Speech

Tom Burke speaks at the Oxford Forum on International Development, Said Business School, Oxford

Hands

Tom Burke CBE addresses the Oxford Forum on International Development, Said Business School, Oxford.

There are three key points I want to make about climate justice and development.

The first is that climate change presents humanity with a unique challenge. We have never before faced a problem like this.

There is no other problem that will impact on the security and prosperity of literally every single person on the planet. All eight billion of us.

Large numbers of people deal with poverty, or conflict or disease – often life threatening – every day. But large numbers of people have also never experienced any of these problems.

As the climate changes, the consequences will be felt by every single individual on the planet: rich or poor; ill or well; living peacefully or threatened with violence.Wherever you live, from a giant coastal metropolis to a remote mountain cabin, a changing climate will reach out to change your life.

It is also unique because there is a ticking clock. We not only have to get to a specific place – keeping the rise in global average temperature to below 2°C – but we have to get there by a specific time – around the middle of this century.

Human beings are very good at solving problems collectively. Hence the ‘sapiens’ in the scientific name of our species. But we do this by trial and error. We try out solutions to our problems. If they work, we adopt them. If they don’t we try something else and we go on repeating these efforts until we succeed.

We are nothing like as good at anticipating problems and taking collective action to head them off. Barbara Tuchman’s account of some of history’s more glaring examples of failing to deal with foreseeable and manageable problems is called ‘The March of Folly’.

My second point is that climate policy failure will destroy prosperity and security for all eight billion of us. It will make no distinction between the developed world and the developing world.

I do not mean to suggest that climate failure will not harm some people both sooner and more intensely than others. Only that in the highly interconnected economies of the twenty first century there will be no safe havens as the second and third order consequences of climate disruption ripple across the planet.

The financial crisis of 2008 taught us all a lesson in the consequences of policy failure in an interconnected world of eight billion people. We learnt that for the global economy to function the global financial system within which it nests must also continue to function.

The global financial system provides the investment that keeps the global economy working. Stop the investment flowing, as we came close to doing in 2008, and the economy grinds to a halt. We are also beginning to understand that to keep the investment flowing you must maintain political stability. It is hard to find anyone investing on Syria or Libya or the other failing states around the world.

Climate policy failure threatens to undermine the food and water security that are the foundations of political stability everywhere. The Arab Spring was triggered by a loss of food security in Tunisia. It is now clear that climate change intensified drought in Syria helped trigger the revolt against Assad.

My third point is that we know exactly what climate policy failure looks like. We also know exactly what we must do to prevent it. If global average temperature rise more than two degrees then we know we have failed. To prevent failure we must stop burning fossil fuels by the middle of the century. On its own, that will not be enough, but it will buy us sufficient time to deal with the other sources of greenhouse gases.

We already have the technology to decarbonise the global energy system and to do so while providing access to modern energy services to everyone on the planet who lack it. And we know there is a lot more low carbon technology that will become available over the next thirty years.

We also know that we can afford to deploy that technology. Last year we spent almost two trillion dollars delivering energy to our economy. Clearly that was a sum we could afford without wrecking the economy since we have just done so. Since we have to deliver energy to those without it we will have to spend more than that to underpin development.

However, we waste about seventy percent of the energy we use burning fossil fuels and the costs of the technologies we are using to replace them are continuing to fall. Cutting out the energy we currently waste and capturing the falling costs of the new technologies will offset the increase cost of delivering energy to more people. So, we know that we will not wreck the global economy by preventing dangerous climate change.

I do not want to underestimate the scale of the transformation we need to make to our energy system if climate policy is to succeed. It is a far greater challenge than the Manhattan Project or putting a man on the Moon. But I do want to focus your attention on where the most difficult obstacles to climate policy success will be found.

In a word, this will be in the politics. A zero carbon global energy system will create huge numbers of jobs and massive economic opportunities. But they will not be the same jobs for the same people with the same skills in the same places as the fossil fuel industries. If we do not make the transition a just transition we will not be able to maintain the political will to do the things we know how to do, and we know we can afford, to keep the climate safe for our children.

Put more baldly, we cannot have climate policy success without climate justice and climate policy failure will create a world more unjust than any we have yet seen.