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Climate Change Is The Central Challenge For Humanity

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Viewpoint by Franz Baumann

This article is based on Talk given to the UN Association of New York 23 May 2018. Dr. Franz Baumann joined the UN Development Program in 1980 and began working in the UN Secretariat in 1985. He retired in 2015 as an assistant secretary-general, special adviser on environment and peace operations, after working about a dozen assignments under five secretaries-general, in four duty stations and on three continents. Dr. Baumann is now a visiting professor at New York University. – The Editor

NEW YORK (IDN) – The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, by training a physicist and by temperament not given to hyperbole, last November called Climate Change “the central challenge for humanity.”[1] I will try to explain why this is by no means an alarmist, but an acutely realistic assessment.

Although today’s challenges are complex and global, forces are gaining ground around the world, whose responses are reckless and parochial. Institutions and norms, painstakingly constructed after World War II, are being marginalized or ignored, if not dismantled. The premise of the post-World War II liberal world order – cooperation, compromise, science, reason, humanism and progress – is imperilled. Unilateralism, nationalism, militarism and protectionism are ascending. This does not bode well for problems without borders that can only be solved cooperatively.

The Earth is not warming. It is heating up. To wit: 17 of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred in the twenty-first century. The past four years were the hottest since records began. On May 17, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – established incidentally by a Republican President, Richard Nixon – announced that April 2018 was the 400th consecutive month of global temperatures above the 20th century average. The period between January to April was one of the warmest in the 139-years that records have been kept.[2]

With this heating up of the atmosphere comes climate change: Weather extremes, punishing storms, unusual rainfall, extended droughts (think of Tehran or Cape Town), heatwaves (think of Pakistan), floods, sea-level rise, loss of biodiversity and loss of croplands. Climate change also is an accelerator of conflicts and forced migration.

Hurricane Harvey is what Climate Change looks like. There is no need to exaggerate the problem of climate change, the late climate scientist Jerry Mahlman used to say. It is bad enough as it is. Climate Change is not about ideology or beliefs. It is about facts, logic and urgently required public policy action both nationally and internationally. Continuing on our current trajectory will lead to economic, social, political and environmental catastrophe. It will also be awfully costly. The damage attributable to natural disasters in 2017 in the US alone exceeded $300 billion (up from $75 billion for Hurricane Sandy in 2012).[3] It would be sensible to pay for prevention, rather than for disaster recovery. As Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, commented in a powerful speech on climate change: ”The more we invest with foresight; the less we will regret in hindsight.“ [4]

Climate Change, to be sure, is as much an economic issue as an environmental one. Mainly, though, it is about risk management. And this is why it is so important to de-politicize the debate, to get it out of the “green” do-gooder corner into the mainstream of enlightened self-interest. It must become a joint project for business, science, politics and civil society. Delaying action today would be a classic case of false economies, since the future price tag would be horrendous.

Climate change is the single biggest threat to life, security and prosperity on Earth. It is also the most difficult collective action problem humanity has ever faced. What makes it difficult – actually a proverbial problem from hell – is a tangle of scientific, historical, political, financial, psychological and technical obstacles. There is no quick fix, but only a cluster of hard and disruptive remedies. Not unlike the life-style changes required from someone at risk of a heart attack.

Let me briefly turn to the Science of Climate Change. That carbon dioxide is a heat trapping gas has been understood since the time of Napoleon. Burning fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – generates carbon dioxide (CO2) that acts like a window pane in outer space. Short wavelength radiation is let through, but the warmth of the Earth is prevented from escaping back into outer Space, by keeping long wavelength radiation in. This dynamic – admitting the sun’s rays but trapping the warmth – leads to a higher global surface temperature. A vicious feedback loop results: higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide lead to ever higher temperatures. Unlike, say, steam, which evaporates, carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulates in the atmosphere and lingers for centuries – which is where science melts into history, economics and politics.

Present-day atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are the cumulative result of both historical emissions and current ones. As economists call it: Global warming is both a flow issue, and a stock issue. Picture a bath tub with water gushing in, and the drain blocked. The water level rises, unless the faucet is turned off, or unless water is scooped out. If neither is done, the bathtub will overflow.

It was the US scientist Charles Keeling (20.4.1928 – 20.6.2005), whose recording of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii in the late 1950s first alerted the world to the man-made contribution to the “greenhouse effect” and to global warming. Higher emissions lead to higher concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million. The Keeling Curve tracks the progressive buildup of CO2.[5] For hundreds of thousands of years, atmospheric levels of CO2 have been between 180 and 280 parts per million. They are now over 410 parts per million. And they keep rising. Today’s concentrations have not been seen in at least 500,000 years. The Earth has warmed about 1°C (1.8°F). And keeps getting warmer. There is nothing benevolent about this. It is more akin to a fever. It is as if the human body temperature had gone from the normal 37°C (98.6°F) to a feverish 38°C (100.4°F), on track to 39°C (102.2°F) and higher.

Who owns the problem? Before attempting an answer, I should like to emphasize that global warming is the flip-side of a phenomenal success story. To be precise, of a success story of the past few decades. For 97 percent of the 8,000 years of human civilization, everything was steady. Suddenly, about two hundred or so years ago, an explosive transformation began. Until the late 18th century, energy sources were human and animal muscle power, water, wind and wood.

Then came coal. Coal powered the industrial revolution – and then mass transport across oceans and continents. Until the mid-1950s, coal was the world’s foremost fuel.

Then oil took over. Oil made possible individual mobility, airplanes, urban as well as suburban development and modern industry. Energy – fossil fuels, to be precise – shaped the modern world. Together with science, energy was the driver behind the emergence of industries, mechanized agriculture, expanded cities and a phenomenal growth in wealth and population.

Although the human species emerged around 150,000 years ago, most of the population growth – and most of the economic growth – occurred in the last 60 years.[6]

It took:

  • Several millennia to reach the first billion humans (around the year 1800)
  • Over a century to reach the second billion (around the year 1920)
  • About 40 years to reach the third billion (around 1960)
  • 14 years to the fourth billion (in 1974)
  • 13 years to the fifth billion (in 1987)
  • 12 years to the sixth billion (in 1999)
  • 8 years to the seventh billion (in 2007)

            Today we are 7.6 billion

            We will be over 11 billion by the end of the century. In other words: 50 percent more than today.

Also in the last 60 years or so, many people – not all, to be sure – have benefitted from the rise in productivity, and became healthy and materially well off to an extent previously unthinkable. The colossal downside of this extraordinary success is destructive climate change. Already in the 1960s or so, people were getting concerned about pollution and the reckless exploitation of non-renewable resources that, they feared, would inevitably lead to a Malthusian nightmare of famine. They were right, and pollution was tackled very successfully. The air, rivers, lakes, cars, industries and cities became much cleaner.

But on the second point, depleting natural resources, something interesting happened. Modern technology opened up previously inaccessible deposits and created synthetic substitutes, so that supply was assured and prices even dropped. It emerged, surprisingly, that the problem of humanity’s interaction with nature is less the depletion of raw materials, and more the consequences of using them. Today, there is a glut, not a shortage of fossil fuels, and the formidable challenge is to leave them where they are. In the ground. This will be hard, if it is possible at all.

What is the problem? Since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries, today’s emissions have to be looked at against the backdrop of historical emissions. Even the crusaders’ campfires on the way to Jerusalem contribute to today’s rising temperatures. However, the problem became virulent only with the widespread deployment of James Watt’s steam engine. In other words, with the industrial revolution.

Returning to the bathtub image: About half of what is in the tub has been put there by the US and by the countries of the European Union. If Japan, Canada, Australia and other Western countries are included, it is over two thirds. China, Russia, India and other developing countries account for less than one third.

Per capita, industrialized countries are still by far the main emitters.[7] The top 10 percent of global income earners are responsible for nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90 percent.[8] At the same time, about half the world’s population lives on less than $3 per day. These discrepancies are neither equitable, nor sustainable. The industrialized countries’ obligation to fix the problem of their making is overwhelming. We broke it. We own it. Assuming it were politically possible, what is it that rich countries need to do? In one word: Decarbonize!

Humanity has to stop spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – and find a way to remove from the atmosphere much of the carbon dioxide that is already there. In a nutshell, this is what the Paris Agreement of 2015 is all about. All countries of the world solemly committed to holding the increase in global average temperature below 2°C (3.6°F) or even 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. As of today, 176 (of 197 parties) have ratified the agreement, which is a remarkable success. Regardless of second thoughts here or there, the Paris Agreement is a major achievement in defining the problem and in outlining solutions. Yet, mapping the journey is not the same as actually moving forward. As matters stand, there is a major gap between promises and delivery.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) issues an annual report tracking the gaps between countries’ commitments and delivery.[9] Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to indicate their carbon dioxide reduction targets, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Sadly, all the NDCs currently on the table fall far short of what is required. Assuming that all NDCs will indeed be delivered – which is a brave assumption to begin with – the probability is higher than 90 percent that 2°C (3.6°F) will be exceeded by the end of this century. Even more ominously: There is only a likely chance that warming will remain below 3°C (5.4°F) this century. This means a tripling of the warming that has so far occurred. Among scientists, warming over 1.5°C (2.7°F) is considered dangerous, over 3°C (5.4°F) catastrophic and over 5°C (9°F) unknown, implying beyond catastrophic. With unchecked emissions, the dangerous level will be reached within years, the catastrophic within decades, and the unknown before the end of this century.[10]

What are the difficulties of linking science and policy? The main problems are at least fivefold, namely:

Firstly, the magnitude, cost and disruptiveness of the challenge.

Secondly, the energy-intensity of the Western way of life.

Thirdly, the economic interests invested in it.

Fourthly, the perverse incentives that favour perpetuating the status quo and militate against the indispensable, indeed unavoidable, changes.

Fifthly, the legitimate aspirations of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans to live like we do.

As is apparent every morning when we check the news: Politics is very much in the present as well as local. And the agenda is overly full with instantly pressing issues, even if many of them are – in the scale of things – trivial. Daily excitement crowds out any serious debate of longer-term problems. Yet decarbonization is a big project. It is not a fine-tuning issue. It is akin to upgrading a business from Remington typewriters to smartphones.

Decarbonization means nothing less than reducing CO2 emissions to zero, or close to zero. Transforming, in other words, the ways we produce, consume, eat, live and move. Not overnight, to be sure, but deliberately and cooperatively with other countries in the coming years and decades. The sooner this process begins in earnest – and the more orderly and strategic it will be undertaken – the lower the costs and the more systematic the transition to a carbon-free future.

Conversely, the longer the transition to a carbon-free economy is postponed, the higher the costs down the road, the more rancorous the process and the less the chances of success. Consider only that the sun provides more energy every hour than humanity consumes in a year. The challenge, therefore, is not one of energy scarcity, but of energy sources, energy capture and energy transformation. Required is significant innovation in power generation, power storage, grid management, financing and regulation. The technology is available – or within reach – to vastly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. But it entails a broad-based effort, in fact a Moon Shot project.

To accelerate the energy transition and scale it up, a few hurdles must be overcome. The highest hurdle, and the most perverse, come to think of it, is that spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere costs nothing. Of course, there are serious costs, but they are not paid by the polluters. They are imposed on society and the planet as a whole. The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 80 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to poor – and dangerous – air quality.[11]

This is an egregious market failure. In the lingo of economics, carbon emissions are externalities. To reduce carbon emissions, these externalities must be internalized – which means a price has to be put on carbon, so that pollution costs real money, and that incentives are created to pollute less. Allowing the atmosphere to be treated like a free sewer must stop. Ignoring environmental damage is fairy-tale accounting, like strategies for avoiding running a business and reporting only revenues, yet not the cost of raw materials. Markets do not function well when large costs are socialized.

Governments, jointly, must ensure that the price of fossil fuels reflects real costs – and that the income thus generated is invested in clean, green infrastructure at the proper scale. And Western governments must support developing countries to skip the carbon stage of development. Here, too, applying market principles will go a long way. At the moment, egregiously, fossil fuels are still very cheap. Artificially and nonsensically so.

This means that countries intent on modernizing quickly – for instance China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and many African countries – still build coal fired plants, which many producers are all too eager to sell.[12] Raising the price of carbon emissions will send a strong signal to the fossil fuel industry that it would be wise to diversify, as, otherwise trillions of dollars tied up in coal, oil and gas assets will be stranded. Given all of this, it is little surprising that there is denial, obfuscation and obstruction. The vested interests of the fossil fuel industry – and of fossil fuel exporting countries – are formidable. In Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela and several other countries, 60 percent or more of government revenue is derived from the sale of oil and gas. This dual addiction to fossil fuels by producers and consumers must be overcome.

The fossil fuel economy has been compared to the slavery economy of the early 19th century Southern United States. It took decades and a dreadful civil war before the view prevailed that slavery is morally repugnant, no matter its economic rationale. Carbon dioxide does not compare with slavery in terms of emotional appeal. It is odourless and invisible – unlike plastic that pollutes beaches and oceans, kills penguins, birds & fish. Thus, the cause and peril of global heating can be argued, but not sensed. Cause and effect are abstract, and not in the scale we are comfortable thinking. Our biological endowment makes it difficult for us to recognize this kind of problem. We sense the danger of lightning, of a knife-wielding attacker, a wild animal or a hot stove, but something as slow-moving, long-term and abstract as climate change does not elicit the same kind of emotional response. The survival instinct is hardwired into the human brain.

Regardless of facts or odds, we assume that problems won’t turn out as badly as they could, that troubles will pass, and that solutions will emerge somehow. We are confident that, when push comes to shove, the scientists will invent something that will save the day. They may, but it would be reckless to count on it. Would it not be more prudent to hope for the best, but to prepare for the worst?

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2018 assesses risks in two categories: likelihood and impact.[13] As can be seen in the last column, three of the “likely” risks are related to climate change (green fields) and, except nuclear war, the main four risks in terms of impact. The timeline runs from 2008 through 2018. The green fields emerged only in 2011.

Exceeding planetary boundaries is not a sustainable business model – and that infinite growth collides with the physics of a finite world. We, humans, need to reconcile our way of life with nature. In “normal” disputes, compromise and time are the two main ingredients of successful conflict resolution. Whether in personal life or in politics, time does heal wounds and offers the space for solutions to emerge. Unfortunately, in dealing with Global Heating, time is not an effective tool. Here, time is against us. We are running out of time. As one of the first scientific assessment of the relationship between carbon dioxide and global warming noted in 1979 (!): “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late.”[14]

Secondly, normal conflicts can be resolved through dialogue and compromise. Not so Global Heating. Nature does not negotiate. Nature also does not compromise.

Someone noted that we are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change, and the last generation that can actually do something about it. When Chancellor Merkel called Climate Change “the central challenge for humanity,” she recognized that climate change is a threat multiplier. If we fail to meet the challenge, all other risks will become greater and threaten to overwhelm us. Secretary-General António Guterres said on May 15 in Vienna that

         climate change is, quite simply, an existential threat

         for most life on the planet – including and especially

         the life of humankind. That is why we must use all

         our resources to build a sense of urgency. We must act

         with common purpose to raise ambition while we still have time.[15]

The climate is changing. Two questions in conclusion: Can we? Will we? [IDN-InDepthNews – 6 June 2018]

Photo: Sea ice plays an important role in the climate and ecosystems of the Arctic and Antarctic. ©2008 fruchtzwerg’s world.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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[1] Rede von Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel im Rahmen der UN-Klimakonferenz COP 23 am Mittwoch, dem 15. November 2017 in Bonn; https://www.bundesregierung.de/Content/DE/Rede/2017/11/2017-11-15-bk-cop23.html

[2] National Centers for Environmental Information, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Assessing the Global Climate in April 2018 April was third warmest on record for the globe,” Th, 17.5.2018; https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-climate-201804

[3] NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters (2018). https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/

[4] Mark Carney, “Breaking the Tragedy of the Horizon: Climate Change and Financial Stability.” Speech at Lloyd’s of London, 29 September 2015; https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/speech/2015/breaking-the-tragedy-of-the-horizon-climate-change-and-financial-stability  

[5] https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/webdata/ccgg/trends/co2_data_mlo.png

[6] Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, Eugenia Kalnay, Ghassem R. Asrar, Antonio J. Busalacchi, Robert F. Cahalan, Mark A. Cane, Rita R. Colwell, Kuishuang Feng, Rachel S. Franklin, “Modeling sustainability: population, inequality, consumption, and bidirectional coupling of the Earth and Human Systems,” National Science Review, Volume 3, Issue 4, 1 December 2016, Pages 470–494; https://academic.oup.com/nsr/article/3/4/470/2669331

[7] US Department of Energy, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIA); http://cdiac.ess-dive.lbl.gov/trends/emis/tre_coun.html http://cdiac.ess-dive.lbl.gov/trends/emis/top2014.cap

[8] Safa Motesharrei et al, ibid, (footnote 6 above)

[9] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), The Emissions Gap Report 2017: A UN Environment Synthesis Report, October 31, 2017; https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22070/EGR_2017.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

[10] Yangyang Xu and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, “Well below 2°C: Mitigation dangerous to catastrophic climate changes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) | September 26, 2017 | vol. 114 | no. 39 | 10315–10323; http://www.pnas.org/content/114/39/10315.full.pdf?sid=e6a47228-e054-4a17-8135-ec36477e2259

[11] World Health Organization, ”9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air,” News Release, 2 May 2018; http://www.who.int/airpollution/en/

[12] Worldwide, 6,721 coal fired power stations operate, 467 are under construction, of which 220 in China, 77 in India, 35 in Indonesia, 21 each in the Philippines and Vietnam, 11 in Japan, 7 in Pakistan, 8 in South Africa, 5 in Poland and 4 in Russia, cf. EndCoal, “Coal Plants by Country;” https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1JKJJa-jwK6YpkEQKP2bcENHR2yoS40ur8baQnIXHtIU/edit#gid=0

[13] The Evolving Risks Landscapes 2008-2018 (p. 6, World Economic Forum, The Global Risks Report 2018 (13th edition), Figure IV; http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2018/explore-the-survey-results/#frame/74975

            Global Risks in Terms of Likelihood 2018:
            1st:       Extreme Weather Events

            2nd:      Natural disasters
            3rd:       Cyberattacks
            4th:       Data fraud or theft
            5th:       Failure of Climate-Change mitigation and adaptation

                  Global Risks in Terms of Impact 2018:
            1st:       Weapons of Mass Destruction

            2nd:      Extreme Weather Events
            3rd:       Natural disasters
            4th:       Failure of Climate-Change mitigation and adaptation
            5th:       Water Crisis

[14] National Academy of Sciences, “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment: Report of an Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, July 23-27, 1979; https://www.nap.edu/read/12181/chapter/1#viii

[15] António Guterres, “Clean Energy Makes Economic Sense, Secretary-General Underscores, in Remarks to Austrian World Summit,” SG/SM/19035-ENV/DEV/1853, Tuesday, 15 May 2018; https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sgsm19035.doc.htm





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