Sitting at a café in Washington, D.C., surrounded by local newspapers and watching a news channel on a wall-mounted television, you’d never know there was an international climate conference being held 11,000 kilometres away.
The talk here is fiscal cliff. There could be a 24-hour channel dedicated to it.
The talk in Doha, Qatar, is climate cliff. Try getting a 24-hour news channel to make more than a brief mention of it.
Indeed, much of what coverage there has been is about the irony of holding the 18th United Nations Climate Change Conference in a country with the world’s largest greenhouse-gas footprint, and in an oil-rich region expected to get pummeled severely by climate change.
The Middle East is already one of the hottest spots on the planet, so the added average rise of 2 degrees C expected by 2050 will make the heat that much more oppressive. It doesn’t get much rain to begin with, but it is expected to get even less over the years. Sand storms are likely to become more frequent and destructive.
And fresh water? Qatar is already one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, with underground aquifers expected to be depleted within two or three decades.
People need to drink. Crops need watering. Lacking drinking water and food, folks start to get angry. As if the Middle East wasn’t volatile enough.
“For a region that is already vulnerable to many non-climate stresses, climate change and its potential physical and socioeconomic impacts are likely to exacerbate this vulnerability, leading to large scale instability,” according to a 2010 U.N. report on the Middle East and North Africa.
“Climate change is likely to act as a risk multiplier, aggravating water scarcity. Water scarcity on the other hand threatens food security by reducing agricultural productivity, as well as hindering human health and economic development.”
So what does Qatar and its neighbours see as the short-term solution to the water crisis? They have grand plans to use more solar and nuclear power, but the reality is that they’re burning more fossil fuels – a combination of oil and natural gas – to power the large-scale desalination facilities needed to turn sea water into water for irrigating crops or drinking.
In other words, the rising need for water desalination because of the impacts of climate change is leading to more use of the fossil fuels that spew heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s what one could call a positive feedback loop.
Saudi Arabia is arguably the worst offender on this front, as Canadian economist and author Jeff Rubin likes to point out. In his latest book, The End of Growth, he writes that the Saudis currently burn more than three million barrels of oil daily to meet their own energy needs, and nearly half – yes, half—of that oil is used for facilities that take salt out of seawater.
And let’s not forget all that salt has to go somewhere. Right now, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are dumping the salt back into the Persian Gulf. It’s estimated that Qatar alone by 2020 could be dumping the equivalent of 4,600 shipping containers full of pure salt back into Gulf waters – daily – increasing brine concentrations in an already stressed body of water.
Of course, the Middle East isn’t the only region that’s challenged. It’s why these annual U.N. climate conferences have increasingly drawn more business interest over the years.
Tackling problems like pollution, greenhouse-gas emissions and water scarcity will require hundreds of billions of dollars in capital, and most governments are tapped out.
The private sector is being looked to both as the source and funder of energy-efficient, low-carbon solutions. It’s why healing the climate is a massive economic opportunity, or as U.K. billionaire Richard Branson likes to say: “Saving the world is good for business.”
And big business should be at the table. According to a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, there are 80,000 transnational corporations worldwide but 40 per cent of their total value is represented by just 147 of them – or one-fifth of 1 per cent.
These same companies want certainty, which is why more than 100 of the world’s largest corporations – including Shell, Swiss Re, Unilever and Statoil – have used the Doha conference to call on all governments to get on with creating a global price on carbon.
These same companies are also increasingly realizing that the natural world around them – what are often called ecological services, from an economic perspective – make their existence possible.
“They are not islands: corporations operate within a vast economic system that includes a multitude of players and variables,” the authors of the Worldwatch report emphasized. “Any vision of a sustainable future must include full recognition of the role that transnational corporations play in shaping the planet’s human and ecological destiny.”
Technology won’t solve all of our problems. It goes hand-in-hand with changes in behaviour. In many cases, whether talking about countries or businesses or consumers, it comes down to simply wasting less and being smarter about how we make and consume “stuff.”
Strangely enough, this all ties directly to the fiscal cliff issue, as wasting less, being smarter, embracing efficiency and improving productivity all help sustain economic prosperity. Failing to do all of this only pushes us that much closer to the edge of both cliffs.
The climate cliff and fiscal cliff ultimately lead us to the same place. One is Butch Cassidy; the other is the Sundance Kid. They both take the plunge together. Ignoring one to focus on the other is pointless, really, whether you’re sitting in Doha, Washington or Ottawa.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.