Dealing with climate change and its risks will require not only technical responses like drought-resilient crops and higher sea walls but also reshaping economic and political incentives that are driving global warming, scientists said on Wednesday.
“The biggest risk of all that we face is that we’re addressing the wrong problem,” University of Oslo sociologist Karen O’Brien told a week-long conference of climate researchers in Paris.
Using more renewable energy and setting up crop insurance schemes and early warning systems is important, she said. But climate change “is more than a technical challenge”.
Finding genuine solutions will have to involve “looking at who has power and how that might need to change”, she said.
The rush to secure oil drilling rights in the Arctic, for instance, is painted by some analysts as the potential start of a new Cold War, as countries compete to gain access to some of the planet’s last large untapped oil deposits in pursuit of profit and energy security, she said.
But it is happening despite science that shows a third of the world’s already discovered oil reserves – as well as half of gas reserves and 80 percent of coal reserves – must stay in the ground to avoid runaway climate change that could see food supplies collapse, O’Brien and other experts said.
Climate risks will not be tackled effectively unless such contradictions are dealt with, O’Brien said. One way to achieve that could be through people stepping up to try and change the way governments and institutions behave.
“Small changes can make big differences, and individuals, especially when working together, can generate big social change,” she said.
Bending political and economic power to solve climate problems will be difficult, but “we are transforming either way”, O’Brien said, as a world 4 degrees Celsius warmer – the current trajectory for 2100 – would reshape life on Earth.
Adapting to some of the accompanying problems, including a rise in deaths from extreme heat in South Asia, would be largely impossible, she said.
Some of the biggest opportunities to put the world on a different pathway may lie in fast-growing cities, said Shobhakar Dhakal of the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand.
Already more than 70 percent of global emissions caused by energy use come from cities, according to scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
By 2050, urban areas will have 2.6 billion more people, most of them in Asia and Africa, Dhakal said.
If rapidly urbanising areas can build homes close to jobs and services and make walking and public transport good options, climate-changing emissions could be reduced dramatically, he said.
“Our ability to make deep cuts to global greenhouse gas emissions depends to a large extent on what kinds of cities and towns we build,” Dhakal said.
Real progress on climate change and reducing vulnerability to its impacts will also require efforts to coordinate a huge range of activities, including social policy, urban planning, insurance, weather monitoring and deploying the right technologies, said Nobuo Minura, president of Japan’s Ibaraki University.
Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Centre warned that “we as humanity are now in a position to disrupt the stability of the entire world system” by driving climate change.
Many economic and government systems have been designed around a high-emission way of doing things, he said. Now, “we need a new relationship between people and the planet”.