Rebuttal: Yes, We Do Have an “Existential Crisis” with Climate Change

06.07.19 | Blog | By:

Contrary to the thoughts of the Oxford and Imperial College visiting professor, just retired from Saudi Aramco, the existential crisis of climate change is way more than an widespread belief of a climate change. It is based on solid scientific foundations, compiled by authoritative assessments such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. It is not necessary to go through each and every detail, but some arguments should be highlighted.

First, the future is not an extrapolation of past trends. This is true especially when resource-base is depleted at a rate beyond the carrying capacity, as we can witness in many conflict hotspots throughout the world. Syria and South Sudan are obvious cases, but induced migration shows how this affects many regions far away from where the problems have originated. Loss of biodiversity, plastic waste buildup, water shortages and, regarding the article, atmospheric limits, are thresholds to take into account. History has shown, from the first decade of last century, how a relatively peaceful and globalized economy could fall into turmoil.

As a result of all this process we now have the United Nations system, the World Trade Organization and several other multilateral mechanisms that collaborated to achieving the positive measures of development over the last decades. This balance is facing new challenges recently, the global economic center of gravity is shifting, and disruptions (positive and negative) can be seen in technology, governance, and the environment. Until now Earth´s resource base has been almost sufficient to match our needs, and the world does not face a widespread conflict it’s been 70 years. However the environmental and geopolitical landscape is changing.

Second, a simple matter of Physics: carbon dioxide is really trapping energy into the Earth’s systems. This is affecting the global climate patterns at an unprecedented scale – needless to quote science-based evidences. This is particularly endangering vulnerable populations, many of which still may have reasonable living conditions – for instance, in disaster-prone areas – and therefore remain “invisible” to average well-being statistics, for they are still “the hole in the middle of a doughnut”.

The natural base has also thresholds, difficult to envisage under retrospectives. It is scientific evidence that the capacity of trees and oceans to absorb carbon dioxide diminishes at higher concentrations of this pollutant. It is important to clarity definitions: a pollutant is a substance or energy introduced into the environment that has undesired effects, or adversely affects the usefulness of a resource. A pollutant may cause long- or short-term damage by changing the growth rate of plant or animal species, or by interfering with human amenities, comfort, health, or property values. Greenhouse gases fall into the category of pollutants. Some of the pollutants are regulated, others are not. Those more hazardous to human and environmental health are obviously more regulated. An individual can die by breathing high concentrations of CO2 as can die by drowning in pure and clean water, but both substances can kill by other means.

Moreover, major economic assessments of climate change have all basically the same conclusion: it is less costly to mitigate than to adapt. Year 2030 is just ahead of our door, and eventually an existential crisis may not be perceived so clearly; however, the concept of sustainable development regards the well-being of future generations, not only a couple of years that may last in our own lives. Taking into consideration the vast majority of existing models, prospects for 2050 are considerably gloomy under a business-as-usual 3 degrees plus trajectory.

Counterarguments to these evidences are often cherry picked. This is the case, in my view, of forest fires in a given country over a very short given period, or populations of one animal considered endangered. One cannot prove that a whole statement is wrong by an example; that is why scientific assessments have confidence levels.

We are already facing major socioenvironmental disruptions. Consideration to whether this means or not an existential threat depends a lot on the observer´s standpoint. Humankind probably will not be extinct, but it is our responsibility to ensure permanence with good development indicators over a period beyond this mid-century.

Indeed targets to decarbonize any economy by 2025 or 2030 are unachievable, and models which present this possibility are in my view misleading policymakers. I fully agree with Professor Kalghati on this, as well as many other points regarding the need of social inclusion and the requirements of an unprecedented effort to build more of renewable, efficient, integrated, accessible and resilient energy infrastructure. This requires major investments and political will. New technologies, materials, behaviors and lifestyles contribute positively to these objectives.

But timing is essential, and such policies should not be considered as premature to be forced on to the economy. Assessments are necessary but there should be a reasonable understanding that we have already lost precious time with paralysis by analysis. Societal choices are conducting more experiments, research, development and deployment in areas such as carbon capture and storage, advanced biofuels, radical electrification, or even nuclear power.

No-regrets adaptation policies are desirable, but they do not substitute ambitious and accelerated target-based mitigation strategies. In practice, no money in the world is enough to adapt to climate change. Individuals from the present generation are obviously concerned about losing their living standards – particularly in social niches found in industrialized Western economies. But they can be sure that building walls and denying science will not solve this problem, and maybe nor even bring a temporary extension to their comfort zones.

Dr. Oswaldo Lucon, CivEng, LLB, MScChemPrEng, DrEnergy is a Visiting Professor at the University of Texas at Austin US, Lecturer at the University of Sao Paulo Brazil, IPCC Author since 1996 having coordinated three reports, UNEP Global Environmental Outlook author, IIASA Global Energy Assessment author, Special Adviser on Climate Change to the Sao Paulo State, Executive Coordinator of the Brazilian Forum on Climate Change. He is the author of the book, “Energy, the Environment and Development”.

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