Act now, or the planet pays later.

Just how serious is climate change?  Ross Garnaut called it one of the most “diabolical” policy challenges ever faced by humanity – and he’s right, of course.

“The costs of doing something about it come early,” he told the ABC’s Mark Colvin last week
“The benefits come later.” “It’s hard also because this problem requires cooperation across countries of a more complex kind than the human species has ever managed before,” he continued. “There’s no precedent.”

History suggests that humanity does not cope well with the cognitive challenges of climate change. The changes occurring in the earth’s atmosphere may be astonishingly rapid on a geological time-scale, but in political terms they’re happening slowly. After all, the very worst consequences won’t be felt until long after current governments have left office and most of the negotiators at Copenhagen are dead.

Because climate change is so big, it challenges the way we see the political landscape. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a level of bipartisan understanding of climate science; Margaret Thatcher (a former industrial chemist) was a famous early supporter of action on climate change. But in the 1990s, particularly in the US, the influence of the culture wars saw many on the right begin to attack climate science in overtly political terms, as a trope of the supposedly extreme left-wing ideology of environmentalism.
Subsequently, conservative politicians in the US, Canada and Australia opted to abandon any serious commitment to the rational observation of scientific evidence, and instead embraced the seductions of junk science and climate denialism. The end result of this trend was the recent split in the Liberal Party over climate change.

Even for decision-makers who do believe that the world is warming and that this is a problem, there are utterly rational motives for countries to stall, cheat and prevaricate at Copenhagen. This is in fact exactly what John Howard’s government did at Kyoto in 1997: after negotiating a generous carbon emissions target by threatening to pull out at the last minute, the Howard Government then went back on the deal, refusing to even ratify the agreement. To those who support action on climate change, it was a betrayal. The hard-heads in Howard’s cabinet portrayed it as sensible hard bargaining in the national interest.

This disconnect between national and global interests is one insight of the branch of mathematical logic known as game theory. Game theory is often used to model political and strategic situations, and when applied to the climate change policy challenge, it helps us understand why international cooperation is so difficult.

From a game theory perspective, a strong agreement on cutting emissions at Copenhagen was always going to be highly unlikely. The only way global emissions can be reduced effectively is if the majority of the world’s big polluting nations sign up. But in such a process, there are huge temptations for countries to refuse to participate, to cheat, or to insist that they shouldn’t commit until everyone else does (this is the Liberal Party position in Australia). This is the very heart of the conundrum.

One of the world’s best known game theorists is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita. He predicts that Copenhagen will be “a bust”, arguing that “today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t
stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands.”

If that is the case, then we may well be locked into a world four, five or perhaps six degrees warmer than now: a calamity for our children – and especially our grandchildren.

Another influential analyst, Australian scientist Barry Brook, believes that action will eventually be taken – but only after climate change becomes a looming emergency obvious to all. He points out that under the existential threat of invasion in the Second World War, many countries nationalised major sectors of their
economies and re-tooled their entire industrial base to armaments production in a matter of a few years (a very costly response, although one that had a positive effect on employment and GDP).

Tragically, we may see the worst of all possible outcomes: catastrophic climate change, wrenching industrial transformation and perhaps even climate-caused wars. Gwynne Dyer’s chilling book Climate
models the possible threats to international stability posed by climate change, and predicts that wars will be fought in the 21st century over issues like unilateral climate engineering (for existence, risky
and speculative climate-cooling sulfur dioxide injections into the upper atmosphere).

Even if the world eventually adopts some kind of concerted action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, dangerous climate change is now locked in. The challenge for all of us – governments, scientists, industrialists and citizens – is to finally face up to the reality in all its frightening uncertainty and

It’s going to be a hotter, drier, scarier, more drought-prone and more fire-prone future. Get used to it.

Read more of Ben Eltham’s analysis of Copenhagen and climate policy at New Matilda