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.

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.


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?

Flattening the curve for the Coronavirus

In order to better understand the development of the Coronavirus pandemic, I decided to do my own statistical analysis. I only considered the number of deaths in various countries, as this number is probably more reliable than the number of infections. I then made the assumption that this number grows exponentially, but that the coefficient of growth changes linearly with time:

Simple model for the number of deaths N(t). The exponent α(t) is assumed to change linearly with time.

It is now possible to make a simple fit for each country and to estimate when the curve will flatten and the number of deaths will stop increasing.

I was surprised how well it worked. Below is the result for Italy

Number of deaths from the Coronavirus in Italy

The analogous plot for Switzerland looks as follows

Number of deaths from the Coronavirus in Switzerland

Unfortunately, the United States is not even close to flattening the curve

Number of deaths from the Coronavirus in the United States

It is now possible to compare different countries both in terms of actual deaths

or in terms of the fitted curves

The curves tell us an important message: If strict measures are implemented to stop the spread of the virus, this actually helps. It is the only thing we can do at the moment.

As public service, I have made the Python script for the analysis available. It automatically downloads the data from the Center for Humanitarian Data, performs the analysis and plots the data.

Here is a scientific study of the efficacy of different measures from Imperial College: Estimating the number of infections and the impact of nonpharmaceutical interventions on COVID-19 in 11 European countries.

Here is a useful tool for a more detailed analysis of the disease from the University of Basel:

BTW, there is a good reason be be wary of exponential growth, as this delightful video shows:

Doing what is necessary

Here is a powerful and emotional interview with Christiana Figueres. She makes it perfectly clear that future of humanity lies on our hands and that we must choose whether we want our children and grandchildren to be able to breathe or not.

It has been said before:

It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.

Winston Churchill