Rise Up For Change!

Die Aufkündigung des Generationenvertrags ist eine historische Erstmaligkeit. Wir wissen von keiner Gesellschaft, die sich selbst außerhalb eines generationenübergreifenden Geschichtsverhältnisses verstanden hätte. Wir kennen auch keine religiösen oder ideologischen Kosmologien, die die Gegenwart zum alleinigen Bezugspunkt für Denken, Entscheiden und Handeln genommen hätte. In gewisser Weise ist die heutige universale Masse von Ich-AGs eine konsequente Fortsetzung der Emanzipation von Naturverhältnissen, wie sie die Moderne seit je antreibt: Nun lebt und stirbt jede Generation für sich allein. Verpflichtungen, die das Selbst überschreiten, laufen den Funktionsbedingungen dieser Kultur zuwider. Genau deshalb hätte der Neoliberalismus so etwas wie Familie, Freundschaft, jede Form autonomer Sozialbeziehung nie erfinden können; genau deshalb versucht er auch, alles zu zerstören, was sich dem Markt nicht fügt.

Welzer, Harald. Selbst denken: Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand
Quelle: https://polyp.org.uk/cartoons.html

Vor mehr als einem Jahr habe ich alle Politiker, denen ich begegnet bin, vor der Radikalisierung der Jugend gewarnt. Mir war klar, dass sich die Jugendlichen nicht einfach mit netten Worten und Beschwichtigungen zufriedengeben würden, sondern Taten sehen wollten. Zum Glück ist die unbewilligte Besetzung des Bundesplatzes immer noch bunt und fröhlich und durchaus als Einladung zum Dialog zu verstehen. Diese Chance sollte die Politik nicht verstreichen lassen.

Welche Optionen bleiben einem Staat, wenn die Jugend rebelliert und die «göttliche Ordnung» in Frage stellt. Sie als «Pack», «nichtsnutzige Aktivisten» und «Möchtegern-Kommunisten» zu bezeichnen und eine gewaltsame Räumung zu fordern ist nicht besonders konstruktiv und führt uns sicher nicht weiter. Ich arbeite im Bildungsbereich und würde niemals junge Menschen als «Pack» bezeichnen, aber vielleicht bin ich einfach besser erzogen als gewisse Nationalräte. Übrigens kenne ich viele von den Klimastreikenden persönlich und erlebe sie als äusserst sympathisch, engagiert und lebensfreudig. Sie sind intelligent genug, um die Schwachstellen der heutigen Gesellschaft zu erkennen und mutig genug, um etwas dagegen tun zu wollen.

Jemand hat mal Jean Ziegler mit folgenden Worten beschrieben: «Er schiesst oft über das Ziel hinaus aber selten daneben». Es kann darüber gestritten werden, ob und wie ziviler Ungehorsam zu rechtfertigen ist. Dass die Klimaaktivisten mit ihrer Empörung und ihren Forderungen recht haben, das ist unbestritten. Man kann nicht einfach den Generationenvertrag aufkündigen und hoffen, dass niemand es merkt. «Ihr zahlt unsere Renten und erbt dafür den Klimawandel» ist ein sehr schlechter Deal. Wenn die Jugend ihn annehmen würde, käme dies einer Bankrotterklärung des gesamten Bildungssystems gleich. Persönlich bin ich erstaunt, dass nicht mehr junge Menschen auf die Strasse gehen.

In einer sich erwärmenden Welt macht der Konservatismus keinen Sinn. Die Klimaerwärmung wird unsere Gesellschaft radikal verändern, ob es uns gefällt oder nicht. Der Tourismus, die Landwirtschaft, die Architekten und die Stadtplaner werden sich alle neuen Herausforderungen stellen müssen (siehe dazu die Klimakonferenz an der OST). Da es sich um eine beispiellose Krise handelt, können wir nicht auf Erfahrungen zurückgreifen, sondern müssen kreativ sein und improvisieren. Die Klimajugend macht es gerade vor.

Notausschalter (Wikipedia)

Die Klimaerwärmung schreitet aber so schnell voran, dass eine Anpassung bald gar nicht mehr möglich sein wird. Es gibt einen Grund, wieso in den Fabriken der Schweiz alle grossen Maschinen mit Notausschaltern ausgestattet sind. Wer unnötigerweise diesen Schalter betätigt, macht sich unbeliebt. Wer dies im Notfall nicht tut, macht sich strafbar. In der Corona-Krise waren die Regierungen der Welt bereit, den Not-Aus zu drücken. In der Klimakrise passiert dies erstaunlicherweise nicht. Das finde ich moralisch verwerflich.

Climate Plots

The challenge of climate change can be explained with a small number of plots. I use them in my lectures and update them regularly. As a public service, I also make them available here. Please not that none of the plots below is based on modeling. These are observed and well documented changes to our planet.

The Keeling Curve

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has been measured since 1958 by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The data are available on the their webpage and is plotted below.

A number of important observations can be made:

  • The concentration is currently above 410 ppm, which is higher than any time before during the last 3 million years. Our species has never experienced anything like this, and neither had any of our ancestors, since the genus Homo did not arrive until 2 million years ago. The Neanderthals would have been very surprised by what we have done to the planet in less than 200 years.
  • The oscillations are due to the vegetation cycles of the Earth. They have an amplitude of roughly ±4 ppm, which is a useful number to know. There is a limit to the amount of biomass the Earth can produce.
  • The CO2-concentration is not only increasing but it is actually accelerating. It rose by roughly 0.8 ppm per year in the 60s and is increasing approximately three times as fast today.
  • If we want to stay below 1.5 °C of global warming, we need to keep the concentration below 435 ppm. Unfortunately, we are going to cross this line in less than 10 years. Note also that it does not matter if we use 450 ppm as the limit. At the current rate of emissions, it would buy us less than seven more years.
  • The carbon concentration can be fitted surprisingly well using a second-order polynomial. I have added the dates for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Paris Agreement (2015), and the climate strikes initiated by Greta Thunberg in in 2018. During the last 30 years, we have not done anything to change this trend.

Carbon Emissions

Data for global CO2-emissions can be obtained from the Global Carbon Project. Plotting these data against the annual rise in CO2 concentration from the Keeling curve above, one obtains the following diagram.

The good news is that we know where the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is coming from: the emission of 17 Gt of CO2 increases the atmospheric concentration of CO2 by roughly 1 ppm. If we want to stay below 435 ppm, we only have approximately 20 ppm left to go and therefore cannot emit more than

20 ppm × 17 Gt/ppm ≈ 340 Gt

This is the carbon budget. The only way to stop the CO2-concentration from rising is to stop burning fossil fuel.

Global Average Temperature

The best source for the average temperature of the Earth is from NASA and the data are available on this webpage, which also provides the necessary references. I use the following dataset:

Combined Land-Surface Air and Sea-Surface Water Temperature Anomalies (Land-Ocean Temperature Index, LOTI)

The anomaly is calculated with respect to a reference period of 30 years. It is customary to use the period 1951-1980 but the planet had already seen some warming by then. I have therefore decided to use the years 1880-1909 as reference, which shifts the curves upward by 0.25 °C. After all, we want to compare with preindustrial temperatures.

The plot below shows annual and 11-year averages. It is obvious that the planet started heating up in the 80s and that the warming seems to be accelerating. We are very close to the 1.5°C target.

Currently, our planet is warming by slightly more than +0.2 °C per decade or +1.6°C-2.0°C during a human life span. Things do not look good for our children.

The Culpability of Big Oil

As reported elsewhere, Big Oil knew about the dangers of climate change already in the 70s. It is interesting to compare the predictions of their models with actual measurements. Apparently, even simple models are good enough to predict climate change, as thermodynamics cannot be fooled!

It is acually not surprising that the oil companies could predict the temperature. The biggest uncertainty in climate models is the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As the Big Oil controls this parameter, they effectly also control the climate of our planet.

Can we get serious now?

One thing you learn when leaving the protected world of academia for a position in industry is to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information. An older colleague at ABB used to interrupt my detailed explanations with a simple question: “Do I need to know that?”. I was rather annoyed at first, but I soon realized that he was right most of the time. Scientists always try to dig deeper to learn as much as possible about a particular problem. Engineers, on the other hand, have deadlines. To move ahead with a project, one needs to filter out the facts relevant to decision making. Our understanding must be “good enough”, but not much better than that. Scientists often have a problem with this, making them poor decision makers.

For almost over 30 years, politicians have successfully avoided any meaningful action to limit global warming. To accomplish this, they employed every trick in the book. One of the more successful ones was to shift the responsibility to scientists. This was a brilliant trap, which made scientists feel important and almost ensured inaction, as politicians could pretend to be waiting for the next scientific report when accused of inaction. The reports, written by large committees of scientists and keenly monitored by politicians with their fingers on the funding button, were carefully purged of any controversial content and presented in a language intended to make people fall asleep rather than to wake up.

May I propose a title for the next IPCC report: “Do We Really Need to Know That?”. The short answer is no. Our understanding of global warming has been good enough for at least 30 years and the main conclusions of the first IPCC report are the same as in the last one. Basically, IPCC has confirmed the results of the climate models developed by the oil industry in the 70s. This is paralysis by analysis.

The real harm, however, was done by economists, such as William Nordhaus, who tried to balance the cost of climate protection against the deleterious effects of climate change. Such a calculation is clearly meaningless, as it is not possible to predict any of these quantities with sufficiently high accuracy. We do not know how technology is going to develop and therefore cannot predict the costs of climate protection far into the future. Just look at the rapid fall in the price of photovoltaics during the last decade, which few people expected.

Predicting the economic costs of global warming is even more difficult because it requires detailed knowledge of local weather changes rather than global averages. A farmer does not only care about average temperatures and precipitation, but also wants to know about the distribution over the year. Funnily enough, the same people who like to criticize climate models for being inaccurate, seem convinced that they are good enough to prove the harmlessness of climate change.

The economic argument for a measured response to climate change is therefore based on calculating the difference between two extremely uncertain quantities, rendering the result sufficiently inaccurate to be irrelevant. Furthermore, it is deeply immoral, as it forces future generations to accept decisions made for them by us. To make matters worse, economists apply the trick of discounting, thereby assuming future generations to be much richer than we are and therefore more able to cope with environmental disasters. Assuming an economic growth of 5.5%, they conclude that it is better for your children to lose $10’000 in 30 years than for you to spend $2’000 today. I am not sure your children would agree.

Leadership can best be defined as the ability to make decisions based on incomplete information. The simple truth is that we need to keep as much fossil fuel as possible in the ground, without wrecking the economy. We also know that the best way to accomplish this is through a global carbon tax. It is left as an exercise for the interested reader to explain why neither emissions trading, geoengineering, nor carbon capture change the validity of this statement.

There are only two important decisions to be made:

  • How high should the carbon tax be?
  • How do we distribute the revenue from the tax?

Fortunately, we do not have to answer the first question if we use a feedback loop. Rather than trying to predict the price in advance, we can use the carbon tax as a control parameter, just like a thermostat uses the actual room temperature to determine whether it should heat or not. If carbon emissions sink too slowly, the price needs to increase. If the damage to the economy is too large, we need to reduce the price.

Thus, we are left with the one question upon which the fate of humanity hinges: global inequality. We cannot introduce a single global carbon tax today, as it would be too high for poor countries and too low for rich countries. However, different taxes in different countries will not work, because it leads to leakage effects. Companies would simply outsource activities to countries with low carbon prices.

There seems to be only one reasonable solution to this problem. The revenue from a global carbon tax must be distributed in an equitable manner, with every human being receiving the same amount. This is the central idea behind Global Climate Compensation. The rising tide lifts all boats, but we first need to make sure that everyone has a boat.

In less than 8 years, we will have used up the remaining carbon budget for a 66% probability of staying below 1.5°C. At least three years of emissions will be required to transform our energy infrastructure (building solar panels, wind power and energy storage). No government in the world has a climate policy which comes even close to accomplish what is needed, and elections are typically held every four years. I encourage you to draw your own conclusions from these simple facts.

We are well past the point where new research and global political conferences can have an impact. The only thing that can save us now is the immediate introduction of a global carbon tax. Arguing about the distribution of the costs makes about as much sense as negotiating the price of water when your house is on fire.

A society depending on fossil fuel has no future, because it destroys the atmosphere and will eventually run out of energy. The entire scientific debate on climate change has focused on whether this will happen 20 years earlier or later, which is not even very relevant. The real question is whether we want to write off our children as collateral damage related to our fossil fuel addiction. If not, we had better start working.

A group of people have come together to launch an initiative for Global Climate Compensation. We need everyone to make it happen. Please contact me if you want to join.

It’s not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what’s required.

Sincerely,
Henrik Nordborg

Nature cannot be fooled!

What the corona crisis teaches us about solving the climate crisis

Thursday, May 14, 2020
7:00 PM to 8:30 PM GMT+2
More information and registration

A recording of the lecture can be found here:

I am delighted to be able to give a public lecture again. This time it will be online and hosted by WWF in Basel.

The title is borrowed from Richard Feynman and I will explain why I believe it is highly relevant.

Abstract

With media’s attention almost entirely devoted to the corona crisis, it is easy to forget that climate change represents a much larger threat to humanity and that we are rapidly running out of time to fix the problem. We should therefore try to learn as much as possible from the current situation, which offers important insights into the politics of crisis management. The most important lesson is probably that “nature cannot be fooled”. Real threats cannot be countered with wishful thinking or political rhetoric.

The largest obstacle to fixing the climate crisis is in our heads. For almost 30 years, we have been arguing over minimal changes to society, hoping that these would miraculously suffice to solve the greatest challenge in human history. Political convenience was more important than solid facts. The corona crisis gives us an opportunity to change this. In my presentation, I will try to be more ambitious and present a plan to solve the climate crisis.

Quiz: Can you find the oil crisis in the plot below?