Climate: The usefulness of prophets of doom
By Sue Landau
Half a century after the Summer of Love, we are living a Summer of Fear.
Numerous studies and articles foreseeing climate disaster are raining down as the Northern Hemisphere tries to forget its cares amid heatwaves and weird weather.
Will the prophesies of doom prod the world into serious action to rein in global warming. Or will they lead to reckless hopelessness?
First, the bad news. Unprecedented melting has been confirmed at both poles. In Alaska, global warming is thawing permafrost for longer, which means it could now release rather than trap carbon dioxide (CO2), according to a study published in May. In June, an iceberg the size of Delaware broke off from Antarctica.
Thawing permafrost is also releasing methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, according to a study published in July in Nature. And the Annual Greenhouse Gas Index showed greenhouse gases rose faster in 2016 than in the past three decades, probably because of the El Niño effect.
Meanwhile, animal species are dying out faster than ever. Researchers say the sixth mass extinction — the first attributable to human activity — is more severe than previously thought. This matters because biodiversity is one of the barriers to excessive warming and an indicator of how bad things really are.
An apocalyptic article entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine in July put together a worst-case scenario for what we could face.
“If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today,” wrote journalist David Wallace-Wells.
Some scientists criticized his article. “There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness,” Michael Mann, climate researcher at Pennsylvania State University, told the Washington Post.
Yet this avalanche of dire predictions could be salutary. It contrasts sharply with the complacency of the past 40 years, during which every aspect of global warming has worsened exponentially while the science of measuring and understanding climate change was telling us with increasing accuracy that this was folly.
In short, humanity fiddled while Rome began to burn.
The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was a milestone, committing most countries to action limiting global warming. But it was just a first, overdue step. The challenge is immense, no less than an industrial revolution to wean the world off fossil fuels.
But the vested interests are powerful and the conflicts of interest complex. So the process is bound to be bumpy, and this is indeed what we are seeing.
One step forward, two steps back
Barely six months after the Paris Agreement came into force, President Donald Trump pulled the United States, the biggest polluter by far historically and per capita, out of the accord.
This gave rise to the “We are still in” campaign, supported by more than 2,000 U.S. states, cities, educational institutes, businesses and investors committed to continue their efforts on climate. Down, yes, but not out.
China is another case in point. Although its domestic energy plans favor renewables over coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, it is exporting coal-fired power plants to developing countries that have so far used little of it, setting the stage for dependency and more CO2 emissions.
On the one hand, China claims climate leadership now that the United States is pulling back (for example working directly with California), while on the other it is financing fossil fuel plants in Africa.
India is also ambivalent despite ambitious announcements on solar energy and electric cars. The costs of renewable electricity may have fallen, but it is still much cheaper to upgrade existing coal plants to tackle India’s energy poverty than to build solar installations, according to an interview with a former Indian coal boss in Climate Home.
These countries are in a bind. China became the world’s largest polluter in absolute terms in 2007, but per person it ranks only sixth, while India is 11th, despite their recent industrialization.
Yet their actions are critical as it is the absolute amount of CO2 that counts in the carbon equation regardless of the historical injustice this represents.
Another alarming a study published this month says that if the world continues with today’s emissions, South East Asia will suffer such intense heat waves within a few decades as to make it uninhabitable by 2100. That part of the world is home to a fifth of humanity.
There are many other examples, not least the diesel scandal still rocking Europe and North America. This has highlighted a disregard for environmental protection in the richest countries that are responsible for most of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions to date.
The reversal on diesel, once touted as environmentally friendly, threatens some major car makers.
The limits of science
A variety of economic factors still hold back the necessary industrial transition, even though the green economy will be a major new source of jobs. Entire countries depend on selling oil. Countless jobs depend on the car industry. Petrochemicals are the backbone of our consumer goods.
So the transition is not going to be smooth. There are delicate compromises to be found as well as technological advances still to be made, and only a generation to do it in. Shock therapy to maintain awareness of the urgency would surely not be amiss.
Does all this mean Armageddon after the end of this century — or even before? Not necessarily, because climate science is not prophecy, argues Andrew Revkin in ProPublica.
“Those serious about climate change have long been clear about the nature of uncertainty on keystone questions: How dangerous is climate change? What do we do about it? Those are laden with value judgments and require debate well beyond science, which simply delineates risks,” he writes.
He adds: “Despite three decades of intensifying analysis using ever more sophisticated computer simulations and observing systems and vast troves of data gleaned through the passage of time, two of the most basic questions remain enduringly unclear: the pace and extent of warming from a given rise in CO2 and the resulting rate of sea-level rise as ice sheets deteriorate. Through 2100 or so, either could be disastrous or manageable.”
(For further reading on climate change, click here.)
Sue Landau is a freelance writer and translator based in Paris. She worked in financial and business journalism for 25 years at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle, chiefly in London and Paris. She reported on energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development.