Time to Accept The Obvious

Climate change raises issues of science, economics and politics. By the month the debate moves on: 2007 will be a key year. And the science is now unambiguous. At the recent 12th annual United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Nairobi, no country challenged the consensus: climate change is man-made, it is happening now, carbon levels already in the atmosphere are

dangerous, and if we carry on catastrophic climate change will become more, rather than less, likely. Contrary to Robert Samuelson's unfounded claim in NEWSWEEK (Nov. 15 issue), scientists do have a good idea how much warming might occur. Within ten years we will be running a better than even chance of a two degrees Celsius average change in the earth's temperature; within 50 years it will be a majority chance of a three-degree change.

The economic debate is also turning full circle. The report by Sir Nicholas Stern, Head of the U.K. Government Economics Service, shows that to be pro-growth, especially but not only for developing countries, we need to be pro-green. Put another way, the costs of action are much smaller than the costs of business-as-usual--by a factor of between five and 20. Samuelson alleges "public relations," "fictions" and "fabrications" but offers no argument. Stern makes mainstream and transparent assumptions about risk and discount rates. His conclusion is obvious to anyone concerned that Hurricane Katrina or the Australian drought might be related to climate change: investment in adaptation and mitigation is not without cost, but the economic dangers of our current path are much greater.

Samuelson suggests that the technology does not exist to cut global greenhouse-gas emissions. Wrong. In each of the five main sources of greenhouse gases--electricity, heat, transport, agriculture and deforestation--there are solutions. Energy efficiency in homes and buildings is the cheapest approach; in the U.K., we have improved energy efficiency of new homes by 40 percent since 2002. As the International Energy Agency has shown, low-carbon technologies, from wind and solar to nuclear and carbon capture and storage, are available. In transport, hybrid cars reduce emissions by a third. Deforestation can be avoided if people are provided with alternative ways of earning a living.

The question is not technology; it is providing the money to fund the difference between high-polluting and low-polluting technologies. That is a matter of politics. Samuelson says politicians are cowards, and anyway even if we cut our emissions the developing world will more than make up the difference. But this is a counsel of despair. In the U.K. the Labour government has overseen a 25 percent growth in the size of the economy since 1997, while greenhouse-gas emissions have been cut by 7 percent. The U.K. is on track to more than double its Kyoto commitments on greenhouse-gas reduction, representing a 60 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. A new Climate Change Bill will put legislative force behind our drive. And we are not alone.

Across Europe, governments are firming up hard targets for emissions reductions. So are U.S. states like California. We believe it is in our economic self-interest: as they say at Google, if the market is going to move, then get there first. But there is also a political reason: hard targets from industrialized countries create a double dividend. They break the logjam of distrust with the developing world, by showing commitment to take action, and they create a carbon market through which private-sector capital can flow into low-emissions energy infrastructure in the developing world.

The truth is that for 150 years we have pumped carbon dioxide and other dangerous gases into the atmosphere as if it had no environmental or economic cost. Now that we know the costs, we need to put a price on them. In the process we will effect a transition in our own economies to low-carbon living, and set in train a resource transfer from North to South.

In the next few months there will be further scientific confirmation from the International Panel on Climate Change. The European Union will take further steps on energy efficiency and carbon trading. And the dialogue established by Tony Blair for the Group of 8 leading industrialized countries, plus five leading developing countries, will be taken forward during the German presidency of the G8.

The first set of international emissions-reduction commitments agreed at Kyoto in 1997 will run out in 2012. New commitments are essential to succeed them. The industrialized countries must lead the way. For developing countries, there must be other ways to make a contribution--according to the U.N. principle of "common but differentiated" responsibilities. Climate change is not ultimately an environmental question. It is an economic and social and political question. Action is not just possible but sensible, and the sooner we take it the better.