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.

Die Wirtschaftsleugner

Wirtschaftsleugner (meistens männlich): eine Person, die den eindeutigen Zusammenhang zwischen Wirtschaftsleistung, Ressourcenverbrauch und ökologischem Fussabdruck leugnet und ohne belegbare Argumente und mit Verweis auf noch zu erfindende Technologien für eine Lösung der Klimakrise innerhalb des bestehenden Wirtschaftssystems argumentiert.

Als «Klimaleugner» werden Personen bezeichnet, welche mit falschen Daten und mehrmals widerlegten Argumenten eine zielführende klimapolitische Debatte verhindern. Häufig handelt es sich um bezahlte Provokateure, die von irgendwelchen Thinktanks oder direkt von den Ölfirmen finanziert werden, um die menschengemachte Klimaerwärmung zu leugnen. Was sie wirklich glauben, wissen wir nicht, denn sie machen ja nur ihren Job. Leider waren sie in der Vergangenheit recht erfolgreich und haben wirksame klimapolitische Massnahmen blockieren können. Inzwischen sind sie aber durch Fakten dermassen diskreditiert, dass sie grösstenteils ignoriert werden können.

Heute liegt das Problem woanders. Viele Umfragen zeigen, dass weltweit etwa zwei Drittel der Menschen von der Gefährlichkeit der Klimaerwärmung überzeugt sind. Nehmen wir an, wir könnten diese Zahl auf 100% erhöhen. Wäre die Klimakrise dadurch gelöst? Wohl kaum, da wir immer noch Gründe finden würden, untätig zu bleiben. Es macht sich schlecht, wenn die politische Mehrheit der Minderheit die Schuld dafür gibt, dass nichts passiert.

Das wirkliche Problem sind nicht die Klimaleugner, sondern die «Wirtschaftsleugner». Damit meine ich Menschen, die den offensichtlichen Zusammenhang zwischen Wirtschaftsleistung und Umweltzerstörung leugnen. Sie sind zahlreicher, gefährlicher und in einem gewissen Sinne ignoranter als die Klimaleugner. Denn sie leugnen etwas, was eigentlich offensichtlich ist. Jedes Kind versteht, dass der Bau eines Autos eine kleinere ökologische Katastrophe darstellt, egal ob es sich um ein Elektroauto oder ein Dieselfahrzeug handelt. Es werden nicht-erneuerbare Ressourcen aus dem Boden geholt, die nachher auf einer Mülldeponie landen. Der ökologische Schaden ist irreparabel. Analog sind Windturbinen und Solarpanels weder nachhaltig noch ökologisch. Unter der Annahme, dass wir den Strom unbedingt brauchen, macht es selbstverständlich Sinn, diesen mit Sonne oder Wind zu erzeugen. Für die Umwelt wäre es aber besser, möglichst wenig Strom zu verbrauchen.

Für die Wirtschaftsleugner gibt es kein fundamentales Problem mit dem heutigen Wirtschaftssystem. Die Klimakrise soll vollständig durch technische Innovation gelöst werden, welche am besten über Kredite von der nächsten Generation finanziert wird. So wird sichergestellt, dass unsere Kinder nicht nur die Auswirkungen der Klimaerwärmung, sondern auch die finanziellen Kosten der gescheiterten Klimapolitik zu tragen haben werden.

Die Wirtschaftsleugner haben den Vorteil, dass der Fortschrittsglaube unserer Gesellschaft den Status einer Religion bekommen hat. Probleme ohne technische Lösungen gibt es nicht, weil es sie nicht geben darf. Auch beim Coronavirus gehen wir davon aus, dass die Wissenschaft möglichst bald eine Lösung finden wird. Dass diese von grossen Pharmaunternehmen mithilfe von Gentechnik und Tierversuchen entwickelt wird, ist den Menschen diesmal egal.

Selbstverständlich brauchen wir Wissenschaft und neue Technologien, um die Herausforderungen der Menschheit zu meistern. Das Problem ist nur, dass die politische Debatte von Dogmen überschattet wird, welche komplett unwissenschaftlich sind. So wird die Notwendigkeit des Wirtschaftswachstums noch nicht ernsthaft in Frage gestellt, obwohl das BIP eher Umweltzerstörung als menschliches Glück misst. Mit einem zweieinhalb Tonnen schweren SUV herumzufahren macht keinen Sinn, egal ob der Antrieb elektrisch ist oder nicht. Eine solarbetriebene Gartenbeleuchtung ist für die Umwelt schlechter als keine Gartenbeleuchtung. Eine grosse Wohnfläche braucht mehr Ressourcen also eine kleine. Diese einfachen Feststellungen werden auch nach der erhofften Energiewende gültig sein.

Technologie ist immer nur ein Mittel, um ein Ziel zu erreichen. Die Festlegung des Zieles ist Aufgabe der Politik, die allerdings die technische Machbarkeit berücksichtigen muss. Auf ein Wunder zu hoffen ist keine Strategie.

Es gibt inzwischen viele Vordenker*innen, die das jetzige Wirtschaftssystem hinterfragen: Kate Raworth, Jason Hickel, Irmi Seidel, Julia Steinberger, Nico Paech, Harald Welzer, Graeme Maxton und Yuval Harari, um nur einige Namen zu nennen. Sie werden gelesen, diskutiert und ignoriert. Immer mehr wissenschaftliche Artikel stellen den eindeutigen Zusammenhang zwischen Konsum und ökologischem Fussabdruck fest: Reiche Menschen verursachen einen grossen ökologischen Schaden, arme Menschen einen etwas kleineren. Kann Wirtschaftswachstum vom Ressourcenverbrauch entkoppelt werden? Dies ist die für unseren politischen Handlungsspielraum entscheidende Frage. Seriöse Forschung und der gesunde Menschenverstand kommen zum Schluss, dass eine Entkopplung nicht möglich ist. Nachhaltiges Wachstum ist Wunschdenken!

Die Menschen haben aber grosse Angst, etwas aufgeben zu müssen. Wie Upton Sinclair es so wunderbar formuliert hat: «Es ist schwierig jemandem etwas zu erklären, wenn sein Gehalt davon abhängig ist, dass er es nicht versteht». Deshalb suchen wir alle nach Lösungen, die keine Gefahr des Bestehenden darstellen. Der Informatiker möchte die Klimakrise mit der Blockchain lösen, der Banker mit nachhaltigen Investitionen und der Elektrotechniker mit E-Mobilität. Diese Ansätze sind per se nicht schlecht, aber sie reichen bei weitem nicht aus, um die Herausforderungen der Menschen zu lösen. Sie können sogar kontraproduktiv sein, wie ein Beispiel aus Afghanistan zeigt. Die Provinz Helmand erlebt gerade einen veritablen Solarboom, der komplett privatwirtschaftlich finanziert wird. Die Solarpanels haben die Kosten für künstliche Bewässerung massiv gesenkt, was zu einem signifikanten Anstieg der weltweiten Opiumproduktion geführt hat. Leider hat die Entwicklung auch dazu geführt, dass der Grundwasserpegel um etwa 3 m pro Jahr sinkt. Wir stehen somit vor der vielleicht ersten durch erneuerbare Energien verursachten ökologischen Katastrophe der Welt.

Seit 30 Jahren versuchen wir unsere Umweltprobleme mit technischen Lösungen in den Griff zu bekommen. Das Ergebnis ist ernüchternd. Noch nie in der Geschichte der Menschheit wurde so viel fossiler Brennstoff verfeuert wie im Jahr 2019. Es ist höchste Zeit, einen anderen Weg einzuschlagen. Die Einsicht, dass wir für die Lösung der Klimakrise eine komplette Transformation der Gesellschaft bräuchten, ist aber keine schlechte Nachricht. Sie gäbe uns die Möglichkeit, ein ganz neues Wirtschaftssystem aufzubauen, was tatsächlich eine spannende Aufgabe wäre. Allerdings dürfen wir uns dann nicht auf technische Innovationen beschränken. Menschen, die Lösungen nur innerhalb des bestehenden Wirtschaftssystems suchen, sind weder innovativ noch besonders mutig. Aus Bequemlichkeit, Angst oder reiner Denkfaulheit leugnen sie das Hauptproblem unserer Gesellschaft. Die Klimaleugner konnten während Jahrzehnte wirksame politische Massnahmen gegen die Klimaerwärmung verhindern. Wir können nicht zulassen, dass den Wirtschaftsleugnern das Gleiche gelingt.

Hinweise

Die eleganteste Lösungen der globalen Klimakrise ist hier zu finden: www.global-climate-compensation.org.

Am 4. September meldet sich der Klimastreik zurück.

Am 16. September findet die erste Klimakonferenz des Klimaclusters an der Hochschule in Rapperswil statt.

Lesetipps und Quellen

Oreskes, Naomi; Conway, Eric M. (2010): Merchants of doubt. How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoking to global warming. London: Bloomsbury.

Fagan, Moira; Huang, Christine (2019): A look at how people around the world view climate change. Pew Research Center. Available online at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change.

Rockström, Johan (2019): Önsketänkande med grön tillväxt – vi måste agera (”Nachhaltiges Wachstum ist Wunschdenken – wir müssen handeln.”. In Svenska Dagbladet, 10/21/2019. Available online at https://www.svd.se/onsketankande-med-gron-tillvaxt–vi-maste-agera/av/johan-rockstrom.

Kuhnhenn, Kai (2018): Economic Growth in mitigation scenarios: A blind spot in climate science. Henrich Böll Stiftung. Available online at https://www.boell.de/en/economic-growth-in-mitigation-scenarios.

Wiedmann, Thomas; Lenzen, Manfred; Keyßer, Lorenz T.; Steinberger, Julia K. (2020): Scientists’ warning on affluence. In Nature communications 11 (1), p. 3107. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y.

Raworth, Kate (2018): Die Donut-Ökonomie. Endlich ein Wirtschaftsmodell, das den Planeten nicht zerstört. 2. Auflage. München: Carl Hanser Verlag.

Isaksen, Elisabeth T.; Narbel, Patrick A. (2017): A carbon footprint proportional to expenditure – A case for Norway? In Ecological Economics 131, pp. 152–165. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2016.08.027.

Ward, James D.; Sutton, Paul C.; Werner, Adrian D.; Costanza, Robert; Mohr, Steve H.; Simmons, Craig T. (2016): Is Decoupling GDP Growth from Environmental Impact Possible? In PloS one 11 (10), e0164733. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0164733.

Ivanova, Diana; Stadler, Konstantin; Steen-Olsen, Kjartan; Wood, Richard; Vita, Gibran; Tukker, Arnold; Hertwich, Edgar G. (2016): Environmental Impact Assessment of Household Consumption. In Journal of Industrial Ecology 20 (3), pp. 526–536. DOI: 10.1111/jiec.12371.

Hickel, Jason (2019): The contradiction of the sustainable development goals: Growth versus ecology on a finite planet. In Sustainable Development 145 (6), p. 10. DOI: 10.1002/sd.1947.

Larch, Mario; Löning, Markus; Wanner, Joschka (2018): Can degrowth overcome the leakage problem of unilateral climate policy? In Ecological Economics 152, pp. 118–130. DOI: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.05.026.

Welzer, Harald (2017): Selbst denken. Eine Anleitung zum Widerstand. 8. Aufl. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch (Fischer Taschenbuch, 19573).

Hickel, Jason (2018): Die Tyrannei des Wachstums. Wie globale Ungleichheit die Welt spaltet und was dagegen zu tun ist. München: dtv.

Maxton, Graeme P. (2018): Change! Warum wir eine radikale Wende brauchen. Grünwald: Komplett Media.

Rowlatt, Justin (2020): What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power. BBC News. Available online at https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-53450688

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?