Science Cannot Stop Global Warming

With current efforts or those committed to under the Paris agreement, there is absolutely no chance that humanity will limit the warming of the Earth’s surface to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This finding emerges from a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on 1.5 degrees released on Monday 8 October 2018. It will take extraordinary effort to  achieve this target, a real change of track. At the same time, climate  change will bring a dramatic rise in extreme events, a sea level rise that will be much larger if we continue heating our planet unabated  rather than halt the temperature increase. The sea level rise will  continue over centuries as Greenland and Antarctic glaciers slowly  disintegrate and the ocean slowly absorbs more heat and expands. The consequences for coastal cities home to hundreds of millions will be dramatic as storm surges rise. The  IPCC speaks with a clear voice of the threats to lives, physical  infrastructure, ecosystems, and associate economic cost but does not  quantify the consequences of political collapse, civil strife and war  that may quite well arise from a hothouse Earth.

Breezy Point, New York, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy 2012. The massive storm surge caused billions of damage in New York and New Jersey. Picture: NOAA

Breezy  Point, New York, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy 2012. The massive storm  surge caused billions of damage in New York and New Jersey. Picture: NOAA

Halting climate change is not impossible, as the new report shows.  Technology is a key ingredient that offers us many possibilities;  however, naïve faith in technology has also lulled us into complacency  and blinded us to the social, political, and economic actions we need to  take if we want to kick our carbon habit.

  • The main reason for rising temperatures is our use of coal, oil and  gas as cheap energy sources and the increasing dependency of our systems  on abundant amounts of energy. Climate policy has focused on  technological development and promotion of cleaner alternatives. We have  achieved initial success in the deployment of solar and wind power and  electric vehicles, but at the same time allowed energy use to grow. We  cannot achieve zero carbon emissions by building new runways and high  ways, by continuing urban sprawl and economic growth by the ever-growing  consumption of cheap, throw-away junk. We need entirely new models of  economic development, social and individual well-being that are  fundamentally different from the ones we have pursued in the 20th We must rid ourselves off our dependency on cheap, abundant fuels. Grass-roots groups,  urbanists, scientists, engineers, have taken promising initiatives to  limit our footprint on this planet, and we cannot allow these to remain a  side-show.
  • While we increasingly observe the consequences of climate change in  rising temperatures, sea levels, and severity of storms, floods, and  droughts, climate change remains a phenomenon that is primarily  understood through science. Scientists observe and model solar  radiation, atmosphere, oceans, the biosphere; they observe and quantify  the impacts; and they model energy transformations and response  strategies. The dominance of scientists in the public debate coincides  with a weakness of social movements devising climate solutions and  experimenting with the social, political, and economic change that  scientists increasingly agree is essential for halting carbon emissions.  I do not know whether this weakness of social movements is a  consequence of the technical arguments that dominate climate policy  debates and disempowers the common citizen, but it prevents the  emergence of a politics of climate solutions. Even advocacy groups and  think-tanks present themselves as quasi-scientific outfits and aim to  gain influence based on the technical and economic merit of their  proposals rather than building a ground-swell of support for those  solutions.
Marching for the Climate. Photo credit: Mark Dixon, Flickr.

  • Possibly because of this lack of a ground-swell of political support  for climate action, our governments have been unable to mount the scale  of response required. This scale is comparable to the response of governments to the global 2007/08 financial crisis, the response of the US  government to the 9/11 terror attacks, or the Chinese government’s  one-belt one-road initiative. While the scale is not unprecedented or  insurmountable, the speed is slower, the impact less immediate, and a  longer-term commitment is required. The threat is not quite as imminent  and visible as the collapse of the world trade towers or Bear-Stearns.  Several world leaders have shown dedication to the climate cause and  have managed to move the needle appreciably, but their actions have  often been undone by a shift of priorities or by vicious campaigns of fossil-fuel interests.  The weakening of government through globalization, of public debate  through social media, of civil society through fragmentation, strife,  and the conscious sowing of discord by moneyed and hostile interests,  the world’s march on the road to unfreedom,  have seriously compromised our ability to mobilize the resources  required. We will need to reconstitute our civil societies and political  institutions to withstand the rougher conditions of the 21st century, not only to reduce emissions but also to protect ourselves  from disease, tyrants, and the destructive consequences of global  warming.

When I started my scientific career in the 1990s, one could still  make the argument that we did not fully understand the climate  consequences of choices we needed to make, that low-carbon technologies  were not mature and required further development, that better science  and engineering was required. Today, we exactly know what to do, as the  1.5°report reiterates, but our actions remain inadequate. It is time to  change that.