Why we must act on climate change

[This is an Op-Ed, that I submitted in January 2019 to a couple of major Australian Newspapers. The reason for that was that the danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg had published a piece on climate change in a major Australian newspaper. I felt that the fact that Lomborg published his views on climate change on the other side of the planet warranted an alternative danish viewpoint — this time from someone who actually has real scientific credentials. Since my piece was never published I’ve decided to publish it on my blog instead.]

January 2019

Last year we experienced in Europe the longest and hottest draught ever recorded. Whilst the danish firefighters fought numerous domestic fires they also dispatched several crews to help fight the huge forest fires in Sweden, a completely unprecedented situation where fires occurred even above the arctic circle. The scenery was the same all over the globe: extreme weather events, heatwaves, droughts and downpoors.

We know what is happening and we have known it for a long time. The climate scientists have warned us for decades that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide will cause the planet to warm. But if the predictions of the scientists now come true then we must expect their predictions for the future to be reliable. And that does not bode well for our civilisation. What we have seen so far is only the beginning, it is going to get much worse. With the present levels of emissions we are on track for a planetary disaster with an increase of average of surface temperatures between 3 and 5 degrees Celcius. What we are facing is beyond any doubt an existential threat.

A key worry about the climate is that it is what we call a non-linear system. If you push a linear system a little it will move a little, but a non-linear system may move a lot when pushed a little. The reason is that there are dynamical effects — for instance: with a warming arctic permafrost thaws, which releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which in turn gives more warming. Another example: when sea ice melts it is replaced by open water, which absorbs much more solar radiation, which in turn means more warming. The climate system involves a large number of dynamical effects and hence there is a very real risk that it may cascade out of control if pushed too hard.

Another problem is that the warming is delayed. If we stopped emitting CO2 today the planet would continue warming for several decades. When we combine this delay with the aforementioned non-linearity — and then add the considerable uncertainty that comes with any prediction of the future climate (i.e. it may turn out worse than the scientists predict) — then we have a worrisome cocktail. When we fully realise the scope of the problem it could be too late to stop it.

Actually there ought to be cause for optimism. The price of wind and solar energy has plummeted and other technologies are beginning to show promise. The problem is that the world has not shown the will to implement these technologies at a sufficiently fast rate. And the rate is critical, CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a very long time, which means that we must bring our emissions to zero quickly. According the the scientists we must drastically reduce our emissions immediately for then to half them around 2030 and reach zero emission in 2050. And that is just to have a decent likelihood that things wont go horribly wrong.

We must do three things: 1) implement existing technologies — wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, energy efficiency — 2) develop new technologies — modern nuclear energy, energy storage, clean meat, biofuels, etc — and 3) initiate a global afforestation program in order to bind as much carbon as possible in the biosphere. And we must do all this at once and quickly. 

The time for debate is over. There is no doubt anymore, this is real and it is dangerous. Global warming is like an huge asteroid on course to hit Earth. The good thing is that we have the means to divert it. 

Recently I contacted a number of student organisations to encourage them to go on strike for radically stronger climate policies. I am no anarchist and do not normally encourage civil disobedience. But the younger generations are the ones who will pay the largest price for global warming. Our societies are based on a contract between generations, where the younger take care of the older, who in turn make sure that they leave them a world in a better state than they received it. This contract is now being broken on a gigantic scale. The younger generations should realise this and act accordingly.