Zhu Yuan

Solving climate change? Why bother?

By Zhu Yuan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-17 06:58
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It's human nature to address immediate problems and consider remote ones later. It is particularly so for a government that must meet the immediate needs of its citizens. That may explain why only nonbinding agreements could be achieved thus far at international settings on climate change.

Anthony Gibbens is right in his book Politics of Climate Change that the dangers posed by global warming are not immediate or visible to most people. They ignore them. But waiting for them to become visible and immediate before taking serious action will be too late. So he argues that it is a political rather than technocratic problem and it can never be adequately addressed unless it can be put on the political agenda of a specific government.

He is right to a degree. It is indeed unrealistic for the international community to reach any agreement on concrete actions to address climate change. It is unfair and inhumane for developing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by a great margin at the cost of the living standards. And it will be almost impossible for people in developed countries to change the way they enjoy their lives that is apparently leaving more carbon footprint than what is needed to lessen the rate of global warming. Deciding which country must take the initiative remains a hard nut to crack.

But Gibbens may be somewhat naive by pinning his hopes on concrete actions by a particular government that has put cutting greenhouse gas emissions high on its agenda. This can be done, he said, by pursuing its national interests through climate-change goals.

I am not criticizing Gibbens, who has undoubtedly put new dimensions into the debate by clarifying the nature of climate change as a political problem. I just want to remind readers that we must face the harsh reality that it will be hard to persuade a particular government and even an individual into paying enough attention to such a remote danger as global warming.

The use of treated water is a case in point. I interviewed environmental protection experts in the early 1990s about the use of treated water for watering flowers and flushing toilets. The experts I interviewed said the government needed to invest money in building pipelines connecting sewage treatment plants with residential buildings. Now it is almost 20 years. Not a single pipeline has been built for that purpose.

It is not profitable for enterprises to do that. Neither is it for the government (of course, it is not legal for a government to pursue profits in investing in projects in the interest of the public.) There is still water from underground to use, why do we have to bother? It is not a matter of immediate concern to the government and individuals.

Almost all Americans use clothes dryers instead of hanging their washed clothes in the open air to dry them. I was advised by my landlord not to hang my washed clothes in the backyard and I did that because I considered the use of a dryer a waste of energy. The amount of electricity consumed by dryers can be great and so can the greenhouse gas emissions in generating that amount of power. But few Americans seem to have realized they are contributing to global warming by using dryers.

I have noticed that it is quite common for a single person to drive a sport utility vehicle in the United States. More wealthy Chinese are doing the same now. The capacity of these motor vehicles' engines is big and so is its exhaustion emission. Why don't they choose to drive small cars? Of course, they have the freedom to do that. As long as such SUVs are on sale, it is not possible for a government to prohibit residents from using them.

Gibbens is theoretically right that the hope of considerably slowing the pace of global warming lies in the integration of climate change targets with other objectives by an increasing number of governments. It will be a long time before it becomes intuitive for most people and governments to place climate change concern high on their agenda.

E-mail: zhuyuan@chinadaily.com.cn