An Open Letter to the ETH

Patrick Chappatte

A couple of students from the ETH asked me to help them distribute an open letter to the Department of Environmental Systems Science and I feel honored to do so. The letter is available in English and German:

I mean no offense to my Alma Mater, but I am convinced that the ETH suffers from the same problem as all other universities. The classical idea of teaching assumes that professors teach, and students learn. When the students realize that their teachers do not have the answers to the most challenging problems of our time, things get complicated.

In addition, the world is now changing so fast that both academic research and conventional politics will have to step it up a notch or two to stay relevant. As I am currently working on a sustainability policy for our university (www.ost.ch), I am well aware of these problems.

I have derived continued benefit from criticism at all periods of my life and I do not remember any time when I was ever short of it.

Winston Churchill

The Power of Imagination

The idea with my recent writeup on “Global Climate Compensation” was that it should be thought-provoking and it does indeed seem to have provoked some thoughts. Thanks a lot for the feedback! I truly appreciate both the positive and negative comments because they allow me to improve the argument. Listen and learn!

Patrick Chappatte

The main points of my article were the following:

  • The world currently does not have a realistic plan for preventing catastrophic climate change. The IPCC-scenarios compatible with less than +2.0°C of global warming contain a ridiculous amount of wishful thinking.
  • There are no indications that it will be possible to prevent Climate Armageddon unless we are prepared to drastically lower our consumption of natural resources, which would reduce the size of the economy, requiring negative growth or Degrowth.
  • This will also require a massive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. If the economy is not growing, we need to share available resources in an equitable manner.
  • We are rapidly running out of time.
  • Global Climate Compensation offers a realistic path to a more sustainable future if it could be implemented.

The question, for which I do not yet have the answer, is how to make this happen. What I love about the “Sapiens” by Yuval Harari is that he is very frank about the power of myths or imagination:

These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organisation, such as a political party, an ideological movement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organisations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (p. 118). HarperCollins.

I am convinced that he is right. Detailed planning will be necessary at some point, but we first have to offer a lot of people an appealing vision for the future. We will never be able to mobilize people under the banners of “complex emission trading schemes”, even if they were to work. I have now given many public lectures over the years and had to learn the hard way how to talk to a mixed audience. One of the easiest ideas to convey is that economic growth is incompatible with saving the planet. Pardon the language, but you simply cannot eat more and shit less! Everyone understands this. The vast majority also agrees that climate change is real. The fundamental problem we have is with materialism and inequality. If we continue to define success in terms of material wealth, we will never solve the problem.

On the other hand, there is no political majority for an egalitarian society. Personally, I do not mind people benefitting from talent and hard work. The problem is when they profit from the exploitation of other people and natural resources. Nobody seriously believes that the salary of a hedge fund manager is in any way related to the work he puts in and the profits from an coal company depend almost entirely on its right to destroy nature. Global Climate Compensation would not be a problem for people who work for a living. It is the “non-working rich” who need to rethink.

When people criticize me for not having a finished plan for saving humanity, my usual response is that in this respect I am in very good company. But, as Richard Feynman said, “Questions that cannot be answered are preferable to answers which may not be questioned”. I am working on it, but we have a long and stony road ahead of us.

Global Climate Compensation – Now or Never!

Since the world still does not have a realistic plan for preventing catastrophic climate change, I have decided to develop one myself:

It is a first draft, but it does merit further consideration. Please let me know if you are interested in contributing. You can reach me under info@global-climate-compensation.org.

Patrick Chappatte

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.