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The worlds last chance

After years of living in fear of climate change, we are fast


acquiring the weapons to defeat it. But the only one who can
unite humanity for this life-or-death struggle is Barack
Obama - and he must act now. By Ian McEwan
• Ian McEwan
• guardian.co.uk, Wednesday November 19 2008 00.01 GMT
• The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008
• guardian.co.uk, Wednesday November 19 2008 00.01 GMT
• The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008
• The Guardian, Wednesday November 19 2008
'I refute it thus!" was Samuel Johnson's famous, beefy riposte one morning after church in 1763.
As he spoke, according to his friend James Boswell, he kicked "with mighty force" a large stone
"till he rebounded from it". The good doctor was contesting Bishop Berkeley's philosophical
idealism, the view that the external, physical world does not exist and is the product of the mind.
It was never much of a disproof, but we can sympathise with its sturdy common sense and
physical display of Anglo-Saxon, if not Anglican, pragmatism.
Still, we may have proved Berkeley partially correct; in an age of electronic media, where
rumour, opinion and fact are tightly interleaved, and where politicians must sing to compete for
our love, public affairs have the quality of a waking dream, a collective solipsism whose precise
connection to the world of kickable stones is obscure, though we are certain that it exists.
The contest for the US presidency, like all elections, had the self-enclosed quality of a squash
game, a chess match, a postmodern novel - and this one was far better than most. While the
candidates appeared to address an external reality, they were bound by strictly ethereal
requirements: to cast spells on large crowds while seeming ordinary, to trample their opponent
into oblivion while seeming pleasant, to be inspirational yet sensible, to avoid offending a score
of sensitive constituencies, and, an old wizard's touch, to promise the electorate various gifts
without further borrowing or raising taxes.
And to win. As Barack Obama steps forward, the smoke machines and mirrors are packed away -
or perhaps we can never, or should never, let them go. To those who believe that climate change
in the context of global poverty is our most pressing problem, underpinning all others, requiring
degrees of cooperation and rationality we might not even be capable of, the elevation of this
slender, handsome man becomes the object of unreal expectation. Inevitably, after a long
campaign of crowd pleasing, the question hangs in the air: is he merely the expert coiner of a
stirring speech, or does he have the steel to turn intentions into results? At the very least,
America finally has a president who, whatever his profession of faith, has a high regard for
science (look at his sturdy views on intelligent design in Nature magazine of September 25) and
has surrounded himself with scientific advisers of impeccable quality, and committed himself to
the dreamy target of an 80% reduction below 1990 levels of CO2 emissions by 2050.
The issue of climate change is itself another near-virtual reality. Ever since 1979, when James
Hansen's Ad Hoc Group on CO2 reported to President Carter, there have been symposia, denials,
summits, documentaries, marches, legislation, trading schemes and, above all, resounding
speeches high on ambition - in Europe we rather excel at these.
However, on the all-too-kickable stone we call the Earth, where results from thousands of
measurements in oceans and on land masses are mapped against satellite data, the mean
temperature has continued to rise. In 2006, and even more in 2007, the shrinking of the summer
ice in the Arctic exceeded the gloomiest predictions. Data for the past year, during an economic
downturn, show CO2 levels rising as fast as ever. It is doubtful whether there is yet a single
recorded instance of a carbon-producing power station taken out of commission to make way for
a clean energy installation.
The burning forests, the dissolving coral reefs, the extinction of species - we have numbed
ourselves with these familiar litanies. During the past 30 years we have dealt with the issue, if at
all, only in our minds. There are, of course, first signs of a new clean energy infrastructure -
along certain stretches of the Danish coastline, on some German and Japanese rooftops, in
certain deserts - but the effect so far is miniscule. We are still dreaming, still murmuring in our
sleep as we grope for the levers that connect thoughts to actions.
Domestically, Obama will have a number of factors on his side, beyond good working majorities
in both houses. There is at least agreement that there is a problem - anthropogenic climate change
is a fact, an American fact. Doing nothing is simply too expensive. A good part of the Republican
party accepts this, as do major corporations, and even oil companies. The deniers are, or should
be, folding their tents - and what was to deny? A molecule of CO2 absorbs the longer wave
length of light, trapping radiant heat from the earth. More CO2, more trapped warmth. If
temperatures drift much beyond 2C above pre-industrial levels, the human and economic
consequences could be catastrophic. Americans have already seen what happens when a warmer
Atlantic Ocean lends its energy to the hurricane season.
Thus the matter is passing from virtue, from idealism and sombre invitations to self-denial,
which government, markets and the electorate distrust, to self-interest and necessity, for which
they all have respect. Oil production will soon decline, and alternatives must be found anyway;
many oil-producing countries are grisly human constructs on which no one wants to depend; if
the US does not invest in green technologies now, it will have to buy them later from its
competitors; Germany has created a quarter of a million jobs in renewable energy; it is beginning
to be apparent that there is a vast amount of money to be made retooling and supplying a whole
civilisation with new energy sources.
The technologies are developing at speed, but the basic ideas have a simple allure. Consider just
one form of solar energy. An alien landing on our planet and noticing how it was bathed in light
would be amazed to learn that we believe ourselves to have an energy problem, that we ever
should have thought of overheating or poisoning ourselves by burning fossil fuels or generating
plutonium. Sunlight falls on us in a constant stream, a sweet rain of photons beyond counting.
On average, by Nasa's calculation, 200 watts for every square metre of the Earth's surface. A
single photon striking a semi-conductor releases an electron, and so electricity is born, right out
of sunbeams. These are the photovoltaics that Einstein described and for which he won a Nobel
prize. If you believed in God, you might say this free energy was his greatest gift. Let there be
light! If you did not, you might wonder at how auspicious the laws of physics are. As is often
pointed out, less than an hour's worth of all the sunlight falling on the Earth would satisfy the
whole world's needs for a year. A fraction of our hot deserts could power our civilisation.
Millions of acres in the American south-western deserts have already been identified for suitable
sites. Installations are beginning to appear, some of them funded by European companies taking
advantage of state tax-breaks. In private and public labs, new technologies are being invented.
How can a solar or wind plant generate power by night? Daniel Nocera at MIT has imitated
photosynthesis to crack water efficiently into hydrogen and oxygen; at night these gases are
recombined in a fuel cell to drive a turbine. In other labs, the race is on for that industrial golden
egg, a cheaper, lighter, more powerful battery for use in electric cars; nanotechnology is being
used to derive two electrons from one photon; thin film solar panels are already in production;
other labs are working on solar paints. The lines of inquiry are proliferating by the thousands.
That resourceful Californian generation that made its fortune refining the internet is beginning to
relive its youth in clean energy. The whole sector is like a coiled spring, waiting to unleash its
full force into the economy.
In other words, Obama assumes power at a time when renewable energy has ceased to be a
marginal pursuit. The hour may have summoned the man, but this happens to be a particularly
difficult hour. In Berkeleyan mode, we have entered a global recession because we always
thought we would. The fictional head of a snake has begun to devour its actually existing tail - a
circularity the great Argentinean fabulist, Jorge Luis Borges, would have appreciated. We
dreamed of this recession, we saw it coming and we made it so. Meanwhile, in the Johnsonian
"real" economy, factories, distribution systems, human inventiveness, the will to work, the need
for goods and services are much as they were last year - except, as certainty of the recession
tightens, people fear more and spend less, corporations begin to make redundancies, and so the
recession is locked in.
Beyond that, the problems are solvable, but they are formidable too. The departing president has
been energetically pulling levers in the real world, facilitating coal-fired power plants, opening
up federally owned wilderness to oil and gas drilling and encouraging the commercial
exploitation of oil shale. This will all have to be reversed by President Obama. Solar- and wind-
generating plants are often far from cities; as in Europe, a new direct current grid is needed; the
old is chaotically devolved to state level. The costs will be enormous, the benefits will not be
immediately obvious to many consumers, and the US government has colossal debts. Coal
remains a crucial energy source in the States, but "clean" coal is still a fantasy, and piping CO2 to
the appropriate geological sites and pumping it underground is expensive. Oil interests will not
be happy with their loss of supremacy and ancient privileges, or with contemplating a cap and
trade scheme during a recession. Acceptable electric vehicles are still a good way off.
And beyond the administrative and technological problems, there are the usual obstacles. It is not
only Harold Macmillan's "events, dear boy, events" that can blow a thoughtful politician off
course. There are half a dozen other pressing domestic and international concerns, then -
mistakes, enemies, political process, the fumblings or ambitious scheming of lieutenants, the
fading novelty of a new presidential face. And above all, undue caution.
Within the climate science community there is a faction darkly murmuring that it is already too
late. The more widely held view is hardly more reassuring: we have less than eight years to start
making a significant impact on CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, eight years to move
from Berkeley's solipsism to Johnson's pragmatism. Thereafter, as tipping points are reached, as
feedback loops strengthen, the emissions curve will rise too quickly for us to restrain it. In the
words of John Schellnhuber, one of Europe's leading climate scientists and chief scientific
adviser to Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, "what is required is an industrial revolution for
sustainability, starting now".
To be effective, this is only possible at the level of international cooperation - far more difficult
to achieve than any technological breakthrough. There is a rendezvous next year in Copenhagen
in late November which the entire world of climate expertise is preparing itself for and which is
considered by many in the field to be our best and possibly last hope of addressing the problem
before it runs away from us. It is the global successor to Kyoto, known in the trade as COP
(Conference of Parties) 15. There is a case to be made that it will be one of the most important
international meetings ever convened. If it does not result in practical, radical measures, the fight
to control our future could well be lost. Every nation on the planet will be represented. The
general feeling is that the conference cannot be allowed to fail. And it cannot succeed without the
leadership of the United States. There are fears that Obama will move too cautiously on climate
change for political reasons, and that would be a tragic error. Schellnhuber says, "If he were
prepared to come in person to Copenhagen and make a speech, a bold commitment, similar to
what Reagan did in Reykjavik, he would become a hero of the planet, for good."
And so the mechanisms of the unreal, the smoke and mirrors, might have to come to the aid of
our actually existing, overheating world. The process that let us believe we were dealing with
climate change when we were doing nothing at all, or let us think our way into a recession - these
emanations of collective and collusive dreaming can have their positive side. Obama may
succeed in tipping the nations toward a low-carbon future simply because people think he can.
Scientists, whose stock-in-trade is scepticism, and conference-weary diplomats, along with
millions around the world are attributing to him something like unearthly powers. He is invested
with more symbolism - of renewal, of rationality - than his slight frame can bear. But having
persuaded everybody else, he may be doubly persuaded himself. This aura will be his
empowerment, as numinous as good luck, as permanent as spring snow. He has to move
decisively.
There were those who said during the campaign that Obama turned a fine speech, empty of
intent, that he was, as they say in Texas, all hat and no cattle. He must confound his detractors
and start the detailed, practical preparation for Copenhagen, and refute them thus!
© Ian McEwan

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