Two-and-a-half hours to midnight

For about 15 years now I’ve been participating in an annual survey run by the Asahi Glass Foundation on “Environmental Problems and the Survival of Mankind.” The foundation polls “environmentally conscious experts in the private and public sectors around the world” for their opinions about the ultimate survivability of humankind in the face of environmental threats.

From the responses, Asahi comes up with a “Doomsday clock” analogous to the famous one maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that measures the threat of global nuclear weapons disaster. The Bulletin’s clock is currently set at five minutes to midnight.The Asahi questionnaire asks:

“To what extent do you feel that the current deterioration of the global environment has created a crisis that will affect the continuance of the human race? Write a time within the range 0:01 to 12:00 corresponding to the extent of your concern.”

In keeping with slower pace of environmental deterioration than nuclear holocaust, I suppose, the respondents to the Asahi survey say collectively that it’s about 9:31. In 1992, when the survey was first taken, respondents put the time at 7:49. The clock has fluctuated in terms of its optimism since then, but has gradually gotten later and later.

Since I’m not an expert in much of anything, it’s unclear to me how I was selected to participate in this annual exercise. I got an early questionnaire from the foundation when I was the environment writer for a daily newspaper. I filled it out, returned it, and they’ve been including me in their mailing list ever since.

I’m not the typical respondent, though. Most of them have long titles: “Professor, Russian Academy of Science, Far Eastern Branch, Economic Research Service”; “Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Austria”; “Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Zimbabwe.” The survey is not a random one, either, being top heavy with scientists and government officials from Japan, lots of people from China and elsewhere in the Far East.

But within those constraints, the survey has some interesting things to say. These are people who work with these issues every day. The largest perceived problem, regardless of the geographic region of the respondent, is global warming. Second largest is “deforestation, desertification and loss of biodiversity.”  Between 2002 and 2007, perceived progress in global warming was actually worse, meaning that the experts don’t think that enough is being done.

Global warming was the focal issue of the 2006 survey. The theme that runs through it like a coalescing ribbon is one of fairness. By a wide margin, respondents believed that developing countries should meed tough greenhouse gas standards, but that developed countries should provide financial and technical support to achieve these goals. How to achieve them sees less of a consensus, however, About equal numbers of respondents — 32 percent –want to create and economic structure that assigns a value to carbon, versus creating “reduction objectives within a framework like the Kyoto Protocol,” which can bee seen as a call for more traditional regulation as opposed to market based mechanisms. The most likely road to these changes are to “promote transition to low carbon technologies.”

Most studies of the economic future of alternative energy resources show a strong reliance on wind power. But except for the U.S. and Western Europe, experts from most of the regions of the world seem to think that solar power is the most realistic source of energy to replace to carbon based fuels.

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