed in a few decades by global droughts and failed crops, food shortages, and vast human migrations.

Many economists, scientists and optimistic politicians have outlined strategies we might follow — in theory, at least — to reduce emissions and put ourselves on a smooth, peaceful path to a future without fossil fuels. The scenarios envisioned typically include drastic reductions of carbon dioxide emissions starting now, and the phase-out of all emissions in the next 30 years or so. This is important work. We need an honest assessment of what is required if we’re to avert a climate crisis.

Unfortunately, much of this analysis is also seriously out of touch with real-world trends, as global warming seems to be accelerating, bringing dramatic consequences in flooding, fires and falling crop yields far faster than even pessimistic scientists had anticipated. Meanwhile, global carbon dioxide emissions have spiked upward, setting a new record in 2018. We’re speeding faster along the path to a potential “hothouse earth” that could conceivably trigger a disaster comparable even to the greatest extinction event in Earth history, when well over 90 percent of all species died out. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction — and yet we’re living it.

Finding an adequate response will require dispelling illusions about potentially “easy” solutions. One such illusion is that we can turn to nuclear power as a cheap and scalable alternative to fossil fuels. Energy experts project that nuclear energy, even if broadly pursued, will make at most a modest contribution to our future energy supply, given its costs and unresolved technical problems, especially the current inability to safely store nuclear waste. Another common belief is that we can replace fossil fuels quickly with renewable solar and wind power. In contrast, actual estimates based on the growth of past technologies suggest that it will take another two full decades before we get even 20 percent of our energy from renewable resources.

Nuclear and renewable energy will be helpful, but there is no easy techno-fix. In this context, the unrest greeting Macron’s fuel tax shouldn’t be seen as a reason to give up on climate action, but a reason to reassess the true difficulties and rise to the challenge. Macron tried and failed, and we need to try again and again. Reducing our carbon dioxide emissions in time will mean drafting better policies that steer people toward cleaner energy while lending social support to those hit the hardest.

But even before that, it may well require more radical moves to drastically reduce inequality, both socioeconomic and political. Historically, people in wartime have been willing to accept considerable hardship and deprivation, but only because of broad political consensus that the burden was shared equally. In France, and many other nations today, such consensus does not exist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."

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