Global warming and climate change have been top-of-the-mind issues, especially during the past 24 months. Climate change is not new, but it did not become a hot issue in the public domain until the United Nations meeting on the subject, which produced three reports compiled by 2,500 of the world’s top scientists; the third and final of the reports was the subject of a recent UN conference in Bangkok. Earlier climate change meetings in Rio de Janeiro and Kyoto eluded a sense of government and public consensus, apart from there being severe disagreements amongst the climatologists themselves. From the very start of the debate, the American government remained in a state of denial regarding the dangers of climate change, in the face of overwhelming evidence. Climate change has been further confused by bloated doomsday scenarios which forecast that the Tropics would either go under the sea or become deserts, while the colder regions of the North would enjoy milder climates and lower energy needs. As in all such forecasts, the truth usually lies somewhere in between. But these certainly bestirred the people in every country.
The third and final part of the UN climate change report, which was the subject of the Bangkok conference, helpfully states that avoiding disastrous change to climate is within the realm of possibility with the help of existing technologies, albeit at an economic cost. The top climate scientists have come up with financial numbers required to reverse the century-long trend — by 2020 if a catastrophic disaster is to be avoided. Thus, we have the scientists’ word that although the numbers thrown around are humongous, in the absence of alternatives, it may be worth spending vast amounts to save the universe.
In a somewhat different context, readers may recall the great promise of genetic engineering in the last century. It was claimed that the cost of drug discovery would fall dramatically, individuals’ genetic profiles would become the basis of health, disease and longevity management. Agricultural productivity would dramatically improve to banish starvation and hunger forever and so on and so forth. All these promises remain within the realm of reality, except for the timetable of delivery.
The last time that scientists were given a fund carte blanche with a brief to save the world, was during World War II, when the Manhattan Project was launched. Eventually, the atomic bomb was built and dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, killing millions of Japanese people and forcing Japan to surrender and bring an end to the war. It was an unusual way to save the world but indeed set a precedent.
The Manhattan Project’s aim was to put the fear of god into the enemy and force them into submission. The UN’s goal for 2020, comparatively, is to put fear of climate change into human kind and force nations to think and behave in dramatically different ways. The world’s climate has been changing since its creation. I am not a professional climatologist, but can comprehend that there has been a gradual progression over the millennia. What the world has been witnessing in the more recent past, say, for the past hundred years, is the mounting evidence of hyper-acceleration of climate change. The origins of accelerated climate change can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of the steam engine and the increasing use of fossil fuels — first coal and then crude oil. So, the origins of the economic prosperity in the developed world, the rise and success of seafaring nations, the advent of modern chemistry and physics and so on, owe their success to new discoveries and the assumption of unlimited availability of fossil fuel. The per capita usage of energy in the developed countries has continued to grow ever since, and is several times more, compared to consumption in countries such as India, China, Brazil and South Africa. Since climate change is not a geographically restricted phenomenon, trying to slow it down has become a universal responsibility. The debate about the greater obligation of the developed economies is yet to be resolved.
The UN report discussed in Bangkok claims that to slow down climate change there are affordable technologies available, but appropriate government policies around the world and huge funds are now required to make effective use of these technologies. Energy intensive chemical and engineering processes must be remodelled to lower energy consumption, for example. Remodelling business processes to manage climate change represents huge business opportunities, but require adoption of non-conventional and new technologies. Reducing emission in the transport sector is possible with known technologies, albeit at enormous costs. It is the ingenuity of scientists and technologists which will make the costs affordable. Similar opportunities exist in several other sectors, such as power generation and energy use in the agricultural and in domestic practices.
The emergence of these technologies was catalysed by the knowledge revolution, which was ushered in in the 20th century by the discovery of the genetic code and the silicon chip. The products of the knowledge revolution provide the basis for dramatic change in the traditional technologies used in the production of goods and services of the old economy.
What remains unstated is that there is, as yet, neither a blank cheque for the scientist nor a well- defined magic bullet to reverse the climate change by the application of these new technologies.
If the UN’s Bangkok declaration envisages a second Manhattan Project, this time on a global scale, then its proponents have to, very clearly, place their major proposals and road maps in the public domain in order to carry credibility with the man-on-the-street as well as with national governments. The quality of political and scientific leadership required to undertake the initiatives to slow down or reverse climate change and share obligations and costs, unfortunately, remains fuzzy. Resources may not be an insurmountable issue but collaboration between scientific and technological leaders on the one hand, and political leaders on the other, on such a gigantic scale, has never been tried before and is not going to be easy to accomplish.
The Manhattan Project was primarily driven by the United States of America on behalf of the allies. The climate change project will have to be driven by a global alliance of nations. There are no indications that such a covenant will be agreed to in a hurry. But the writing is on the wall; to ignore the clear warnings will condemn successive generations to an extremely uncertain and grim future.