Here are my notes from It’s the development path stupid, a talk by Steve Rayner at Oxford University Centre for the Environment on 8 Oct. The notes should not be taken as precise, complete or detailed record of what he actually said: they may contain errors, over-simplifications and unhelpful abbreviations, and certainly omit some important points.
Rayner said that the Kyoto Protocol had been an important symbolic expression of global concern. But it had failed.
Bill Clinton recognised this and left the body of Kyoto on a gurney in the basement of the Whitehouse. When George W. Bush moved in he ordered that the stinking body be buried.
We need to accept, said Rayner, that on climate change Bush was a bad guy doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. His biggest mistake was not to propose an alternative for at least six years.
Nevertheless, many (European governments, NGOs etc) continue to think that the solution is to do more of the same: a bigger, better Kyoto. This was a typical example of framing a problem incorrectly and then continuing to insist when you fail that a solution is to do more of what you did before.
Rayner was particularly critical of governments like the British one, whose (then) environment David Milliband could express an interest in personal carbon credits on almost the same day as his government announced two major new airport runways. [Scepticism with regard to the UK government may be reinforced by this article by George Monbiot]. Rayner also took issue with environmentalists such as Monbiot and Mark Lynas who, he said, overstated or misstated the issues – saying, for example, that scientists agree that climate change is the greatest danger humanity has ever faced. Scientists agree no such thing, said Rayner. What about nuclear war or the Black Death etc?
Kyoto is modelled on three earlier treaties – the Vienna Convention on stratospheric ozone (which preceded the Montreal Protocol); the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the US EPA’s Acid Rain Program. But there were vital respects in which the challenges of anthropogenic climate change could not be met from within structures modelled on these.
Perhaps the most important contributions of the Stern Review, he said, was that it recognised that climate change is a moral problem, and confirmed that poor people in marginal environments [are being and] will be most affected.
In Rayner’s view, we need to hold several alternate views in mind when searching for a real solution: a clumsy ‘decision space’ in the triangle between ‘hierarchical’, ‘radical free-market’ and ‘radical egalitarian’ views. As Lancelot Capability Brown said in a different context, 'confront the object and draw nigh obliquely'.
Rayner, a lead author for IPPC Third and Fourth Assessment Reports, said he had proposed a special report on climate change and sustainable development (which requires a diversified approach, emphasises benefits of early adaptation and building for resilience, among other things). This proposal had, he said, been vetoed by China and the United States.
His five recommendations, which may be published in a co-authored comment in Nature ahead of COP 13 in Bali, were:
1. Abandon universalism – work with the fewer than 20 countries that ‘really’ matter (and only around 10 if EU is counted as a political block);
2. Allow genuine emissions markets to evolve from the bottom up;
3. Increase investment in adaptation (currently only around $1.5bn spent on adaptation as against approx. $19bn on mitigation). [Adaptation used to be taboo but no longer is. Geo-engineering is still taboo, but should not be];
4. Work the problem at appropriate sales (provinces, states, cities, local trading systems);
5. Make wartime levels of public investment in [green] energy R&D.
I mentioned that point 5 sounded similar to the recommendation made by Martin Rees in Science in August 2006, and asked what sort of levels of investment Rayner had in mind (were we looking at 'wartime' GDP allocation as in a total war like World War Two or as in the present perpetual war for perpetual peace), and how could political will be mobilised in support of such a goal. Rayner said he would be reasonably happy with up to half the current US spend on military R&D, which had roughly doubled under George W. Bush to $80bn – up from about $4bn today, most of which went on nuclear and 'clean' coal. The money should come from government(s), he said.
Someone else asked what should western NGOs like Oxfam best do to mobilise concern among their supporters. Rayner said they should concentrate on problems of most immediate concern to the poorest, such as provision of fresh water, rather than climate change (‘confront the object and draw nigh obliquely’). He was unimpressed by a recent Christian Aid campaign that showed a photograph of a South Asian women up to her neck in water 'calling' for readers to support a climate bill in the UK. A climate bill would not affect the stocks of GHG already in the atmosphere which might or might not be causing or contributing to present problems, he said, and this woman had much bigger problems than climate change on her plate.
In response to a questioner who looked like a Chinese government official, Rayner said the first best things China could do would be for the central goverment to mandate massive deployment of wind turbines and to rethink a model that brought about the premature death of millions of their citizens by exposing them to pollution from coal. It was at least feasible to trap particulates from coal fired power stations. This wouldn't stop CO2, of course, but it would limit the deposition of dust in the cryosphere which was thought to be contributing to accelerating polar warming by lowering albedo.
He tactfully agreed with a (I think) Brazilian questioner asking about repayment of ecological debt by saying that one of the best way to apply funds from the rich countries was to support clean energy in rapidly emerging economies on the best possible terms.
And he suggested to two other questioners that playing 'the historical blame game' was not going to solve the problem.