12 February 2006

It's Too Late to Turn Back Now: Climate Crisis at Tipping Point

The Indepedent online edition reported yesterday that global warming may have reached the "tipping point" beyond which there is no turning back, meaning potentially "a rise in global mean temperatures to 2 degrees above the level before the Industrial Revolution."

Scientists recently concluded that the rise over the past century was about 0.6 degrees and there are rising concerns that rapid melting of Arctic ice in summer could exacerbate the problem.

"By that point it is likely that the Greenland ice sheet will already have begun irreversibly melting, threatening the world with a sea-level rise of several metres," writes Environment Editor Michael McCarthy. This could put "up to 200 million more people at risk from hunger, and up to 2.8 billion additional people at risk of water shortages for both drinking and irrigation."

The concern comes a little less than a week after British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned global leaders "we have less than seven years to save the planet" and take action to combat climate change.

Meanwhile, down under, the Sydney Morning Herald reports that scientists at the Australian National University in Canberra conclude, "we are now living beyond the Earth's capacity to absorb a major waste product," referring to greenhouse gases.

"The resultant risks to health," write the scientists, "are anticipated to compound over time as climate change along with other large scale environmental and social change continues," reports the Morning Herald article. This "could lead to an increase in death rates from heat waves, infectious diseases, allergies, cholera and well as starvation due to failing crops."

The article calls for "recognition of widespread health risks" to "widen these debates beyond the already important considerations of economic disruption."

Environmental impacts are linked to health and the economy. And, if they are at grave risk from climate change, should we not, as free-market capitalists, be preparing for these impacts?

Whether or not you believe we should take action depends upon whether you believe the science. Some still do not believe there is consensus in the scientific community and further question the impact on the poor.

Writing in the National Review online last week, Iain Murray, says, "it is acknowledged by every responsible economist that drastic action to reduce fossil fuel use would increase energy costs, which would in turn reduce household income."

"Wealthier is healthier, and richer is cleaner," writes a usually erudite Murray. "Limiting economic activity therefore can have a dramatic impact on quality of life, not least by reducing life expectancy." Despite such skepticism, the costs can be affordable and changes in business practices may be unavoidable.

"Forget the science debate," said CINergy Corporation CEO James E. Rogers, in a Business Week article last month. "The regulations will change someday. And if we're not ready, we're in trouble."

Insurance risks and the threat of impending regulations are causing a change of heart in the business community. According to Business Week, "Bankers, insurers, and institutional investors have begun to tally the trillions of dollars in financial risks that climate change poses. They are now demanding that companies in which they hold stakes (or insure) add up risks related to climate change and alter their business plans accordingly."

"Risk of climate change is real. It's here. It's affecting our business today," says John Coomber, CEO of insurer Swiss Re.

Moreover, some economists claim that economic growth can actually be encouraged by efforts to cut emissions and increase efficiency. "Alternative energies, carbon sequestration, higher efficiency engineering, new lightweight materials for buildings and vehicles, and rebuilding old industrial and energy infrastructure with clean gear," will all require research and development investments, according to Business Week.

Patrick Doherty, writing on Tom Paine.com last month, comments "Rebuilding our communities to use energy more intelligently provides the a powerful and long-term source of domestic economic growth our economists say America is desperate for."

"And shifting to renewables means we can help the rest of the developing world, 4.5 billion people, get a shot at a better life," Doherty reveals. "If we stick to centralized energy, suburban sprawl and inefficient consumption, we'll be forced to subsidize it from a treasury that is already trillions in the red. Preserving the old economy is just not a viable option."

Indeed, it may be folly to stick to our knitting.

"The crossing of this threshold is of the most enormous significance," says Professor Tom Burke of Imperial College in London, in The Independent. "We have very little time to act now. Governments must stop talking and start spending. We already have the technology to allow us to meet our growing need for energy while keeping a stable climate."

Doing so, says Professor Burke, "will cost less than the Iraq war so we know we can afford it."

Can we afford to keep our heads stuck in the sand and continue to question the science? I am surprised more free-market thinkers are not salivating at the opportunities for growth and investment.

"But the news is that many companies are energetically tackling this growing environmental challenge," according to Business Week. "GE, for one, is seizing the moment with its new Ecomagination division. And scores of small companies are bringing new clean-technology innovations to market."

It may be too late to turn back, but that should not stop us from taking positive action now to address the climate crisis and create new market opportunities. We have the know-how and must act.

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