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The climate giant awakes. Have we turned a corner?

By Paul Gilding - posted Thursday, 22 October 2009

Regular readers may be a little surprised by this artiicle. I am regularly arguing that the science shows we are inevitably approaching, or may have past, a tipping point where widespread, rolling ecological and economic crises take hold.

But there’s another critical tipping point, of a very different character - where the world’s political and business leaders turn firmly towards action. Here’s the surprise - I think we may be at this tipping point already.

Scientists have become increasingly alarmed in recent years, as climate change reality has raced ahead of the political response. They point to countless examples of accelerating feedbacks, such as the reduction in the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 and rapid Arctic melting.


While they regularly point these out to our political masters, many of them express despair at the slow response.

So on what basis do I think the global political system has started to turn?

I think we have recently seen a number of developments that, taken together, indicate a profound shift is under way. When such a shift takes hold, it will rapidly accelerate - with significant implications for campaign and business strategy in this area over the years ahead.

The most significant and encouraging shift is what Tom Friedman in his recent New York Times column called the shift from Red China to Green China. The Chinese leadership has for many years been talking about the need to act on climate but has in recent months shown serious potential to lead on this issue.

The rationale for them to do so is certainly there. As they have reeled under the negative economic and social impacts of pollution, China has accepted that the growth model followed by Western capitalism cannot work for them. Will they now pursue clean energy so vigorously they will dominate this new global market? Could climate even provide the issue on which China can manifest its global leadership ambitions?

I increasingly think the answer to both questions is likely to be yes, with far reaching economic and geopolitical implications. There is a good summary of recent developments and this potential for leadership, including China’s potential to see its emissions peak by 2030 in the article “Peaking Duck” by the Centre for American Progress’ Julian L. Wong.


Another important indicator is the recognition in the US political debate that the strength of the Chinese response is an economic threat to the US. The fear is growing that the resistance to change in the US may leave that economy floundering in what will be the largest economic transformation in history. As argued by Tom Friedman in the column referred to earlier, while America is currently strong on innovation, research ultimately follows the market. Friedman pointed out that “America’s premier solar equipment maker, Applied Materials, is about to open the world’s largest privately funded solar research facility - in Xian, China.”

The goal posts are also shifting in the science. An increasing number of scientists are coming to the view that the global CO2 target should be closer to 350ppm rather than 450ppm. In recent months we’ve seen this get global credence in response to the campaign, with eminent figures like the climate economist Nicholas Stern and the IPCC Chair Pachauri coming out in personal support of the 350 target. They would both be well aware that such a target would require cuts far more dramatic than anything on the table now. With such a goal, the task becomes the elimination of net CO2 emissions from the economy rather than their reduction.

At a deeper level, Stern also lent his considerable intellectual weight to the debate on economic growth, stating what was previously heresy - that economic growth itself must now be questioned. He recently put the case that there were probably only 20 years left for further economic growth before the earth was full.

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First published in the Cockatoo Chronicles on October 8, 2009.

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About the Author

Paul Gilding is an independent adviser and commentator on sustainability and climate change and a Special Advisor to KPMG. Former roles include executive director of Greenpeace International, founder of Ecos Corporation and CEO of Easy Being Green.

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