One of the features of our modern times is the ability to communicate with one another exceptionally rapidly. Events nowadays burst into our consciousness in an instant, whether it is the Arab Spring manifestations or the rape and murder atrocity in New Delhi, and these happenings show the ability of the public to organize mass action very quickly. But this phenomenon is two-faced; in the same way as these incidents come alive in a flash, they subside very fast as well, and it is a sad reflection of our times that our attention span is becoming shorter and shorter. New ideas race in, crowding out the old before they have had time to germinate and turn from campaign into action.
Thus it seems with the agenda for climate change. Certainly, this problem did not emerge at the speed of light. Instead, it followed a long period of almost silent gestation in the laboratories of science and along the back alleys and corridors of diplomacy and politics. Twenty years ago, it would have been necessary to explain global warming to the bewildered public, but then climate change issues suddenly seemed to grab the public consciousness. Five years ago, the public were more aware of the perils of carbon emissions than the world’s politicians. Newspapers were full of the dangers of an over-warmed planet, there was the remarkable documentary film in 2006 by Al Gore called An Inconvenient Truth, and the drama of global warming was expounded on television. Climate change entered every home.
Then along came the American president, Barack Obama, with his inauguration speech, repudiating the character of denial of the George W. Bush years. That moment, four years back, was probably the high-water mark and represented the greatest hope in the climate change debate. For the first time, there was a realistic prospect that the world’s most powerful and influential power, and biggest polluter, was ready to confront and overcome the world’s greatest challenge. After Obama’s inauguration, the public was ready to believe that the rhetoric would turn into action, that nations would stop quibbling and start curbing emissions, and that the world’s politicians would stop trying to negotiate with physics and instead begin to use the science to reconfigure the world’s energy strategy.
But Obama’s inauguration proved to be a false dawn. Obama, as it turned out, would stake his presidency on healthcare and not on climate change. A series of conferences in recent years and on several continents, in Copenhagen, Durban, Doha and Rio, did nothing more than evince general intent to think about doing something sometime. And it seems, in rapid order, climate change has moved from the front pages to the backwaters. If one questions the editors and the journalists about this new low priority, they will say it is the public’s fault: the discerning audience has had its moment of focus and has now moved on to other matters. Breaking news has crowded out what might well constitute the most important crisis ever to confront mankind.
The record loss of ice in the Arctic Sea last summer has barely registered in the American public consciousness, because climate change is only just starting to pose a practical problem for the big population centres of the lower 48 states of the United States of America, although it has been that in Alaska for a long time. Native villages with sea frontage are eroding and must be moved. Tall new brush and saplings are springing up on the tundra where they had never grown before. The season during which it is possible to drive on icy roads has shortened from 204 days to 124. Alaskan hunters must go further out in the sea to hunt because the ice is receding. The direct effects of pollution hit people and animals harder in the Arctic, and the bodies of the Inuit living near the North Pole contain the highest concentrations of chemical contaminants found in humans anywhere on earth.
It seems that even the potential of a global catastrophe can only manage its few minutes of media and political attention. Obama now has a new mandate, but significantly, climate change barely featured this time in his election campaign. In Europe, the Centre-Right governments which are in power are knee-deep in financial and social internal problems and have no time and less inclination to give any priority to this global challenge. There are obviously no political dividends to be gained from addressing a problem that cannot be fixed cheaply, neatly and quickly. For completely different reasons, both Germany and Japan have renounced nuclear power, one of the few forms of low carbon energy that could maintain Western-style high standards of living while keeping the emissions and temperature down. In India, demonstrations have taken place against nuclear power with scant regard to, or serious discussion of, its manifold benefits, while the government of India chooses to maintain an agnostic silence. In all the current talk of stimulating growth, there is scarcely a mention of making it green.
Therefore, since the Copenhagen conference, which was attended by many heads of government, the climate change agenda has fallen into deep trouble. We have no political consensus, no international agreement, and a public that is getting indifferent. Mass public demonstrations urging politicians to take action rapidly to avert this danger seem to be a thing of the past.
What will we look for in a new and greener energy economy? There could be three components: better ways of capturing energy from nature, better ways of using energy, and finally, better ways of storing energy. Fortunately, there is no shortage of exciting ideas springing off the scientific drawing boards, spurred on by those hopes of four years ago. Wind turbines can now compete with coal, solar power is becoming cheaper by the day, and, although it got off to a slow start, new batteries are being devised that will match nature’s energy supply with consumer demand. Geothermal energy being extracted from the belly of the earth is a safe and cheap source of energy. Then there is the accelerator-driven sub-critical system in thorium-based reactors, which operates in a closed cycle. A number of institutions in China and India are working on this new generation of safer nuclear technologies. For these reasons, the energy supply side is starting to look more promising.
So what, with any confidence, can be expected as the next steps? Consumption is set to change. The use of motor vehicles is due for a dramatic transformation with fuel consumption likely to fall rapidly as a new generation of affordable plug-in hybrids hits the road. Efficient high quality LED lights are rapidly becoming the norm, and more energy efficient appliances are already in the market. The new gadgets will be popular simply because they are more user-friendly and cheaper than the older ones. LED lighting lasts for years and not months, energy-efficient appliances cost small change to run, and electric cars are quieter, quicker and cheaper to use than petrol or diesel engine ones. Seemingly, it will be customer experience and preference that will ultimately change our world for the better, and not the green campaigner or the international conference of plenipotentiaries.
In this way, the climate has evidently changed for climate change. But the former activism has not totally disappeared; it has simply moved underground and out of sight. When the new technologies emerge in the marketplace, as they undoubtedly will, there will be a roller-coaster ride as the public ditch the old for the new faster than it abandoned the energy-efficient horse and cart in favour of the carbon-emitting motor car.