Have we reached a tipping point on climate change?

Hurricane Sandy flooding on Avenue C at East 6th Street, NYC

'Society looks to politicians and regulators to make sensible laws.'

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the feeling that there is a growing acceptance that climate change is inevitable and that the resulting rise in temperature above 2 degrees is just a start. Regulators, politicians and bankers have all started making similar noises about the battle against the effects of climate change…it seems to be turning into a different sort of game.

We used to hear about why we need to stop climate change. Talk is now much more and more often about ‘adaptation’ rather than ‘abatement’. (Adaptation focuses on reducing the effects of climate change, whereas abatement takes steps to tackle the cause of climate change – primarily reducing CO2 emissions).

Effectively it seems we are slowly becoming resigned to the fact we have to treat the symptoms of climate change more aggressively than having a go at fixing the cause. But in practical terms, what does this mean? A review of the latest information seems to indicate an urgent focus on fixing symptoms accompanied by slightly more than a background effort on causes:

The European Environment Agency (EEA) issued a report last week titled: “Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerabilities in Europe” and it’s fairly depressing reading.  The effects of climate change, according to the report, are already being felt in Europe; extreme weather events costing billions of Euros in damage are increasing.  Buildings should be built to new codes to withstand extreme weather, water should be used more efficiently and flood defenses should be built.  This, according the EEA’s boss, Professor Jacqueline McGlade, is essential in order to ‘climate-proof’ Europe.

The European Commission is also due to launch its European Adaptation Strategy in 2013 in which it is expected to propose measures to protect critical infrastructure and centers of population. The strategy relates to the implementation of the Europe 2020 Strategy and in particular to resource efficiency. “Adaptation to climate change is a crosscutting issue and will affect key EU policies including: Cohesion policy, Common agricultural policy, policies related to disaster risk management, maritime policy and environmental policies.”

If you are already yawning, here’s a dramatic climate change story:

At the end of October, Superstorm Sandy flooded low-lying areas of New York and New Jersey in the US and damaged a hospital that will cost around a billion dollars to fix.  I saw a comment on Twitter from a journalist in New York that read “If a single storm can cause $1bn of damage to a hospital, is a $15bn sea wall expensive?”  Some residents have set up an online petition for the sea wall.

Events like Sandy get publicity when they hit relatively rich populations quite hard and when they are a drag on GDP as a result of business and stock market shut-downs and unplanned spending on repairs to infrastructure – notably power stations and T&D networks.  At least with a flood barrier – or wall – the population sees it’s getting something for the money (and local jobs).  So there is broad support for this abatement solution (a local fix).  But this response goes nowhere near fixing the cause because the cause is everywhere and nowhere – an invisible gas increasing in the atmosphere.

On Monday last week, The World Bank’s report “Turn Down the Heat – Why a 4 degree Warmer World Must be Avoided” struck a hopeful note: “Warming of 4 degrees can still be avoided: numerous studies show there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2 degrees C.”  But it balances this with: “The sum of current policies – in place and pledged – will very likely lead to warming far in excess of these levels (1.5 degrees).  Indeed, present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4 degrees C warming within the century.  This would mean unprecedented heat waves, severe drought and major floods  in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems and  associated services.”

Also last week, UNEP, the UN Environment Program, issued the Emissions Gap Report.  Their theme is similar to the World Bank report in that they highlight the difference between the current trajectory of climate change and that needed to prevent climate change.

Evidence would point to the fact that the world’s governments are presiding over a set of promises and regulations that won’t do the job. So it seems that someone, somewhere needs to give someone, somewhere a kick in the pants.  And I think that’s the problem.  Who should be kicking who?

Society looks to politicians and regulators to make sensible laws.  Business wants politicians to create a predictable regulatory environment (laws) on which they can base decisions to can invest in ground-breaking climate change solutions and technology.  But politicians are reluctant to pass ‘election-losing laws’ that cause them short-term pain and unpopularity, only for future politicians to reap the benefits of a long-term gain. In short, the reasons for not acting decisively on climate change issues are as complex as the interrelated effects of climate change itself.

Next week I will share my thoughts on what this could mean for ABB, our people and our business.

Image credit: David Shankbone on Flickr


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About the author

Adam Roscoe

I am the Head of Sustainability Affairs at ABB. In a previous life I trained as a journalist and worked as one for eight years. My interests outside work include cycling, cooking, current affairs, history, Daft Punk and writing.
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