Hotels in Lindau don’t do air-con, although I’m pretty sure the Nobel laureates were keeping cool in theirs. So it has been a week of hot, sweaty nights for most of us here. How I longed for a dial with a minus sign on it. Had such technology been installed, I would have whacked that sucker on full every night.

It’s micro-level decisions like this that makes it so difficult for humans to tackle climate change. What damage am I really doing by using a few joules to give me a better night’s sleep, given that millions of hotels, homes and offices around the world probably were being chilled down by fans and fridges at that very moment? And while we’re at it, what’s the point in any European country cutting greenhouse gas emissions at all, when China is building tens of new coal-fired power stations per year?

These were some of the issues that were skirted around at an open-air panel discussion about global warming and sustainability held yesterday on the last day of this year’s Lindau meeting. I was one of 600 people slowly being baked alive by the midday sun while we listened to the wisdom of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a couple of chemistry Nobel laureates, a government minister and other luminaries of environmental policy. The laureates among the audience enjoyed complimentary fans and sun hats.

The heat is on

In December, the world’s governments are going to come together in Copenhagen to establish a post-Kyoto treaty on climate change. From what I’ve heard this week at Lindau, it’s crucial that a serious deal is sealed. “We have to realize the enormity of the problem,” said IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri. “This is not merely an issue that reflects the romanticism of environmentalism, it’s about facing economic reality.”

Climate change is just one aspect of a much larger problem caused by the world’s unsustainable growth, Pachauri said, which will impact sea levels, water supplies, agriculture and compromise later generations. Conflict is bound to follow. “The old adage that consumer is sovereign is being cast aside because goods and services are being pushed by advertisements that do not describe the risks,” he said.

Sitting next to Pachauri was Bjørn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Business School, a well known author and challenger of conventional climate-change policy. It was a good choice of seating arrangement, since Lomborg proceeded to disagree with the IPCC director several times during the two-hour session. He explained that the economic impact of climate change is just 0.5% of global GDP, whereas three quarters of the world’s population live in medieval conditions and need to grow their economies by a factor or two or three to lift them from their plight. Reducing emissions is hardly a top priority when those around you are dying from malaria or malnutrition.

“We need to recognize that we’re not going to get the world to do what we want,” continued Lomborg. “The outcome of the Copenhagen meeting should see 0.05% of GDP put into green technologies, which would cost six times less than Kyoto and be 15 times more effective.”

Irreversible damage

But climate change means more than dollars. Repeating gloomy remarks made earlier at the Lindau meeting, 1995 chemistry Nobel laureate Mario Molina stated that there is a 10–30% chance that we face practically irreversible damage to the planet, such as altering ocean dynamics, disrupting the monsoons and melting the polar ice caps.

“There are several tipping points and it would be irresponsible to ignore these,” Molina said, adding that we need to put a price on carbon so that governments and businesses have an incentive not to pollute. “We need to invest a lot more in new technologies, but that should not be an excuse to not get started. We already can take measures in energy efficiency.” Hmm, I wonder how many hot, sweaty nights he had this week…

But what are these new, planet saving technologies? All too common at such panel discussions are vague statements about renewable energies and very little specific examples. But there were views on what won’t work. Panel chair Geoff Carr from the Economist suggested, somewhat bizarrely, that fusion research isn’t worth the effort. And IPCC co-chair Thomas Stocker claimed that geoengineering (for example, releasing certain molecules into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight) was dangerous, since such a single-strike solution risked masking the original problem.

A visibly frustrated winner of last year’s chemistry Nobel prize, Roger Tsien, then grabbed a microphone and demanded specifics on what would work. He met with some success. Biofuels got nods of agreement, as did micro water turbines and, of course, solar cells. Richard Schrock, who shared the 2005 chemistry Nobel, said that we need to discover new, energetically “up hill” reactions such as artificial photosynthesis, all of which rely on his field of catalysis.

“For centuries scientists have declared that they know everything there is to know, but that’s never the case,” said Schrock. “Invest in chemistry,” he proclaimed, before expressing gratitude to President Obama for his commitment to science (a familiar sentiment at this year’s Lindau meeting).

However, Stocker takes issue with the “wait and see” view about technology, noting that we already have lots of the required technology (although much of it needs to be taken to the scale of mass production) and that his home nation Switzerland could cut energy use by 40% just by building more efficient houses. “It’s great to see a bunch of young scientists here who will solve the problems that we should have started solving long ago,” he said.

Stocker reckons we’re in a situation like we were many hundreds of years ago, when local societies recognized the need for human rights and Magna Carta was eventually established. He called for a global climate carta that tells us what the climate should be and proposes cuts in CO2 accordingly. “We should stick to the facts,” he said, one of which being that every country in the world would need to cut CO2 emissions by 80% to avert a temperature rise of more than two degrees by the end of the century.

Can democracy save us?

Perhaps the only way to achieve such daunting changes is to put democracy on hold and violate some human rights, suggested one sun-blind member of the audience. Pauchuri accepted that we need lifestyle changes in the spirit of Winston Churchill’s calls for sacrifices during World War Two. But is confident that climate change can be tackled by existing democratic institutions without resorting to extremes such as martial law.

“If you look at dictatorships, they have been the worst for environmental impact,” said Pachauri, repeating that climate change is a very complicated problem and that democracy takes time. “We’ve come along way since Rio, and I have enormous hope that we will get an agreement in Copenhagen that would put a price on carbon, and that gives incentive to build new technologies.”

Not true, retorted Lomborg. “We will make beautiful promises at Copenhagen but we won’t keep them,” he said, claiming that R&D has not gone up in those countries that signed up to Kyoto. “Rather than develop new technologies, targets force governments to cut now, for example by importing Russian gas and doing other feel-good things,” he said, suggesting that the UK met its targets because Thatcher closed the coal mines.

Molina pointed out that Kyoto is not a good example of what can happen, apart from how things can fail, and also has great faith in democratic solutions — provided people are informed and educated. Pachauri agreed. “The world has changed,” he announced. “The spirit today is entirely different than it was at Kyoto or Rio — it’s light years ahead. I can assure you that in Copenhagen if an agreement is signed then it will have the backing of the people and governments worldwide.”

It seemed, however, that some on the panel were slightly out of touch with the way the vast majority of people engage (or not) with the issue of global warming and sustainability. Pachauri claimed that governments who don’t sign up to a Copenhagen deal will be voted out of office, a view that many in the audience didn’t seem to share. Even in Western countries where there is huge awareness of the problem, it’s hard to believe that the masses will choose a government based on its green credentials over tax hikes, stances on gay marriage or abortion etc.

Lomborg pointed to a survey showing that people in the US still worry about global warming to the same extent after Al Gore’s 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth as they did in 1988. Stocker said Lomborg omitted to mention the propaganda that was spread during that same period, for example via books Lomborg himself had written. The Danish maverick did not have a response prepared.

The conclusion? Turn off the air-con and hope for the best this December.

 » Matthew Chalmers completed a PhD in physics and works as a freelance writer. i-ec50973aaa80d157198edd29ee8b77f8-chalmers45.jpg