From today, based on the best estimates available, we have eight years to head-off potentially uncontrollable climatic upheaval. What can happen in eight years? Quite a lot, actually. A world war can begin, and end. Two, in fact.
Last month there was a lacklustre meeting on climate change in Poznan, Poland. It was talks about more talks set to come later this year in Copenhagen. But that’s all it was, talks. Now, on New Year’s Day, hangovers and environmental ennui could prove a lethal combination. But squeeze those eyes open to 2009, and history tells us great things are possible. We are still in control. We just need to build, rapidly, new energy and transport systems and change our behaviour.
Only, we seem to have forgotten what we are capable of.
Victorian engineers would have been aghast at our timidity. Within our 8 year time frame, for example, between 1845 and 1852 there were 4,400 miles of railway track laid in Britain.
Today we desperately need to get people out of their cars and on to cleaner transport. But, after a decade of work and around £9bn spent just to upgrade the west coast mainline, it still didn’t work properly when “opened” last month.
Skip back to a weekend in1892. By contemporary standards, engineers began a project of breathtaking ambition on the morning of Saturday May 21, and they finished it by 4am on the following Monday morning, May 23. In just those two days a small, perfectly coordinated army of 4,200 workers, laid a total of 177 miles of track along the Great Western route to the south west, converting the old broad gauge lines to the new standard, or narrow gauge.
As Barack Obama waits in the wings to assume the presidency, he must be acutely conscious of the other great, if short-lived, American new dawn that began in 1961 when John F Kennedy became President.
In the first few months of Kennedy’s term of office, he announced his nation’s intention to put a man on the moon. As fantastic and, literally, other worldly as that must have seemed at the time, only eight years later, in July 1969, the US achieved its goal. By the time that the moon missions were over in 1973, an estimated $20bn dollars had been spent.
For a meaningful comparison of what that would represent today you need to look at it as a relative share of GDP. That brings the modern equivalent figure to a substantial $200bn. It’s big. But considering the iconic nature of the project, the virtually standing start it had, and the speed of accomplishment, it looks rather affordable now, compared with the sums thrown at the banking crisis. And, of course, they could say, “Hey, we put a man on the Moon.” With the trillions thrown at the financial crisis it can, at best, be said, “Hey, it could’ve been worse.”
The Apollo programme was money spent for a handful of men to become the only people in history to set foot on another celestial body. Now, what price is it worth paying to preserve for the whole of humanity the conditions under which civilisation emerged? In America they are indeed invoking the Apollo programme as a precedent for the overdue climate-response.
There are inverted, negative examples, too, of our ability to mobilise resources. According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz the Iraq war has cost the US around $3tn. The war has been going for just under six years, has made an enormous mess, and is far from over.
An increasing number of voices in the climate change debate are beginning to express despair. Among them are concerned, informed and well-motivated scientists and journalists. Fair enough. Comparing the emerging trends on greenhouse gas emissions with the past track record of achievements in energy conservation, increased efficiency, and the introduction of renewable energy options provides little encouragement.
But that is to look in the wrong place for hope. The beginnings of the great transition are already visible in the 1,000 flowers blooming as green energy projects at the local level. But, the clean energy shift has, until now, been nowhere a political priority on the scale of war or the Apollo programme. Neither has it had the wild ambition that the architects of empire brought to building their new infrastructure. The eight years we now have left is time enough if this kind of boldness and vision can be wrestled towards solving the climate predicament. If we build it, they will come, and the great transition will run on time. Happy New Year.
Cross-posted at Comment is free.