After the deluge, what hope the politics of climate response? By Nick Rowley

I am writing with Hurricane Sandy having brought devastation to New York and the East coast of the United States.

Much has been written on the politics of climate change. But until a few days ago, a severe weather event affecting the Presidential poll in the world’s largest economy and second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, would have been regarded as creative fantasy or another average Hollywood script.

And yet that is the situation now. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to losses of $US125 billion: the costliest event ever recorded in the US. It was also the deadliest single storm event, claiming 1,322 lives. Sandy doesn’t come close to those statistics, yet she has halted an election campaign, shut down a major global city and stopped trading on the New York Stock Exchange for two days.

In the autumn of 2005 when working at Downing Street on climate and sustainability, I spent four days north of New York with a group of scientists and business leaders concerned with the global climate problem. It was no hurricane, but while I was there the rain didn’t stop. At the conference I met a senior executive working with Munich Re, one of the two largest re-insurance companies. An actuary by training, he wasn’t the type of person swayed by emotion or any environmentalist requests to save the world.

Re-insurers rigorously analyse the frequency and loss trends of different perils from an insurance perspective. They calculate and assess the risk, and advise on premiums accordingly. He had little interest in the political battles with sceptics and those denying basic climate science. He said he wasn’t qualified to understand the policy responses required. Having assessed the data it was clear to him that as the atmosphere warms, the relationships between ocean currents, ice caps, and atmospheric pressure become more turbulent. The weather turns more unpredictable.

In looking out of the window at the torrential rain all I saw were damp autumn leaves. But for him, the constant rain demonstrated the probability of future events that Munich were most fearful of: a pattern of severe storms tracking up the east coast to New York, New Jersey and Washington DC. Not the big “doomsday” scenario, but what Al Gore describes as an unstable series of climatic events that become “the new normal”.

Sandy is not some bolt out of the blue. It is the kind of event that insurers have been across for a while. And as the science, impacts and costs of global climate change become more clear and the risks more real, the next meeting of the world’s climate negotiators will take place in Doha at the end of the month.

Before the meeting Christiana Figueras, the diplomat charged with leading the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was in Australia last week. With a carbon price in place and potentially powerful institutions such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in the process of being established, Australia is a place of great interest.

Figueras is a seasoned United Nations professional: highly intelligent, committed, knows the system backwards, and feisty. I sat next to her at a private lunch convened by the Clean Energy Council. She enthusiastically described the growth in the regulation of carbon with more than 30 emissions trading schemes now in operation. This is indeed positive, but sadly few, if any, can yet demonstrate a price that will come close to de-linking economic growth from emissions growth.

If only the politics of carbon pricing worked as well as the economic principles. And with the failure of Copenhagen to fulfil even the most modest expectations built up following the rise in public, business and political consciousness, there is currently no appetite to take the lead internationally on climate change.

Figueras sees this lack of momentum and argues it must be accelerated through three mutually re-enforcing dynamics:

  • Government and business working in tandem;
  • An understanding that a burden-sharing approach must be replaced with an international race to lead in low emissions energy and infrastructure;
  • An end to the logjam that pits the rapidly developing economies against those that have achieved their high carbon development already.

On these criteria there is cause for optimism. The first is latent. There are notable exceptions, but business responses to climate change have waned and remain more about the need for conspicuous concern rather than achieving measurable reductions.

The second is very much underway. According to Bloomberg, in 2004 only $US34 billion was invested in clean energy globally. In 2011 the figure was $280 billion. That is a more than 800% increase. Last year was the first when new investment in clean energy overtook investment in coal and gas.

On the third, new alliances have been formed between India, China, and Brazil. For them low carbon has the potential to be a massive potential source of competitive advantage over coming decades.

Figueras is impressive. I disagreed with little that she said. She recognises that progress cannot come from the top down, or just the bottom up, but through the actions of multiple State and other players working together.

Yet she believes heads of state must be kept away from the negotiations. Certainly, the Copenhagen experience cannot be repeated: leaders turning up to make speeches and rehearse positions. But for the international agreement that this problem demands to ever be reached, heads of state must be involved. Decisions that have implications for global economic, energy, transport, and trade policy will not be taken by negotiators, no matter how deft and able, working for environment ministers.

Heads of state won’t be in Doha. The timing and the place is wrong. But for the international response to move from flirtation with the problem to putting in place the rules that might temper the scenarios that my friend at Munich Re continues to work on, they simply must be around the table.

Nick Rowley is a research fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at University of Sydney.

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