The leaders of the G7 met ten days ago in Bavaria and, among other things, issued a statement about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and of course the coming Paris meeting in December that will, they publicly hope, produce the global agreement that global-agreement seekers have been seeking for a decade and more. I’ll let the ABC summarise it:
The leaders stressed that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions” were required with “a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”. The aim was to send a clear signal to push other nations taking part in December’s United Nations meeting in Paris to commit to reducing dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, which threaten to melt ice caps and glaciers, raise sea levels and bring more violent storms and floods. The G7 also reaffirmed the goal of limiting global warming in the 21st century to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, first agreed at a 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen.
“Urgent and concrete action is needed to address climate change,” the G7 leaders said in a final statement after a two-day summit in Germany.
It was the phrase ‘over the course of the century’ that struck me, rather than the scary stuff about ice melting. The end of this century is 85 years away. If you go back to 1930, 85 years ago, what could the then world leaders have said about 2015, and what they ought to do to make it a better time for those living there at the time — the whole 200 or so countries of them, an unthinkable number for the leaders in 1930? I wrote a piece about the Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894, which is worth reading again in this context, because the world’s leaders then simply did not how to cope with the rising amount of urban horse-poo, and an international conference on the issue broke up early as a result. It was a supposed crisis that did not eventuate. Isn’t it just a little preposterous to be talking about 2100 as though we know what will be needed then?
Preparing in a concrete way for an imagined future can have its problems. Take the Maginot Line, built by the French to prevent a surprise attack by Germany across the common border. It ran from Switzerland to Luxembourg, but not to the English Channel. The Germans bypassed it in the initial stages of their European war — the French had not wanted to make things difficult for the Belgians by putting such a fortification against their border. What were they thinking of? The whole thing was static, a repeat of the trench warfare that had been the mode in the Great War. The Germans changed the mode to ‘dynamic’, with fast moving tanks and armoured cars, planes, and mobile forces. Swiftness, not impregnable redoubts, was the key. What should the French have done?
I’ve just read, in Quadrant, a long review of a book about an American strategist, Andrew Marshall, whose name didn’t register with me at all. According to the reviewer, Michael Evans, a senior defence analyst in Australia, Marshall believed in ‘the need for liberal democracies to invest in patient, long-range strategic thinking as an intellectual counterweight to the vagaries of day-to-day politics driven by personalities and electoral cycles’. Without wishing to seem a smart-bottomed person, I’ve thought and said that for a long time.
But how long is ‘long-range’, and how sensible is an 85-year span for one’s strategic thinking? That encompasses more than three generations of human beings, and even in past times, points to a span of technological change — from sail to steam, from railways to airways, from typewriters to the Internet — that had not been predicted by anyone, to the best of my knowledge, changes that altered the world. Why then should some of the world’s leaders be saying now that the task for the next three generations is to ‘decarbonise’ the world’s economy? It is all too easy to assume that the knowledge we have is all the knowledge we need, yet the predictions of peak oil go on and on, each prediction being finally unfounded. We seem to be awash with oil at the moment. ‘Ah, but this prediction is really right!’ you’ll hear a would-be savant say. And all the time there are subtle shifts in the way we do things, as well as unexpected technological changes that displace old ways.
I have been used to ten-year spans for strategic thinking. That’s about the time we need for a large new dam, a nuclear power station, or the building of ‘new age’ planes or ships, and it’s about as far as I have ever gone as a consultant. It was about as far ahead as made good sense to anyone in higher education, in or out of government. What Marshall seems to have been looking for was not a ‘plan’ so much as an attitude of mind. How should a country like Australia, a small player in the global scheme, adapt to the changes that we can see and those we can’t yet see properly? How should we try and keep operative our over-riding sense of national good?
Judith Curry has an interesting essay on this subject, focusing on another American strategist, Richard Danzig, of whom I have heard (he was Secretary for the Navy in the Clinton Administration). Danzig says Prediction lies at the root of all strategic thinking. However, whereas routine, short-term predictions are generally right, strategic judgments about future environments are often, one might say predictably, wrong. The common response to this shortcoming is to try to improve predictive capabilities. I propose a different tack, namely that long-term strategies should be built not on “visions” of the future but instead on the premise that longer term predictions (that is, forecasts of situations years and decades out), however presently credible, will probably prove wrong.
Danzig’s interest, like that of Marshall, is in defence matters. Mine is more general. I don’t see much harm, for example, in an expanding Australian population, and in peacetime I can’t see any real way of preventing it, either. But shouldn’t we be thinking long term about what an Australia of 40 million, or 50 million might mean, a couple of generations ahead? Does anyone much do it? I accept that the Inter-Generational Report went some way down this path. What would it mean for religion and religious practices? For education? For the continued emancipation of women? For communications and transport? For the way we build accommodation? We need policies that will work in a variety of settings.
Danzig offers five suggestions for people who agree with his position. I summarise them quickly: avoid slow and laboured decision-making; try and find agile ways of doing things; make adaptability the priority; build short-term; and nurture diversity and competition. These are all intended for the defence environment, but they seem to me to be appropriate in other domains as well.
And plainly, the G7 leaders aren’t really serious about ‘climate change’, and can’t be. There is no way that the world is going to plan to decarbonise over 85 years (and of course many critics want it done much more quickly). Coal will be the major source of grid electricity generation for a long time to come. When better and cheaper sources of energy are available, we will use them. People will do what seems sensible to them, unless they are coerced by governments or communities to do something else.
And, in the context of ‘decarbonisation’, it should be noted that new coal-fired power stations seem to be the go in Asia, North America and Europe.