Five Times Faster – Review
Five Times Faster: Rethinking the Science, Economics and Diplomacy of Climate Change, by Simon Sharpe, April 2023. Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-1-00-932649-0, 334 pages. RRP £20 (hardback)
Simon Sharpe is a former diplomat who has been working on climate change issues within the UK government over the past decade, and is now the Director of Economics for the Climate Champions Team. So this book is very much the work of an establishment insider; with often a surprisingly outsider perspective.
It is divided into three sections, Science, Economics, and Diplomacy, each addressing how progress on addressing the climate emergency needs to be, as he says, five times faster within each discipline. Sharpe’s focus is on mitigation, although he acknowledges that adaptation is equally important. He notes that a world in which the necessary action has been taken is now imaginable technologically, but perhaps not politically, and much of the book’s argument concerns how that political transformation might take place.
It begins with the information that governments receive, which is dangerously partial and optimistic, encouraging complacency and procrastination. Many still assume that it is enough for governments to recognise the fundamental scientific realities of climate change, without comprehending the magnitude of its risks. He recognises the argument against doom-mongering, but argues that while it may be right to protect individual hearers from climate fear and stasis, governments need to know worst-case scenarios. But the necessary risk assessments are, with a few exceptions including Sharpe’s own work, largely missing. Insurers are only concerned with short term hazards and even the US military does not look beyond a twenty-five year time-frame.
Nor are academic science and the IPCC process presenting a sufficiently urgent picture, especially of the risks created by temperature rises significantly above two degrees. Sharpe identifies several reasons for this failure: a desire to underline international commitment to the Paris objectives; an assumption that research should principally inform adaptation rather than mitigation; a focus on consensus, aggregation and high confidence findings; little research on tipping points and feedbacks and the nature of scientific conservatism which, in avoiding false positives, underplays the dangers of false negatives. He notes that scientists tend to be significantly more alarmed in conversation than they are in publication.
Much of the material covered in the economics section will be familiar to Green Christian readers, especially those involved in the Joy in Enough programme. Sharpe’s criticisms of mainstream economics include its assumptions that the world is fixed and unchanging and that climate risks can be addressed by cost-benefit analyses. The final section, Diplomacy, includes the international campaigns leading up to COP26 which Sharpe himself led. His criticisms of most climate diplomacy, that it focuses on process rather than outcome, creating “collaborators in non-collaboration” are acute and incisive, but I was disappointed not to read more about climate justice in these chapters.
This is an important book, especially in its treatment of climate risk and assessment failure. It does not cover all the aspects of climate change with which Green Christian readers will be concerned, but provides a valuable insight into how the powerful think, and, perhaps more crucially, what they still do not know.
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