One day, some thirty years ago, as a six-year-old little girl, living in a European country, I thought it was so cold outside, and I thought it would be a “good deed” to leave the doors open, so the warmth of our central-heated house could compensate a little the too cold world outside.

My mother quickly came over, and explained to me that not only this was bad for family economics, but also it would contribute to something ‘she had read about’, which was the greenhouse effect, and that actually it could be the case that the world was warming up, which could have several negative effects…

My mother is somebody who would read about this kind of stuff, who would get informed. The mothers of my classmates hadn’t heard of climate change at that time. Well, that was understandable, the problem was only incipiently known, temperatures had risen only slightly in the last century or so, arctic ice extent was relatively stable, and no major climate disasters had happened.

How we live the climate change reality now

Now, thirty years later, even my 5-year old daughter knows about climate change, we got all used to hearing about climate disasters, and the local effects of climate change became part of the small talk of the people. We now live in a world with only half of the summer ice extent of that of the world where the 6-year old me lived.

But by now, nobody gets really shocked about climate change news anymore. At what point this little me got used to the effects of global warming? To the continuous news on more “natural disasters”, which are now proven not to be natural disasters but man-made anthropogenic-climate disasters? To the news on once again increasing green house gas emissions? To the news that once again we trespassed a climatological record?

Even though I have been fighting for years for climate justice, even though I was part of the team that told climate negotiations in Cancun that what nations were deciding upon was unacceptable for the future of the world, even so I got used to the continuous flow of bad climate news, and still live my normal life.

We know we ought to start doing something, but still things are not yet that bad. Climate models project bad scenarios for 2050, or 2100, thereby suggesting that in the mean time things will be OK. Climate change action is supposed to be about fairness to our children and grandchildren.

But today I found something that woke me up from this slowly getting used to bad climate news: the following graph, comparing 2007 climate models that were predicting arctic ice depletion, compared with what actually happened. Reality is much, much worse than what they predicted. In fact, right now, arctic sea ice extend is 30% less of what 2007 models predicted as worst case scenarios.

Model runs are from Stroeve et al (2007). Red line added in shows satellite observations of Arctic sea ice extent for September[1]

This implies two things: first, we cannot trust the climate models that predicted the future up till 2050. Second, that positive feedback effects are working at a strong pace already.

As probably many of you know, arctic ice extend is the major climate indicator, and the most important tipping point for climate change. Once it is gone, our normal and stable climate will not be able to be recuperated. While it is disappearing, it enters into a self-enhancing circle: major ice disappearance causes less reflection of sunlight, and more heat trapping of sunlight. Furthermore it causes the release of roughly 4 Gigatons of Methane, which, in the short run, would be the equivalent of 224Gt of CO2 [2], that is to say about half of the proposed carbon budget to stay under 2 degrees. But, at the same time it is becoming increasingly clear that 2 degrees is not a viable objective: right now the temperature increase is of 0,8 degrees C°, and positive feedback of climate change is already happening at a fast pace.

And now?

So, what became clear to me today is that in fact the world did pass dangerous tipping points already. And that we cannot state anymore: we have to act, but we are still on time. That moderate emission cuts only imply that cumulative emissions keep on building up, and that even deep emission cuts may not be sufficient, as in fact we have to actually reverse the positive feedback that climate change is already causing. So we actually need negative emissions, or emissions that low that they are well below the uptake of GHG by the carbon sinks. And this taking into account that all of the carbon sinks (especially oceans and forests) are also quickly loosing their capacity to absorb carbon.

The problem is two rather contradictory messages always have always been communicated together: 1) the climate change situation is very bad, 2) Scientists and environmental movements always bring their message with the mention that “it is not yet too late”.
While this is a good message to keep people positive, and beware for despair, it has two problems: it maintains people in their comfort zone, and postpones major changes.

Environmental movements now need to move beyond the typical discourse they have been handling, and tell people how bad the situation really is, that we are actually at the point of surpassing the tipping points, and we really need dramatic changes in the way we handle the environment and the economy in order to reverse the self enhancing processes that started already, and we need all hands on deck.

We need people to wake up collectively and to start saying “hey stop, at which point did we really come?” We need people to start considering consciously if they are wanting to change their lives completely, or just to keep on living for a few more years, and wait for the “game over”.

Today, I do despair. I feel we are at this precise moment of passing the tipping points. And that urgently we need to be millions to feel this same kind of despair, and not being told continuously that we still have time, while we know we don’t have time. Time is gone.

An emergency plan

The ‘other side’ -the greedy politicians and businessmen are clear the problem exists and they do have their emergency plan, and their clear arguments to implement it, as this article in the Guardian shows: geoengeneering is going to solve it all. Now, let’s be clear: the only thing geoengineering can do is to compensate a man-made ecological unbalance with more ecologically unbalanced actions, accelerating ecological decomposition. If the best climate scientists have not been able to predict climatic behavior under ‘natural conditions’ how can science possibly predict all the possible side effects of a major unnatural intervention on the climate, which is geoengeneering?

Therefore, as environmental movements we need to prepare our own emergency plan, and make it as well-known as possible. If not, the geoengeneering emergency plan of the 1% may at a certain point become the only option at hand.

So what should the emergency plan exist of? In my opinion, there are two main chapters:

1)    Make sure climate change is controlled at levels that prevent self-enhancing effects

2)    Have a prevention plan for major disasters that can be caused by run-away climate change

Controlling climate change

    The plan could include, among others, several elements like these:

  • Drastic reduction of emissions, though a conscious plan for economic degrowth, with redistribution of wealth
  • giving every person a minimum right for GHG emissions, and install high taxes on excess emissions
  • respect for the rights of Mother Earth
  • restauration of natural circumstances wherever and as much as possible
  • Abolition of environmentally damaging subsidies, in particular of fossil fuel subsidies
  • Installation of subsidies for environmentally friendly goods, services and actions
  • strong environmental regulation and fiscalisation
  • Stopping all warfare and military investment
  • deriving all the funds from the military to the fight against climate change, other environmental problems, and poverty
  • Stop all kind of emissions that are not to sustain the basic functions of life, no more sumptuous emissions
  • A massive power shift to alternative energy
  • Stopping all sources of soot emissions
  • Prohibition of all extreme energy
  • Prohibition of 80% of fossil fuel extraction (or a higher percentage, as 80% plans for a 2 degree increase in temperature, which given today’s impact of one degree is totally unacceptable)
  • Prohibition of carbon markets and offsets
  • Massive planting of trees
  • Massive planning of water use to prevent extreme draughts, including in Amazon regions which would trigger another tipping point
  • Make all superficies that is actually build on by humans, or painted white, or with plants on it. But eliminate all grey and black superficies.
  • Removal of all technological and other barriers to the implementation of environmentally sound technologies and alternative energy. In particular, patents should be abolished in a similar way as happened with generic medicines.
  • Prohibition of any new technique or interference with Mother Earth’s natural balances, especially geoengeneering

Many of the elements are being worked upon by environmental organizations, many elements may be discussed. But a master plan bringing it all together is missing, and is very urgent. At the same time, the public needs to get the sense of high urgency: it is to be implemented now or it will never be implemented.

Prevention plan for major disasters

We need to take into account that climate change will cause a series of disasters, not only at an environmental level, but also on levels that affect very dangerous processes that humans manage. There will be more very severe hurricanes, draughts, earthquakes, floodings, etc. Many of those could bring petroleum drilling installations, nuclear installations (both for civil use as nuclear weapon storage), petrochemical factories, etc into dangerous situations. If these dangerous situations are not prevented, each one of them could cause on its turn a new major ecological disaster, such as happened with the Deepwater Horizon, or Fukushima.

Therefore we need to elaborate plans to shut down all of those installations. It will be part of the first chapter plan anyway to shut them down, but demanding emergency plans for shutting them down will be essential.

One tipping point too far

The world has many and complex tipping points. Several local tipping points have been past already, like forests dying off because of climate induced diseases, forest fires because of higher temperatures and increased draught, or parts of the ocean corals that die off because of acidified oceans.

But the tipping point that showed up in the graph above is a major one, one that defines the climate of the entire planet. That is one tipping point too far.

Which makes that a tipping point in my personal life is reached: I cannot keep on living as if we can go on for years the way are doing now, not even as a climate activist. We need to take climate action to a next level.

 


[2] Methane has a warming potential of 56 times CO2, only that its lifetime is rather short: twelve years. For this reason the IPCC recalculated its CO2equivalent as 21. But, in case of a sudden release of the methane stored under the permafrost the impact would be of 56 CO2eq.

8 Comments

  1. Well written Nele but as you correctly say we do not have a plan as yet to save the World.
    You have a good list of suggestions to which we must add firstly more at the level of technology and that means which technologies to eliminate and secondly at the politico-economic level.

    Let’s start with the second. What does de-growth mean? It entails as Minqi Li explains an elimination of capitalism because growth is necessary feature of capitalism.
    Eliminating capitalism means socializing the world’s productive forces. That does not entail taking land off a poor farmer for example, but it does mean society as a whole, rather than the market, needs to guide what is produced and how resources are cared for and produce distributed. This necessity is very likely to become obvious to all who are not insulated from reality in 2013 when, due to the failure of USA agriculture from the climate warming drought of 2012, World food stocks will fail to meet the need.
    This socialization should also be a great relief to capitalists who have foolishly invested in activities which will need to be abruptly curtailed e.g. Motor Car and Air conditioning manufacture, Coal burning power plants, Fossil fuel exploration, Aviation, Mining of the Ocean’s Fish Stocks. The hardware involved in these activities will need to be recycled into bicycles, soot free bio-char stoves, inter-island ferries etc.
    With this realization suggestions of subsidies for private business disappear as being irrelevant.
    Where are the socialist students of history and economics who need to lead in preparing transition plans?

    As for technologies to eliminate a good piece of recent news is that a super trawler is banned from Australian waters and above we mention some features of modern life which must disappear.

  2. Firstly don’t lose sight of the fact, climate change is a natural phenomena and it can come upon us fast if we get into a positive feedback situation.
    Over the millennia this has occurred on many an occasion so there is nothing new in what is happening, what is new is us, we weren’t here when this has occurred in the past so we really don’t know what is going to happen to us.
    You talk about technology getting us out of the mess we are in, don’t forget it was technology that has exacerbated our dilemma, so I suggest we don’t rely on that to much.
    next we have politicians, how you expect politicians to stop climate change I don’t know, if I remember King Canute tried to stop a natural event once all he got was wet feet.
    We must first come to terms with climate change and at least try to educate the next generation as to the ramifications of climate change and stand up to the future problems.
    My generation through it’s greed for an easy life and more energy hasn’t helped so I lecture to young people on climate change to help them come to terms with this natural event and to apologies for the excesses of my generation and the selfishness of the acts in the past.
    I usually finish my lectures with a cartoon of an ostrich with its head in the sand and a comment that perhaps Darwin got it wrong and we humans evolved from ostriches.

  3. Climate change is not a natural phenomena, it is man-made. That is precisely the reason why we have to act, and why acting can help: if we made it, we should be able to reverse it. (Your comment on our generation’s greed for an easy life coincides with the idea that indeed it is human made)
    I do agree with you that technologies are not the right way to handle the problem, that is precisely what I am stating in my article.

    Kind greetings,

    Nele

  4. Dear Nele,
    I agree with your diagnosis about how bad the problem actually is. But your list of “solutions” sounds almost as bad, if not worse, than the correct description of how bad climate change is.

    First of all, if you want any solution to be feasible, you should avoid forcing people into a particular system of values or ethics.. thus, while “accepting the rights of mother Nature” might be a nice thing, and I would even agree to it, I know many people who would not buy into such a concept (and might still be interested in saving the world from anthropogenic climate change). Thus the less assumptions about a particular mind-set (or the less noble an attitude) your solution requires, the more likely it will be to actually implement it. Thus I would like to see a solution that even works in a world full of “greedy politicians and businessmen”.

    Secondly, the idea of “controlling climate change” can only come in two possibilities:
    (1) minimising the overall impact of human civilisation on the environment
    (2) controlling the impact of human civilisation on the environment, which amounts to controlling the environment

    I would strongly argue, that the first solution is not practically feasible, or if it is, it is far worse than living in a world 8 or so degrees warmer.. or anything short of a runaway greenhouse effect. Because you would have either to decrease the number of people on the planet, or their footprint on nature. And while you can have less people on the planet with economic degrowth, you certainly can’t have an improved footprint without economic, social and technological improvements.

    Thus promoting economic degrowth (the redistribution part is certaintly fine, even without climate change), can only save us if you go all the way down to having a small enough number of people on the planet.. (because you can never be efficient enough to feed 9 billion people and still don’t touch mother nature, if you are not allowing for dramatic technological improvements).. which again I would argue, is far worse than climate change could be (or at least it would be doing the worst things that climate change could do to us, just in anticipation of climate change).

    Which leaves us with the second possibility of controlling our impact on the environment.. which we only can do if we understand the environment good enough. I do get your point that you think, errors in prior estimations of loss of sea ice cover can be taken as pointer towards our insufficient understanding of the complex processes involved. And I would agree that our knowledge is far insufficient..

    But instead of saying that we need to effectively to get out of the anthropocene again, I would argue we will have to find a way of managing our planet with human influence on it. (which we are effectively doing for centuries, but not in a well educated way).

    Stopping carbon intensive subsidies, incentivising carbon efficient technologies and behaviour.. all this is fine.. and, I also agree, not sufficient.

    But to mix up the necessary fight against climate change (which actually is a fight for finding ways to sustainably manage our planet) with all other kinds of political targets makes it even harder to achieve anything.

    One example.. the pentagon is the single largest investor into research for substitutes of carbon intensive fuel.. why? because the US military runs on carbon.. and as fossil fuels are getting scarcer, their ability to act might become limited.

    Thus instead of starting to talk about a world government, worldwide socialism, peace for all as a solution for climate change.. (which does not make the problem easier to solve) you should urge the environmentalists to put their clever heads on finding solutions to the problem which work in the world and with the humans we are given, instead of saying “if I was to solve the climate problem, I would not start from here”.

    Best wishes from a concerned, but positive climate realist,

    Alex

  5. Dear Alex,

    Thanks a lot for your comment. I think there are lots of solutions in common. Many of the elements you describe do form part of “minimising the overall impact of human civilisation on the environment”. Personally I do believe this is totally necessary.
    I don’t understand quiet well if you are pleading for geoengeneering, but I would be totally against it, and with me the biggest percent of world population. The only thing humanity can do when intervening natural processes is generating even bigger imbalances.

    I never intender to install a global government or anything of the kind -the most powerful states/governments are scary enough. Nor do I pretend to have all the answers myself. I am just hoping that the article would lead to a more open discussion.

    Which you started, so thank you for that.

    Kind regards,

    Nele

  6. Dear Nele,

    thanks for your reply.
    Concerning Geoengineering I don’t have a simple pro or contra position on Geoengineering, I think the term is misleading and overused.
    My reaction to your post was lead by a number of statements on my side:

    (1) You can’t think about feeding 9 billion people on the planet and at the same time minimising the human footprint on the planet to a level that would not leave us as a significant driver of all essential processes on the planet.

    (2) We have and are “engineering” our environment. Probably starting from the neolithic revolution we have made an imprint on almost all “natural” systems, to an extend that nowadays there simply is no part of this planet that has not been impacted by us. By this type of “engineering” i firstly mean land use change, deforestation, steered evolution by hunting, farming, breeding, etc.

    From these two points I would argue that there is no way back to times where we had no impact on the environment. Thus it can only be about controlling our interaction with the environment in a way that still enables a long-term future both for us and the planet (whereby momentarily, I would be far less concerned about the planet and its ecosystems, which have survived mass extinction events like the one we are currently causing before).

    Besides shutting down some of our interventions into the environment (like greenhouse gas emissions) first of all this means that we have to intensify our effort to understand the system we are living in far better than we do right now. This means that we can’t just stop doing everything we are doing right now, but starting to do things differently (closing material circles, downscaling and diversifying production, changing from a consumerist to a circular material society, etc…). In the end to me this does not and should not sound like “degrowth” at all.. just not growth by just scaling up industrial processes, but growth by decoupling value creation from material processes.

    But I am digressing..

    The geoengineering point.. From my understanding Geoengineering currently is used for a wide range of proposals of technological systems that would affect the carbon cycle, the radiation balance or other parts of the climate system. I think it would be a rather bad idea only to address the radiation balance by adding aerosols, solar panels in space, or to try and stimulate biological flows of carbon, e.g. by iron fertilisation, etc.
    But If it comes to simply scrapping CO2 out of the atmosphere to dump it back underground (from where we took it in the first place) it is not such a bad idea per se. Because it essentially is “just” the inversion of what we have been doing for the last 200 years or so.
    Of course this type of technology has a number of possible “bad” implications: First of all, its existence could (and is) being used as an excuse not to mitigate emissions by other means, and then of course there might be side effects.. as you correctly mention. Thus I would not try to build a solution to climate change just by using atmospheric scrapping, but I can’t see why this should not build part of the “emergency” portfolio we will need if we find out that we might not only have been wrong with the arctic sea ice, but probably also with the permafrost, the amazon, the sahara, the monsoon and other tipping points.

    Summarising, again, I think where we differ is a rather fundamental point:

    I don’t see any sense in trying to essentially “shut down” human activities to try and not influence nature/the planet/climate.. Our “experiment” of industrial revolution has brought us beyond any possibility of going back to this state without loosing our identity of a civilisation.
    Instead what we need to try to achieve is a transition towards another equilibrium with nature in which humanity takes over a significant part of “system control”. All we can hope for is that on the way, we are not causing any troubles that can’t be fixed later.. (loss of biodiversity is the biggest one), everything else could be “fixed” once we have achieved the transition.

    And of course the other issue with practical solutions, that starting from a radical position (instead of leading towards a radical change) alienates many people we will need as partners in this process.

    Hope this clarifies my earlier points.

    Best,
    Alex

  7. Very well written article.

    I don’t disagree per se with any of it, but I believe geoengineering is – unfortunately – now part of a minimum solution to avoiding catastrophic changes. If you’re interested I’d be more than happy to go into the details of why, including references to the science involved in coming to this conclusion. That is not the same thing as being happy with the idea, or with saying it is a sufficient solution if done in isolation – it is not. At most it might buy more time to implement a solution that ought to have been comprehensively started by our parents generations (and that assuming it was ever acceptable to consume a finite resource wastefully).

    Secondly, you talk about some emergency plan – but what do you really think can be implemented by the environmental movement that offers hope for a majority of the population? Well meaning as these people are effectiveness to date has been decidedly limited as far as I can see (certainly in relation to the size of the problem – I don’t want to belittle the efforts of individuals which have been far greater than their personal responsibilities proportionately in many cases).

    I have an emergency plan. I have been working on it for five years now. At most it includes myself and a small group of people. I lack the resources to do any more.

    I have found it absurdly difficult to persuade people in general that there is a real and imminent problem, let alone that they personally ought to do anything (at all – even little things such as lowering personal emissions or recycling…) to act to try to prevent this problem. I know of only one other person who has taken to heart my view that it is important to try to preserve a basis for civilisation for all those people as yet unborn in the future who must suffer the consequences of what we do now for countless generations. I have already confronted the fact that it is most likely not possible to come up with a solution for the bulk of the existing population, even that portion of it which is largely innocent in having caused this problem (the very poor and the young). That said I do still participate within an organisation trying to bring about a solution to the problem – I’m just not overly optimistic of the chances of success in this endeavour.

    On my site this is what I am doing personally – http://helpsurviveclimatechange.com/Content/Mission/DeusJuvat.aspx – but I’d like to stress I’m not pushing it as my main focus – my main focus is on the importance of having an insurance plan for civilisation itself in the event of our ultimate failure to prevent collapse. Hopefully the rest of the site reflects that (but I should note I constructed and wrote the pages on it very rapidly and really ought to revisit and improve them).

  8. Just a minor point about your shorter horizon methane forcing – the CO2e of methane is actually arguably up to 105 times over a 20 year timescale (and since the half life in the atmosphere is nearer 10 years when the usual breakdown mechanisms are not overwhelmed, the equivalent impact over a decade is likely even higher).

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/716.figures-only

    That link refers to the calculations – granted – 72x (or 79x here) is also sometimes quoted to exclude the estatimated indirect effects of aerosol forcing. 105x is the figure for direct and indirect effects in relation to aerosols. Methane really shouldn’t be quoted over a century as it decays away so fast (yet almost everything written cites a figure around 20x which is the century figure).

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