Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly side of Climate Change - and the Silver Lining on the Horizon

We are still in the early weeks of 2018, so this is a good time to both look back at 2017 and forward to the new year. So let’s take a look at what stands out as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly side of Climate Change - and what the possible silver linings on the horizon may be. And if the latter is what you need to hear, read the good news, then jump to the end bypassing the bad and ugly news! You can be sure that those stories will show up in the news anyway, sooner rather than later.

The Good

We are definitely entering the era of renewables! The cost of wind and solar energy keeps falling and their impact on energy production keeps increasing. Photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is especially interesting as it can be used both for mega utility sized installations as well as for micro installations for mobile phone charging. The big PV projects keeps driving down the cost per MW, while the small PV setups lower the threshold for clean energy. This also mean that in the developing world, solar power is bypassing the need for heavy grid installations.

Wind energy is increasingly becoming a backbone of energy supply. In countries like Denmark and Germany, there are days when wind energy provides the majority of power. Although it’s a “red” state, Texas is a US leader in wind energy simply due to economical factors.  

A crucial part of the renewable energy transformation is the development of battery technology, which again can be used in both mega scale and for individual users. The mega systems can act as stabilisers of the grid when other power fails which is exactly what happened in Australia when a coal power plant failed. The new Tesla battery backup saved the day.

The increasing supply of clean energy from wind and solar plus better batteries also drives the move towards electric vehicles. We are all aware of the Tesla saga and other car manufactures are following suit. But equally interesting is the development and implementation of electrical buses. The Chinese city Shenzhen has converted its entire fleet to electric buses and now probably have more electric buses than all of USA. That’s an example to follow.

In the Swedish city of Gothenburg, the Electricity buses are running silently enough to allow the acclaimed artist Zara Larsson to record a song on the bus!

Another positive sign is the movement towards sustainability in the corporate arena. An increasing number (albeit still too few) of companies are understanding that sustainability is a bottom line question. The Agenda 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are becoming regular subject in economical articles. Even the financial sector is starting to move with investment in cleantech and divestment from primarily coal. New York City just the last week announced its plan not only to divest from fossil fuels but also to sue oil companies for the climate change damages they have caused. Finance, not politics, may thus turn out to be the soft underbelly of the climate monster.

The Bad

Sadly there are a lot of indicators that continue to point distinctly in the wrong direction. Sea levels keep rising and the effects are becoming more pronounced by the day. Flooding is already a regular phenomenon in a city like Miami, which is increasingly looking like a city doomed to become an Atlantis of the 21st century. Recent research also indicates that there is a clear risk that elevated temperatures in air and sea water will cause a massive discharge of ice from Antarctica due to ice cliff collapse.This would cause sea level to rise with many meters, forcing retreat from most coastal cities around the globe.

Water is not only coming from below. We have seen many extreme precipitation events during the last year, exemplified by the hurricanes over Houston and Puerto Rico. At time the hourly precipitations were equal to what's normally seen in days or weeks. At the same time other parts of our planet are suffering from droughts. Increasing aridness may be a widespread concern even if manage to stop global warming at 1.5°C. Such droughts will have a massive effect on food availability.

The combination of fire and floods can cause also combine to cause destructive mud flows as we have just witnessed in California.The force of water, whether coming from the sea or from the sky will overwhelm most of what comes in its way. Man made structures will succumb to the forces of nature.

Of course all of this is driven by the CO2 that we dump in the atmosphere from both fossil fuels and changes in land use. Very disturbingly after what looked like a plateau, the emission of CO2 increases again, as the graph below shows. We need to reach net zero emissions in just over two decades; yet emissions are still climbing.

It is thus not surprising but non the less extremely worrying that 2017 was the second hottest year recorded, this despite that this was not an El Nino year. The scary prospect of the future if we continue on this path is that parts of our world already by mid century may be to hot to handle. The combination of high temperatures and high humidity will make it impossible for humans (and wildlife) to stay cool enough to survive. This will be an additional cause of climate migration and we already know how badly we have coped with the present trickle of refugees.

The Ugly

As bad as all the above indicators are, the real ugly side is the continued ignorance of the increasing climate disruption; as well as the resistance to the real action needed in order to both reduce our emissions and prepare for the effects of higher temperatures and rising seas. Many politicians stick their head in the sand or make lukewarm attempts to call for action, but seem to be more concerned about keeping their electorate complacent that leading real change. Trump is of course that poster child for this attitude and his negative effects on both international treaties and the US EPA will only aggravate the situation. From Trump nothing good was to be expected while many other seemingly more benign politicians have so far failed to rise to the challenge. Leaders, where are you

Another group that must be held accountable is the media and the journalists that fail to do their job with communication. At this time of the year many lists are produced that claim to predict the fortune of the coming year. And ever so often, list like the "Top ten risk list” omit climate change from their scoreboard. 

It is especially the “political" journalists and self proclaimed pundits that fail the see beyond their own nose. In their world, it is all about “he said she said” and playing the political game. Still they fail to see the obvious links between climate change and politics both on the national and international arena. Fossil fuels have a tendency to promote oppression, corrupting both governments and business. Most of the oil producing countries in the Middle East plus countries like Russia and Venezuela are examples of this. Also in the USA, it is clear that the injection of enormous amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry has corrupted the political process. It is unlikely that Trump would have been elected if he had not received the support from funder such as the Koch brothers and very likely the Russian state.

Russia also tries to us its energy resources to achieve leverage towards its neighbours and the EU, by both providing and threatening to shut down the flow of natural gas.  For the EU, the best thing for both the climate and for resistance to Russian sabre rattling would be to rapidly go fossil free, thus depriving Russia of the economical means to be aggressive towards it neighbours. (Following that we would of course have to provide Russia with clean energy technology to both support their citizens and avoid a total collapse of the society.)

A huge problem that follows from the climate communication problem in media is the shifting baseline issue or, as it is sometimes phrased, the boiling frog problem. If not clearly stated we tend to forget what was normal just a decade ago and accept a very risk future. By acting little and late, or choices are restrained.

This also causes a bias in what is discussed as possible effects of climate change. We have a tendency to extrapolate linearly, forgetting that there are tipping points in natural systems. But, as the great climate communicator Katherine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe) puts it: "Self-reinforcing cycles, known and unknown unknowns - these are what keeps a climate scientist up at night".


The Silver Lining

So is there any silver lining on the dark climate change cloud?

During recent years there has been a lot of debate regarding whether scaring people with ugly facts or showing the possibilities with a green future is the best climate communication strategy. Last summer New York Magazine published an article that described the worst possible scenarios if global warming continues unabated. 

This article caused a large debate and many, even climate scientists, claimed that it was far to depressing to make people heed the necessary call for action. There has been somewhat of a consensus that we instead need to show the benefits of a fossil free future in order to motivate people; that it’s not facts that will move people and make them understand the prediction we are in.

This line of reasoning may have held back many scientist from talking about how bad the situation may be if we do not change path. Now, a new study shows that “When presented with factual information, people can heed the facts, even when doing so forces them to separate from their political attachments"

Thus, it may be time to stop selling false optimism and seeing everything as possibilities. In dire times and when survival is the issue, people can join force and do amazing things - if they are given the correct information and know that they are not alone in taking action. Compassion and community may be much more important than elusive possibilities, plus collaboration and leadership with courage. Storytelling helps but it must be without sugarcoating. And this quote from an environmental group i California summarises well what we need to do: “If we wait for governments to act it will be too late, if we act alone it will be too little, but if we act as communities it may just enough, just in time.”  

It is also a moral issue to act in the best interest of coming generations, something Pope Francis’ has underlined in his encyclical: A new prayer to help us commune with Nature (this notwithstanding his shortcoming in other areas such as reproductive rights for women).
One very encouraging effect that the combination of the Trump regime and the climate contrarians has had is that many scientists choose to accept the challenge and  become politicians. One such example is Jess Phoenix (@jessphoenix2018), a volcano scientist who is now a congressional candidate in California. Her platform is very much about climate change and we need many more aspiring politicians with a science background. This is absolutely needed also in Sweden!


So there might actually still be reasons to be optimistic. I think that the #metoo revolution last year can and should inspire the climate action movement. One direct link is that a key to the transition needed is the education of girls. This is probably the most cost effective way to promote development and resource efficiency. Education of girls and women world has consistently been shown to be a boon both for themselves and for societies.  

Finally, it is easy to become a cynic when looking at the problems ahead. But I prefer to be a “dystopian optimist”, because as @AlexSteffen, author of the Nearly Now blog puts is; "Cynicism is obedience to power”.

Or, as Malala Yousafzai described it in a recent Time Magazine column:

I think it’s pointless to be hopeless. If you are hopeless, you waste your present and your future.

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