Climate-smart enters Davos lexicon of global risk

Having paid handsomely for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the Davos elite later this week, leaders of the world’s fossil fuel industry may be less than amused by the opening chapter of Global Risks 2013.

The World Economic Forum’s scene-setting analysis presents more home truths about climate change on a single page than all the texts regurgitated during December’s round of UN climate talks in Doha.

Here’s the parting thrust of The Changing Debate on the Global Climate:

Five decades ago, the US tobacco industry would not have suspected that in 1997 it would agree to pay US$ 368 billion in health-related damages. For some businesses, investing in climate change mitigation now could be as much about enterprise risk management as about mitigating a global risk.

The report then rubs salt in this wound by awarding serious consideration to the possibility that a tipping point has already passed and that we have entered an era of “runaway climate change.”

To manage the threat of global warming, Global Risks 2013 recommends that “a ‘climate-smart’ mindset needs to permeate all levels of decision-making.” In development-speak, this would translate as “mainstreaming climate change.” At Davos, it means that the climate-smart phrase will be sprinkled like holy water over the proceedings, bestowing credibility on the ideas of all those socially responsible businesses.

As the WEF report acknowledges, the concept has been borrowed from donor strategies for agriculture in developing countries, where it has gained some traction. I suspect that the desire to give “climate-smart” a greater airing also owes something to that influential US election headline in Bloomberg Businessweek: “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.”

“Climate-smart” is indeed much snappier language than mouthfuls of mitigation or adaptation and its meaning helpfully embraces both. And programme planners can bask in the inference of their intellectual powers.

However, I’ve never felt quite at ease with climate-smart agriculture and would be sorry to see the description spreading its wings within other development sectors or within the language of infrastructure programmes in developed countries.

Climate-smart disciplines of cutting emissions and anticipating the impacts of global warming are of course essential, but they are far from sufficient to eliminate the systemic risks that should keep Davos delegates awake at night. The label implies that climate change is the beginning and end of environmental risk.

Alas, scientists have alerted us to no fewer than nine planetary boundaries under threat in what they call the Anthropocene, of which atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is just one.

We need look no further than last week for an excellent example of well-intended reaction to research which would pass the climate-smart test of Global Risks 2013 but which on closer examination is not particularly smart for the planet.

A scientific assessment of the role of black carbon in the climate system was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Its conclusion that soot particles make double the contribution to global warming that was previously supposed has prompted calls for accelerated action to prevent these emissions at source. The Economist suggested this “would give politicians two extra decades to tackle the less tractable question of what to do about CO2.”

Reducing carbon soot in the atmosphere certainly qualifies as climate-smart. But it’s not ocean-smart and it’s not plant-smart. Stalling action on carbon dioxide emissions will allow ocean acidification to advance, and will test the uncertain science of carbon fixation in crops and forests. The food chain is at the mercy of these environmental impacts.

I doubt whether earth scientists are particularly enamoured by the concept of climate-smart. They increasingly talk about “global environmental change” rather than climate change. I fear that too few scientists will be present at the World Economic Forum.

If we’re searching for new language on global warming this week, Washington ought to be a happier hunting ground than Davos. But President Obama may be in prosaic mood tomorrow, having over-egged the poetry in his first inauguration speech.

But I’ll take a punt that he slips in a reference to his administration’s favourite climate initiative – The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants – otherwise known as black carbon.

The people will cheer, rightly. But, without comparable action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, this is climate-smart and not earth-wise.


Global Risks 2013, from World Economic Forum

The New Black from The Economist

The poetry of Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech