We all know that stopping climate change involves replacing a lot of physical infrastructure: power plants, pipelines, boilers and blast furnaces. But what if replacing some invisible infrastructure – that of ideas and institutions – is equally important? After all, as Keynes said, sooner or later it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.
For a start, what’s the infrastructure that makes sure heads of government know just how bad climate change could get? Seeing the news about European ski resorts closing because their snow has been washed away by rain reminds me of my first experience of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: there were nine times as many research papers on this subject as on the risk of un-survivable heat. Is there any reason why risk assessments of climate change should not be as rigorous as those of pandemics, terrorism, or financial instability?
Second, what about the ideas in economics that exert a critical influence over governments’ policy decisions? The first person to write a book on economics, 2,400 years ago, understood that there was a fundamental difference between the question of how to allocate the resources we have, and how to go out and create new ones. With that distinction forgotten, governments following economists’ advice are busily creating carbon markets – probably the least effective way they could address climate change. As if it was a tax on horse manure that created the car industry.
Finally, what are the institutions in diplomacy that will get the job done? After thirty years of countries lobbying each other over emissions targets, we still have targets that in aggregate point up, not down, over the course of this decade. Meanwhile, what about actually working together on the bits of the global economy that we need to change? The European Union can expect a rough response from countries like China and India to its new unilaterally-imposed carbon border tax. Might it not be a good idea, at some point, to sit down and discuss how to decarbonize the global steel industry?
My new book – Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics, and Diplomacy of Climate Change – is about why we need to change this invisible infrastructure, and how we can do it. People are already fighting for these changes, but they need more support. Limiting warming to 1.5°C means decarbonizing the global economy five times faster this decade than we managed over the last two decades. For that kind of acceleration, winning these less visible battles is essential.