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Sunday, Oct. 8, 2006

Mustering the will to prevent calamity


LONDON -- It's a law of physics that translates well into the behavior of human beings: The greater the mass involved, the more effort is needed to overcome its inertia. But it doesn't read very well as an epitaph for civilization.

The information we need to act is around us every day. Three small, low-key stories in the inner pages of the newspapers I read at breakfast -- the sort of stories you find in the media almost every day -- should have been enough to galvanize every reader into instant action. But the human version of the laws of physics gets in the way.

The first story was a warning by the Meteorological Office in Britain that summer temperatures in southeastern England may reach as high as 46 degrees C by the end of this century.

"By 2100, such heatwaves are likely to occur almost every year, and could occur several times in any given summer," said the Met Office.

London with the summer temperatures similar to Kuwait's seems incredible, but the Met Office was relentlessly reasonable. Depending on how fast greenhouse gas emissions rise, it pointed out, we are facing an average rise in global temperature rise of 2 to 5 degrees C by the end of this century.

If the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is halted at the level of 450 parts per million, then we get away with "only" two degrees hotter. But we are already at 385 ppm, so that requires immediate global agreement on radical action to curb the growth of CO2 emissions. Allow the current model of economic development and energy use to continue basically unchanged, and you end up with 800 ppm by the end of the century and the 5-degree-hotter world.

Except -- and the Met Office didn't say this part -- that you never get there, because global civilization falls into violent chaos as huge numbers of people start to starve. Even 2 degrees hotter will reduce agricultural output in the main food-producing regions of the world by about a quarter. Much hotter, and it will be much worse, so we may end up negotiating (or more likely, fighting) over which billion of us starve first. Intelligent human beings, faced with that prospect, would act at once, or so you would think -- especially because the actions required are not really all that painful, provided that they start right away.

The second story in the papers was about a "green growth plus" strategy devised by consultants at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the U.S.-based giant that provides a wide range of business services including risk management. Basically, the report said it wouldn't cost all that much to save civilization.

The economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers calculated that serious efforts to improve energy efficiency, greater use of renewable energy, and new technologies for carbon capture could cut global CO2 emissions by about 60 percent from the level predicted for 2050 if countries just pursue a "business-as-usual approach." Moreover, the costs involved would not beggar us all.

"Estimates suggest that the level of (world gross domestic product) might be reduced by no more than 2 to 3 percent by 2050 if this strategy is followed," said John Hawksworth, head of macro-economics at PwC. But the success of the strategy does depend on getting really serious about global heating right now.

Is that really likely to happen? The third story in the papers seemed encouraging at first, for it reported that scientists now believe the battle to close the "ozone hole" is being won.

It is an impressive tale of global cooperation to stop human activities that damage vital natural systems. The ozone hole was first spotted in 1985, and soon researchers linked it conclusively with chlorofluorocabons, compounds that were widely use in refrigerators, air-conditioners and aerosol sprays.

Every Antarctic spring, the CFCs in the upper atmosphere were interacting with the returning sunlight to destroy the ozone that protects living things from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. The predicted consequences included blind penguins, sunburned fish, and a soaring rate of skin cancer among people living at high latitudes.

However, the Montreal Protocol of 1987 restricted the production of CFCs only two years after the hole was discovered. The Antarctic hole still covered an area bigger than all of North America this month, but scientists are now confident that the worst is past. It will stay at about this size for 15 or 20 years, and then "somewhere between 2020 and 2025 we'll be able to detect that the ozone hole is actually beginning to decrease in size," said Paul Newman of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Within seventy years, the hole should be entirely healed

So why can't we react as fast to global warming? Because of inertia: the mass of people and institutions to be moved is just so great.

Fixing the ozone hole was easy because neither hair-spray nor refrigerator coolants are centrally important in the economy. Changing the way we produce and use energy is not easy at all, even if PricewaterhouseCoopers is right and the ultimate level of economic sacrifice would not be that great. So many people and institutions are involved that it's hard to move fast, even if failing to do so costs us the Earth.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.


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