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No quick fix for climate change

September 3, 2009

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We all like the idea of quick fixes to big problems, but the wiser among us know they do not work. Big problems are complex and usually need an array of tools to come to the rescue.

Think of a friend whose health is in danger through heavy smoking, over eating or drinking, or a mix of the three. What advice would you give them? Most likely it would be to make a series of lifestyle changes, to moderate, to adapt behavior. If the friend insisted that a quick fix of a liver transplant, liposuction and change to low tar cigarettes would do the trick, you would likely try to make them see better sense.

There’s no better friend than our planet, which we are poisoning with the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change, and through that poisoning ourselves. Yet as we approach the Copenhagen climate meeting in December, where we will counsel ourselves on how to address the big problem we have created, the quick fix answers are sadly coming to the fore.

Climate news is increasingly focused on "planetary engineering" to avoid the worst of the global warming impacts we are inflicting on ourselves. There are a host of big ideas: giant mirrors in space, massive CO2 scrubbers more efficient than trees, filling the sea with iron filings to enhance growth of algae that would clear out atmospheric greenhouse gasses. The scientists making these plans are aware of the equally massive risks they pose if the fundamentals of the projects are wrong. And this is sound; if our best scientists cannot get a computer platform right the first time, what chance we can get planetary engineering off the ground without increasing the risk of a global systems collapse?

The reason these quick fixes are coming to the fore is that there are fears that the Copenhagen conference will not lead to a breakthrough in changing our behavior. As Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General just said, "Despite the evidence, despite the science, despite the growing call from enlightened business, we still face inertia."

This is like our fat friend going for a session of liposuction rather than dieting and jogging, leading the way to a longer and happier life.

We need to pressure our local and global representatives to make Copenhagen work. This will need investment in green technologies that will benefit developing as well as developed countries. These solutions, including simple technologies like fuel efficient stoves and solar lanterns, will reduce CO2 emissions while providing power to those trapped in energy poverty, and massive numbers of jobs in brave, new markets.

Targeted climate adaption interventions, protecting the poor and vulnerable in the areas most likely to be flooded, to be turned into desert, to suffer storms, are the difficult but necessary investments we need to make to help people in the short term, and reduce the potential for conflict in the longer time horizon as the poor get more poor, more marginalized and more fed up.

Time is short. The problem is big. The answers need discipline and a long-term view.