Climate change: Short-term thinking costs us the future

This is the opinion of Jorgen Ransen, professor of climate change at the Norwegian Business School. In 1972 he collaborated in writing the Limits to Growth, the best-selling environment book of all time. This gave 12 scenarios, driven by computer models, which would face the earth given different decisions by policy makers.

These ranged from business-as-usual and high carbon growth, to no growth. “I was clearly more hopeful back then. I thought if you could show people these options that they would change. I assumed that it would lead to a slowing-down and redirection,” he said in an interview with the Mail & Guardian.

But this did not happen. “We have continued with business-as-usual and overshot where we should be to have a sustainable future,” he said. At first he thought that it was because people did not know enough, then he tried to scare them, and now he is growing increasingly pessimistic as people do not change, he said. 

The failure comes down to short-term thinking and the inability of democratic institutions to change direction and come up with solutions quickly, he said.

This has turned him towards China for a model on how to create functional governance. “I am a great fan of wise, central government because of its ability to act quickly,” he said.

A great example of where this works has been China’s one-child policy where, although it has its negative side, has ensured that the population has grown by 400-million fewer people. This has done a huge amount to manage the ecological footprint of the country, he said.

The world in 40 years’ time
Other initiatives were also possible thanks to a centralised government – the country is now being reforested and quick, simple solutions like solar water heaters are rolled out immediately, he said.

“In 40 years’ time the average Chinese person will be living like the average European, and the country will be much more sustainable,” he said.

His pessimism about current progress led him to update his 1972 work for the Club of Rome – a think-tank that commissioned the first work. 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years predicts what the world will be like in 40 years’ time, given how things are currently unfolding now.

By then the effects of climate change will lead to constant damage to all sorts of different sectors. “With the way things are going we will have to live with repair work,” he said. This means there needs to be a much greater focus on adaptation now, where countries make themselves more climate resilient, he said.

In his home country of Norway, he was part of a working group that tried to start this process and make the country less carbon intensive. This would have only cost everyone an extra half a percent of gross domestic product, and would have left the country sustainable by 2050. The proposals are still stuck in debates in government. “People are not even willing to pay that,” he said.

The only incentive to change would come when climate change became starkly visible in Norway. And with tropical conditions advancing north at five kilometres a year this would happen by mid-century. The skiing season, with its firm ice, had already halved. “Why are people going to stay in the dark and gloom when they don’t get any of the benefits,” he said.

Developing agriculture
But for now there were also positives. Increased rainfall had added 5% to hydro power capacity, and agriculture was picking up. This was tempered by unforeseen fallouts, like warming oceans pushing fish to migrate towards Russian waters, harming the local fishing industry, he said.

And with people only thinking about there, here and now, their politicians were doing the same because they needed their votes. Even a political system where there were elections every decade would leave short-term thinking, he said. The only reason the European Union had moved so quickly on environmental issues was purely because it was not yet hampered by overly-democratic hurdles, he said.

His visit to South Africa was in part to show his work to the national planning commission. “I showed them my models and said that the external world might look a bit different from the one that they used in their models,” he said.

This included growth rates, where the rich world is going to stay stagnant so South Africa could not rely on increased exports to that market and more subsidies, he said. The upcoming carbon trading scheme between China and the European Union would heavily affect South Africa, with its exports facing tax for the heavy pollution from Eskom’s power generation, he said.

The only market left would therefore be the United States, which was going to face economic decline over the coming decades so did not present good export prospects, he said.

This would leave an uncertain place for South Africa to operate in by mid-century, he said. And it would leave a dramatically different world from the one we have today, where more people faced poverty and the wealth of many was slashed, he said.

Nothing that he had seen in his time led him to think that carbon emissions would be willingly lowered, and that a minimum 2C increase in average temperatures could be averted, he said. International negotiations, like the COP meetings every year, were too slow and too political to make any real impact either, he said.

“I am depressed on behalf of my grandchildren, but that is softened by the immense adaptability of the human being. I love nature and I go running, but they are fine sitting in front of a screen for hours. So what I treasure, which is already disappearing, will not be important to them,” he said. 

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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