Friday, 28 November 2008

The emperor and the nightingale

The world has recently demonstrated an awareness of itself as a single economic system. Following the collapse of the US housing market over the last year and a half, the central banks of Asia, Europe and North America co-ordinated the launching of the largest fiscal aid packages in human history. Most economists agree that they thus averted the collapse of the world banking system and major depressions in the economies of developed and developing nations.

So why is it so much more difficult for the world to see itself as a single natural system? As British Ambassador Simon Gass pointed out in impeccable Greek last week to an economic crisis conference, fixing the environment is going to be much harder than fixing the economy. Yet that is the task now facing scientists and policymakers at the penultimate global summit on climate change before a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol is to be signed. The summit takes place in Poznan, Poland on December 1-12.

The difficulty arises partly from the fact that developing economies such as China and India want a grace period the Earth can ill afford them, to reach living standard parity with Western nations that caused much of today's pollution getting where they are. While the argument hinges on justice for the many, it disguises a deeper motive - a race to supplant the waning economic power of the United States on the world stage.

The greater difficulty is in the nature of the problem: while the human-created economy goes in circles and retrogradations of optimism and contraction, the human effect on the atmosphere is consistently detrimental. To reverse it we must either suffer a rapid population decline, or abandon our growth-based economic development which eats up primary resources to create wealth as we understand it. The choice seems a rum one: get poorer or die - possibly both. Since no global summit can convene on the basis of that choice, the only option in Poznan is reform of our way of life.

How is this to be done? Our carbon-intensity goes much deeper than driving cars and consuming manufactured goods that take energy to produce and run. It extends to the way we grow our food.

While we were hunter-gatherers and few in number, the earth's carbon cycle was mostly in surplus, so to speak. Through photosynthesis and decomposition, plants tucked back into the ground as much carbon as humans, animals, wildfires and volcanoes were able to release. Measurements taken from air bubbles trapped in glacial ice show that atmospheric carbon dioxide reversed a falling trend approximately 8,000 years ago, and methane 5,000 years ago. In a Scientific American article published in March 2005, palaeoclimatologist William F Ruddiman from the University of Virginia suggested that the first was due to the clearing of forests for agriculture in Europe, and the second due to flooding of rice fields in China.

But those levels of carbon dioxide and methane skyrocketed in the last 150 years with the large-scale burning of coal during the Industrial Revolution, followed by oil in the 20th century. Pre-industrial levels of CO2, estimated at 280 parts per million, have now reached 385 parts per million and are rising.

The first results are visible. Ice shelves that have existed since before the last Ice Age ended about 12,000 years ago are deteriorating in West Antarctica, Greenland and the Arctic. Scientists visiting the Ilulissat glacier in Greenland during the summer of 2007 declared the UN's climate change model obsolete. Some predicted the collapse of the Arctic icecap, originally estimated for 2100, by 2030.

We are therefore on a downward spiral that we have not been able to stop, let alone reverse. The question now arises whether that spiral can produce points of no return. The World Wide Fund for Nature suggests that three degrees of warming would be one such tipping point, leading to total destruction of most ice shelves. Another is the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the world's largest lung on land.

The most frightening tipping point, perhaps, is the prospect of Arctic permafrost in Russia and Canada melting to release methane now trapped in peat bogs - a gas 25 times more effective than CO2 in helping the earth absorb heat.

Other tipping points are detrimental to biodiversity - particularly in marine life. The oceans have now absorbed enough CO2 to mark an increase in their acidity. That makes it harder for calcifying marine organisms such as coral reefs, zooplankton and snails to produce the shell on which their life depends. These creatures either sit at the bottom of the food chain or create habitats for food chains. Their endangerment has enormous implications for biodiversity throughout the marine ecosystem.

Another possible biodiversity tipping point for the oceans is the disruption of ocean currents that circulate warm water to the poles and cold water to the equator. Should enough sea ice melt all at once, the rhythm might be broken, argues Tim Lenton from the University of East Anglia, devastating both warm and cold ecosystems.

Scientists have long warned that creatures are becoming extinct at a rate between 100 and 1,000 times the background rate. To the best of our knowledge, we are losing plants and animals at the highest rate seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The question that arises for at least some of mankind is existential. But for most of us it is undeniably one of quality of life. We face the emperor's dilemma in the Hans Christian Andersen story - to tinker forlornly with a broken machine or to enjoy the company of a nightingale. Those who argue that environmental concerns run counter to a healthy economy may rail against environmental regulations, but they can never argue with spontaneous shifts in desire, or they would have to renounce belief in the golden rule of capitalism: that supply will always meet demand.

Having become the dominant force in evolution, what kind of planet do we demand for our children?

Friday, 7 November 2008

A new beginning

With Barack Obama's stunning electoral victory, the painful presidency of George W Bush is finally drawing to a close. The Democrat won 53 percent of the national vote to Republican John McCain's 46 percent, outperforming Bill Clinton, the last Democrat to enter the White House; but he also won an electoral landslide of 349 votes to McCain's 163.

Fears of a last-minute overseas misadventure (Bush senior sent US troops to Somalia in the last two months of his presidency) ought to be put to rest. Bush's domestic approval ratings are in the basement (they have been in the 20 percent and low 30 percent range in every major poll this year), and he has promised Obama a smooth transition.

It is doubtful whether the world has ever reacted with such jubilation at the election of a US president. Part of the enthusiasm is, of course, due to the unpopularity of George W Bush (a June poll of Europeans by the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, gave him a 19 percent approval rating); so many people are simply relieved to see him go.

Of course Obama has a lot more going for him than mere defenestration of an unpopular predecessor. Global surveys have consistently favoured him over McCain (69 percent of Europeans supported Obama, versus just 26 percent for McCain, in the GMF poll). America's contract with Europe can now be renewed, free of the divisions the Bush administration engineered over the war in Iraq, epitomised in Donald Rumsfeld's slight about "Old Europe". That much is demonstrated both in the statements of European leaders and in popular enthusiasm.

Surely, though, much of the enthusiasm has to do with Obama's message of hope amid the daunting state of the world after Bush's two terms. US entaglements in Iraq and Afghanistan have diluted America's image as a benign force in the world, raised interfaith tensions and weakened US power.

Bush's War on Terror is widely seen as a a failure. A BBC poll surveying 23 countries across the world last September found that nowhere did a majority feel the US was winning against Al Qa'ida. The largest overall majority, 47 percent, thought no-one was winning. Even US opinion is negative: Only 31 percent of Americans surveyed think the war a success, with 34 percent believing it has made Al Qa'ida stronger.

Obama has promised a 16-month withdrawal from Iraq and a strengthening of the effort in Afghanistan. Both will be difficult to achieve, but the goal is essentially correct. Obama also has to find host countries for inmates at Guantanamo and choose a moment to definitively denounce torture - two of the biggest sources of moral deficit during the Bush years.

The developed world looks forward to a US administration that recognises climate change and the human role in it. The coordination of central banks to respond to the credit crisis is a living demonstration that America and Europe can join forces to take the lead in dealing with global warming. Only then can developing economies like India, China and Brazil be persuaded to sign onto a global action plan.

Obama has signalled his willingness to throw gargantuan amounts of federal money into developing renewable energy. That is a laudable policy, but he will have a tougher time persuading Congress to pass a cap-and-trade carbon scheme to succeed Kyoto, or the dying US car industry to raise fuel efficiency standards.

Apart from mending broken friendships, Obama also has to strike a new tenor with adversaries like Russia and China, and threats like Iran. He will be dealing from a position of economic weakness and culpability, and his opponents will use that against him. There is plenty of popular sentiment for them to bank on. An annual report on global attitudes published in the summer by the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based research group, found that most countries blame the United States for the impact of the credit crisis on their economies; and since then the situation has worsened.

Perhaps the most daunting long-term challenge of all, though, will be the cultural division in America itself. The very election of the first African American president signals that voters were ready for a departure from tradition. Unsurprisingly, Obama rode to victory on the back of the young vote, taking 66 percent of the 18-29 age group, 52 percent of the 30-44 age group and 50 percent of the 45-64 age group. Only in the 65-and-over age group did McCain prevail. Hence Obama's wins in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, which broke the crucial conservative edge.

But that analysis leaves out social conservatives, a key ingredient of both George W Bush victories. The South and Midwest voted en bloc for McCain, as did much of the West, sometimes with impressive margins (Oklahoma and Wyoming, for instance, put a 32-point difference between the candidates).

No president can, in the course of two terms, bridge the divide between those who would teach their children Darwinian evolution and those who would teach creation theory, suavely repackaged as Intelligent Design; or between those who would ban abortion (two red states floated motions to do so on this presidential ballot) and those who would rather leave it a personal decision.

What a promising president can do, though, is oppose dogma and reinforce reason, something Bush pointedly refused to do, opting for faith and instinct instead.

The material divisions in the world's foremost capitalist society are another major divide. Real wages have fallen during the Bush years, while poverty has risen. Three hundred and fifty thousand families joined the ranks of America's poor between 2002 and 2006, according to a recently released survey by the Working Poor Families Project. (Poverty was defined as a family of four living on less than $42,400 a year). The number of jobs paying below the federal poverty level also rose to over a fifth, the same survey found. At the same time, US GDP has risen.

These figures stand in stark contrast to George W Bush's tax cuts for the well-off, and more than half a billion dollars spent on the war in Iraq. They also stand in stark contrast to a report released last August from the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional investigative arm, revealing that more than half of US corporations pay no tax, because they appear to earn no profit. This means that working Americans are paying an ever-higher proportion of the tax burden, while their hopes of social mobility are being dampened.

Barack Obama cannot overnight bring back prosperity and social justice; end two wars successfully and restore America's moral standing; set the foundation to reversing climate change and end the bizarre power of religious bigots who tipped Bush into power in the first place. Yet these are the minimum challenges. The next administration must be prepared to wait a while for gratification.