Cleantech, Climate Change and Commercial Opportunities - first blog of an anonymous cleantech sector insider, Skepsis

An anonymous cleantech sector insider, Skepsis, today begins a series of blogs on cleantech, climate change and commercial opportunities; read on…
On the road to the University of East Anglia, home to much of the UK’s original climate science, there is a sign – “Beware Oncoming Emergency Vehicles”. I am puzzled by this exhortation to carefree drivers, who might apparently otherwise not spot a flashing fire-engine hurtling towards them down a narrow country lane. Note it does not say, as a “translated from the German” version might, “Attention, oncoming traffic” – achtung, achtung! No, in more polarized and urgent alarmist tones it screams “Beware”, as if the lions had escaped from the zoo or in this case the ambulances had got loose.
This offers a relevant metaphor for some of the present conventions of the ‘anthropogenic climate catastrophe’ public debate. Few people today, especially on their way back from a visit to the above UEA’s Tyndall Centre, would be unsettled by the words Anthropogenic or Climate Change (unless one is the fastidious Nigel Lawson, who prefers the phrase “global warming” in his treatise “A Cool Look….”). While not all the science is as carefully catalogued or as completely understood as some would like, and while so much is mathematical modeling masquerading as empirical evidence, there is little room to doubt the basic trends or the causal correlations. There are still respectable books being put out by unconventional thinkers, written by hitherto responsible members of the academic community exercising their right to be uncertain and exposing some of the ‘averages of averages’ or other difficulties in measuring something as intangible as a “global” trend. Timing is everything, as in so many aspects of our life. Depending on the exact time period over which one measures, or the precise parameters one evaluates, the answers are sometimes not as “convenient” as some truth-sayers would propose. But the overall direction of travel of the best guesses most ‘experts’ deduce is reasonably unambiguous. And precise science is no longer the core issue once politics is involved.
So, achtung, achtung….. However, at this point the “oncoming emergency vehicle” gets a bit blurred. What is the exact consequence, for whom, and when? Isn’t a hot summer a good thing - more plant growth, different (but not ‘better’) yields meaning more forests and positive loops, or do the “glass-half-empty” doomsters citing thousands of untimely mortalities in Western Europe (August, when the support staff were all en vacance) have the right perspective? If “a frequently hotter summer” means the whole of North Africa re-locates to southern France and like a domino the French all move to Cromer, it may have a downside…..And so on. Many, many unpredictable but possibly unpleasant implications of the ‘direction of travel’ and rather fewer probable happy endings.
In all this, sometimes dressed up with ‘inevitability’ and ‘science”, the thing that seems to get overlooked is that the debate about Climate Change is expressed in the language of Motor Insurance – “we must do something (not sure what but we’ll get to that) because we anticipate the possibility, or some would now say the probability, of unpleasant eventualities”. Why is it not discussed in the sense of Life Assurance, where we know we are going to die but do not know when so we buy anticipatory policies to benefit our survivors? That is the land of risk, actuaries, statistics where smoking and age make a difference to the premiums. No, the media seems usually to still be discussing climate change in terms of Insurance – it is possible/probable something unpleasant may happen so we’ll ‘cover’ the risk with a policy to help if we have a car crash…. This ‘car crash’ may still be decades or centuries away, we are not sure what it will look like when it starts or gets going or even where it will ‘hit’. Some still think it is a temperature thing, whereas others think crops/food and water/flooding will be the aspect that impacts, with the inconvenience of more uncertain weather being likely almost everywhere. But insurance is sensible…… Isn’t it?
In the real world the more extreme of course do not take out insurance, they self-insure (not for private individual cars, of course) and determine their own risk appetite. Why? Because the cost of ‘buying’ insurance is greater than the savings a policy would provide in the event of the car crash happening. And because the budget is better spent on other things. There are choices.
This is precisely what is so often apparently missing from current discussions. We do not know quite what form CC/GW will take, where or when … but we feel the urge to “protect” ourselves. So individual countries are taking regulatory action on behalf of their populations, as with the UK’s Climate Change Act mandating 2050 targets – a bit like making motor insurance compulsory. But, as with insurance, the issues are still “will the policy pay what is required when it is called on?” and “what will we not be able to afford if we take out the insurance?” We do not know. But politicians are making choices.
Many argue “something is better than nothing” but that is a bit like putting up signs saying “Beware, oncoming Climate Change”. The obvious efficiency measures – insulation, higher energy or water or other scarce resource efficiencies – are no-brainers because quite frankly we should be doing those things anyway, out of pure economic sense. And encouraging technology innovation is good again purely for commercial and economic reasons.
But anything beyond that, like investing in massive coastal defences or country-scale renewable energy infrastructure (vide David Mackay’s book Without Hot Air) or large-scale sequestration, is a lot harder to underwrite unless resources are unconstrained. They are not and never will be. Would you rather your children had a decent health service or your grandchildren had a better probability of withstanding some unquantifiable consequences of global warming trends? You may not be able to afford both.
Meanwhile, a few more uncompromising “Beware” signs will grab the attention of the carefree and the debate will trundle through the headlines. The sooner the public at large realises this is not a matter of science, nor predictions nor models but is pure politics, with difficult choices between budgetary limitations over different timescales and degrees of uncertainty, the better the discussion will be. We do not need to “beware”, we need to “pay attention”, because choices as always are being and will be made on the back of imperfect science and these choices will indeed effect generations to come. Beware, oncoming emergency politicians!