Climate Change – Where are we? and where to from here?

Structuring the topic

Evidence, Causes & Impacts

  • Although most people are past the stage of questioning the evidence, it is worthwhile to understand the different ‘levels’ of evidence for common claims. What do we know for sure? What are we relatively certain about? What are merely projections?

Role of Multilateral Agreements

  • What have been the major agreements in the past? What do these agreements need in order to be successful? Can we rely on an international agreement to solve the climate change crisis?

Role of Renewable Energies

  • Which renewable energies pose the greatest potential and how globally scalable are these solutions? Will these solutions need government support or will the private sector do all the driving?

Key issues and implications

What evidence do we have?

As we think critically about climate change, it is vital to distinguish between what can be thought of as ‘levels of evidence’. One cannot treat scientific measurements, statistical analyses and speculative projections in the same light.

  • Undisputable
    • These are truths we know with 100% certainty because they have been measured with scientific instruments. These indisputable truths include:
      • The earth’s temperature has increased by ~1.8 degree Fahrenheit since 1950.
      • The CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased by about 50% from 280ppm to 420ppm in the last 150 years.
      • Solar irradiance (the sun’s energy that the earth receives) has not fluctuated meaningfully from 1880 levels. This means the warming planet cannot be due to the sun. In addition to measurements on solar irradiance, if warming was caused by the sun, we would expect equal warming across all layers of the atmosphere. Instead its warmer lower down where greenhouse gases are trapping heat and cooler in higher levels of the atmosphere.
  • Scientific consensus
    • The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and abroad, concluded that there is a more than 95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. 
  • Uncertain
    • Globally,  we have seen hurricanes and other tropical storms increase in both frequency and intensity. Although it is likely that these changes are due to human-caused climate change, the science is not as convincing. NASA describes the relative contributions of human and natural causes to these increases as ‘uncertain’.
  • Projections 
    • These projections are derived from models that are built upon assumptions. Although these models are not fact, it is worth taking them seriously as many studies have replicated similarly devastating projections. These projections include:

The role for Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs)

  • How should the world think about these MEAs? Why have they been so difficult to shape?
    • It has not been easy for the diplomats of the world to come together to craft compelling agreements over the last two decades. It may even be argued that a successful agreement is not possible. In order to build a successful agreement countries will have to consider which of the following four questions they believe to be the most important to address:
      • Who has polluted the most?
      • Who pollutes the most?
      • Who pollutes the most per capita?
      • Who will pollute the most in the future?
    • It isn’t entirely clear which is the most important to address – but we do know that building a consensus here, would go a long way towards a successful MEA.
  • What are the most important multilateral environmental agreements?
    • Montreal Protocol (signed 1987, effective 1989)
      • Often used as an example of a successful MEA – the Montreal Protocol was different, in that its target was not climate change but instead the reduction of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which are known to deplete the ozone layer.
      • Reasons for the success of the agreement are not entirely agreed upon, but range from an ‘imminent need to act’ to a highly concentrated source of CFCs, hence substantially easier to target and eliminate their production.
    • Kyoto Protocol (signed 1997, effective 2012)
      • The Kyoto Protocol was the most well-known agreement before the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015.
      • A key feature in the agreement was that it called on huge reductions from industrialized nations, without major requirements for the developing world – a major reason why it was never ratified by the United States.
      • Industrialized nations achieved a 22.6% reduction in the first commitment period versus the base year of 1990.
    • Paris Agreement (signed 2016, effective 2016)
      • Main aim to limit global temperature rise to under 2 degrees celsius versus pre-industrial levels.
      • A key feature in the agreement is Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which allows every country to independently commit to a self-decided emissions limit.

What’s so important about 2 degrees celsius?

  • Why 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)?
    • Globally, the 2 degrees celsius figure is often known as the target, beyond which the world’s climate may suffer irreversible impacts. It is worth remembering that the origin of this number comes from what was essentially a ‘deeply unsatisfactory’ napkin-type calculation from William Nordaus in 1975 in his paper titled – Can we Control Carbon Dioxide?
  • Its more about the change than about the number
    • The 2 degrees figure has since become the cornerstone of international climate policy. What’s more important than its scientific support, is its simplicity to be understood and the ability for global institutions to collectively stand behind a single message in order to drive change.
    • The key to remember is that the impacts of climate change lie on a spectrum and are not simply black and white. It’s not about either keeping emissions below the target or simply not caring at all – that would be ludicrous. The key is to limit warming as much as we possibly can – and potentially the best way to do so is by rallying being a single cohesive message.
  • But 2 degrees celsius is not a drastic increase, is it?
    • The key nuance to understand about climate change and temperature rise is that the effects are not evenly spread. It is an increase in average global temperature, not 2 degrees celsius increase everywhere. This uneven spread will result in extreme precipitation in some areas, with decade long droughts in others.
    • So when you hear 2 degrees increase, don’t think ‘my home town could do with a little warming’, instead think about millions of additional people that may need to live in your hometown because where they used to live is now uninhabitable, think about no longer eating your favorite fruit because it is no longer suitable to grow in the warmer climate. Life the way you know it now, will never be the same again.

Why are we so horrible at making good decisions?

  • Tragedy of the commons
    • At its most simple form, the tragedy of the commons suggests that if each individual, or country, acts in its own self-interest, the individual, or country, ends up exhibiting behaviours that are contrary to the common good of society.
    • In terms of climate change, it means that the global climate suffers as each country continues to happily emit greenhouse gases in order to maximise its own economic returns.
  • Time inconsistency
    • Time inconsistency, as coined in behavioural economics, describes a situation in which an individual’s preference between the same two options changes over time, in a way that the two decisions become inconsistent with one another.
    • A simple analogy to illustrate the concept goes as follows:
      • On the first day of class, a professor offers his students the option to pay $20 to delay their final exam by 1 day, moving it from Day 80 to Day 81. In this scenario, few students, if any, would pay to delay the exam. However, if the professor was to make the exact same offer on the 79th day, he would be showered in money.
    • Bringing this concept back to climate change:
      • When countries are offered the choice to make economic sacrifices today (day 1) to postpone or avoid the negative effects of climate change (post-day 80), they refuse to. However, although students in a classroom can get away with studying for an exam on Day 79 (with worse results obviously), the longer countries wait to act, the harder it will be to make meaningful changes.
    • In fact, there is a biological root to this, fMRI scans show that we think of our future selves as strangers, hence this may be the reason why we are largely failing to act in our own long-term best interests.

Argument Nuances

Not everyone will be hurt

  • The IPCC predicts that increases in global mean temperature of less than 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit above 1990 levels will produce beneficial impacts in some regions. These beneficial impacts in certain areas are not often considered because the net global impacts are so devastating.
  • These beneficial impacts would make it more challenging to achieve support from those regions for a multilateral agreement. An example is the warming planet giving Russia access to oil and gas historically locked under the Northern ice. How could this impact Russia’s support for climate agreements in the future?
  • Further, in the Western United States, climate change may lead to lengthened growing seasons, which some may argue to be an advantage for agricultural producers if they are able to mitigate the impacts of the pests that would also live longer in the warmer weather.

Sea level rise is not all about the melting ice

  • Most people are aware by now that ocean levels globally are expected to rise. What most people often do not know, is that there are two causes for this.
    • Most commonly known, is that the melting ice caps result in the volume of water in the oceans increasing hence higher sea levels.
    • However, a lesser known contributor is that the water expands as it warms, hence taking up more space resulting in surface levels rising further.

The intricacies of multilateral environmental agreements

  • Forming a successful multilateral environmental agreement is not as easy as one may think. For an agreement to succeed there are three main requirements:
    • It must garner widespread support from many nations, in particular the heavy polluters.
    • It must have ambitious emission reduction targets.
    • It must either naturally have high compliance or strong enforcement mechanisms in the case of non-compliance.
  • Each one of these three criteria are necessary but not sufficient. Unfortunately, getting all three of these in a single agreement may be impossible until the impacts of climate change are truly on our doorstep. In a nutshell, MEAs are intricate, and we may never see a successful one.
  • The Kyoto protocol did not succeed. Although we saw a huge reduction in emissions from industrialized nations, the agreement did not call for emissions reductions from developing nations and therefore it did not prevent further temperature rise. 
  • Similarly, the Paris agreement is not projected to succeed as the NDCs submitted by nations are not ambitious enough to hit the 2 degrees celsius target, and different estimates see limiting warming only to between 2.7 to 3.7 degrees celsius.

Potential Solutions

Renewable energies

  • Ultimately, the only way to avoid this current existential threat is to adopt widespread use of renewable energies. These include solar, hydro, wind and nuclear energy. We will not try to cover the potential of each renewable energy in depth here, but instead will focus on each individually in the future.
  • However, it is worthwhile noting that energy production costs for renewable energies have fallen rapidly (at times by over 90%) sending coal companies sprawling. Some examples are:
    • Peabody Coal, the largest private coal company in the world has filed for bankruptcy.
    • China has cancelled the construction of 160 coal plants.
    • India killed $9 billion in ongoing coal projects in a single month a few years ago.
    • The largest coal plant in North America until 2013 (Nanticoke Generating Station in Ontario, Canada) became a solar farm in 2019.
  • All of these are examples of the private sector driving out fossil fuels as the costs of renewable energy production declines.

What will come from the private sector?

  • Renewable energy based companies
    • The private sector will largely be the source of innovation in these renewable energy fields as we have seen in recent years. Tesla, SolarCity and similar companies will continue to drive innovation to a point where it becomes an economically irrational decision for individuals and economies to continue using fossil fuels. This point has in fact already been reached with many renewable technologies.
    • In order to understand the private sector innovation that will drive the widespread adoption of renewable energies, we must look beyond these ‘assembly type’ companies that we see and hear about (companies that put together parts that are manufactured elsewhere). We must consider innovations from the companies that are producing the components needed for assembly of solar panels, batteries, wind turbines etc. Below are some exciting fields that could bring revolutionary change:
      • Progress in 3-D printing rapidly decreasing the cost of some raw materials, and possibly even the speed at which items can be made.
      • A materials science revolution developed by the acceleration in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. In The Future is Faster than you Think, Peter Diamandis and Stephen Kotler, speculate that the biggest contribution of materials science will be to solar energy advancement. The development of Perovskite, a light sensitive crystal, may increase the efficiency of conversion from sunlight to electricity 4-fold over today’s solar panels. 
      • Furthermore, in the case we were unable to reduce emissions sufficiently, there is a ‘diamonds from the sky’ approach that will involve drawing C02 out of the atmosphere and converting it into nanofibers. These nanofibers are so strong they can be used in the blades of wind turbines – talk about a good plan! According to Diamandis and Kotler, a system of this nature only covering 10% of the Sahara Desert could reduce atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels within a decade. 10% of the Sahara is a lot, it would be a monstrous effort, but if it is needed to save the planet, it will certainly be done.
  • The remaining industries
    • The financial industry can continue to pursue green bonds, and sustainability linked loans. However, a stronger framework or taxonomy must be developed in order to avoid green washing – which is essentially pretending that a deal, or bond, is ‘environmentally friendly’ when in reality that claim cannot be substantiated.
    • The food industry will continue the R&D on meat-alternatives in order to cater for the more sustainable demands of the more conscious consumer.

What role can the government play?

  • Beyond involvement in multilateral agreements, governments can enact ‘green policies’ on their own to limit climate change. These policies may include:
    • The ending of fossil fuel subsidies 
    • Creating additional tax incentives for renewable energy R&D, or renewable capex
    • Instituting a well-run cap-and-trade system, limiting the nationwide emissions and incentivizing innovation
    • Demand side renewable energy subsidies in order to lower the electricity costs of the end user to come in line with that of fossil fuels produced electricity costs
  • In addition to avoiding climate change, governments can prepare their countries for the impacts of climate change, such as:
    • Increasing funding for GMO research, to ensure the development of crops that can grow in harsh climates. Agricultural innovation and the development of GMO crops will be vital to mitigate the changing climate as plant species will have different adaptation to the changing weather patterns. Changing temperatures and rainfall patterns may change the areas where certain crops grow best and would affect the makeup of natural plant communities. It may change the way we understand what it means for a plant to be ‘endemic’.

As an individual, what can I do?

  • There are a number of steps that individuals can take: environmentally-conscious buying and investing, recycling, diet changes, greener commute and community involvement.
  • Collective actions of individuals can create snowball effects.

What are some more creative solutions that have been proposed?

  • What about the whole world on one energy grid?
    • GEIDCO (Global Energy Interconnection and Development Cooperation Organization), summarized here, is an organization based out of Beijing that over the past few years has garnered widespread attention. Its main aim, as explained by the name, is to put the entire world on a single energy grid powered by renewable energy. At a staggering cost of $38 trillion, or almost twice the US GDP, it seems unlikely in the near future. However, even more likely to hinder the progress of this ambitious project is that of control. In the words of Roman poet Juvenal: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”, or who will guard the guards themselves? 
  • Pollution as a driver of change
    • In cities where pollution hinders daily life, a politician or community movement could use the concept of pollution reduction, instead of climate change as a policy driver. As explained above, time inconsistency may prevent action on climate change, therefore pollution, whose impacts are felt today, could trump global warming as a driver for change.

Further Reading

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