Believing the impossible

Scientific Alliance

In Alice through the Looking Glass, the White Queen famously said that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast. It often seems as though some people are following her example. Many things may be eminently desirable, but wishing for them is not the same as achieving them. Believing that a particular wrong or injustice can be completely eliminated often does no good. In too many cases, the best can be the enemy of the good.

Poverty, for example, is one of the great scourges of the world, but creating a well-financed, high profile campaign such as Make Poverty History has not made poor people noticeably better off since it was launched in 2005. The campaign – in effect, not new, but a high-profile relaunch of existing efforts – called for ‘trade justice’, debt relief and more and smarter aid. All well-intentioned, but not really addressing the major issues. When bad governance, corruption and conflict lie at the heart of the problem for many countries such interventions can do little to ease the problem.

Poverty is a particular problem in the developing world, but there are pockets of poverty even in the most prosperous societies. If rich European countries cannot eliminate poverty at home, how can they hope to do so in the developing world?

Of course, this is all to some extent a question of definition. Campaigners are generally talking about absolute poverty, which the World Bank currently defines as living on less than $1.90 a day. But that doesn’t mean that all is fine and dandy for someone with $2 a day. In rich countries, on the other hand, poverty is defined in relative terms. In the UK, for example, a child is considered impoverished if they live in a household with less than 60% of the average income.

Either way, there is no clear-cut line which distinguishes the poor from the adequately well-off. And, using the UK definition, poverty can never be abolished without almost total income equality across all households. To talk of making poverty history when the root causes are so difficult to address and poverty itself is so difficult to define is not really helpful.

Climate change is a completely different issue, but the same attitude still prevails in some quarters. It seems there are quite a number of people who think that agreed targets must automatically be achievable. But, too often, they represent more of a leap of faith than something which can be realistically achieved. At best, they can be regarded as aspirational, but the language of climate change mitigation policy – ‘must’, ‘vital to avoid catastrophe’ etc – strongly suggests that they are considered as much more than that.

Take two examples. We see that The EU can achieve zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and that G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuel use by the end of the century. Anabelle Jaeger, a Green Party regional councillor for the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur and member of the Environment Commission of the Committee of the Regions, is the lady who believes that decarbonisation is possible in the next 35 years. She is the author of a draft opinion on COP21 which calls for precisely this. In her words It is an ambitious position that has real support from the Committee of the Regions. We would not propose this if it was not possible. If we, as local authorities, can do this, then Europe as a whole can do it too.” This certainly seems to be a leap of faith rather than a fully planned transition.

Such enthusiasm from the Green Party at a regional level is perhaps understandable. But what about the leaders of the G7 agreeing to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2100, following their summit in Bavaria in June? The communique (Think Ahead, Act Together) was actually not quite as precise as that. Climate change, energy and the environment appeared on page 12 of the 17-page document, following a range of more immediately pressing issues, including health. The relevant statement was “…we emphasize that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.”

Along with this goes a commitment to seek “…a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) applicable to all parties that is ambitious, robust, inclusive and reflects evolving national circumstances.”

G7 leaders appear to be trying to keep the show on the road, without making cast-iron commitments. But the nature of the statements made, and the likely wording of any final resolution from Paris (not that this is ever likely to be truly legally binding on signatories) raises expectations among campaigners that swingeing emissions reductions can and will be achieved.

The reality is that any objective assessment shows we currently do not have the technology to achieve net zero emissions without severe disruption of advanced economies and without erecting barriers to the development of poorer countries. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous. Not that this is necessarily a problem for some on the far Left. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, for example, has put forward a contribution to COP21 which suggests that for a lasting solution to the climate crisis, we must destroy capitalism.

Fortunately, this is not a view shared by many other world leaders. But other commentators suggest similarly radical approaches are called for; for example, Venkatesh Rao in The Atlantic: Why solving climate change will be like mobilizing for a war. In this vision, authoritarian technocrats marshal society’s resources in a focussed effort to achieve what would otherwise be unrealisable goals.

For those of us who would rather remain democratic control over politics, this is still the same as saying something is, at the current stage of development, impossible to achieve. Much more meaningful and useful progress is likely to be made by identifying the technical roadblocks and working on solutions than simply ploughing more and more resources into technology which cannot meet the goal. In the case of climate change, swamping the country with wind farms and solar arrays can never be the answer unless an economic energy storage system is available on a vast scale.