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Entries in Anthropogenic Global Warming (3)

Friday
Aug172012

Be a smart frog and jump out now!

Heat waves, droughts and wildfires in the U.S., floods in the Philippines, the accelerated melting of arctic sea ice and Japan forecasting yet another El Nino pattern for the fall: These recent news items are showing us that our modest start in global warming is already enough to destabilize our climate and cause havoc and destruction around the world. However we are currently at an average global temperature that is “only” 0.8 degrees warmer than what it was prior to the industrial revolution, whereas we all agreed at the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 that we should stay below 2 degrees at all costs. The fact that we will reach that limit within the next two decades (see my previous post) is hardly debated anymore these days, the only difference is that the optimists believe that we will touch it as our peak temperature and then trail down because we will have successfully curbed our emissions, while the pessimists say that we remain stubborn and/or ignorant, that we will break through the limit and blindly continue to race on upwards towards our fatal self-destruction.

Irrespective of what side you are on, let us try to imagine what approaching the 2 degree limit will look like. Imagine several hurricanes hitting the US East Coast every year, a North Pole without ice, rising sea levels affecting highly populated areas, more droughts and wild fires, more floods, harvests ruined, sky-rocketing food prices, water shortages, migration of people from areas that have become inhabitable... Is it realistic to think that in such a scenario, the general consensus of the public will still be that we can continue to emit CO2 safely? Is it not safe to assume that by then at least a larger part of the world has come to its senses and started to reduce emissions? And to achieve that, that we have started to put a (significant) price on carbon emissions?

If while reading the previous sentences you are still saying to yourself: No, that is not going to happen; the world’s political systems have proven to be incapable to come to a global treaty on carbon emissions; we absolutely need cheap fossil fuels for our economic growth - then realize what you are implying: The destruction of our civilization is inevitable, all our children can do is try to survive as long as they can and pray for a miracle. Personally I tend to stay away from such fatalism - because then why not simply give up now?

So what does this mean? In the next two decades we will either live in a world with a significant price on carbon emissions, or alternatively, we will live in a dying world where nothing really matters anymore. Accepting this inevitable reality earlier than the majority will give you an advantage.

For individuals this means, anticipate for leading a low-carbon life and start investing in measures to reduce your personal dependence on fossil fuels (e.g. rooftop solar, proper insulation, lower transportation needs, etc).

For businesses, imagine the competitive advantage you will have if you have switched over to lower or less carbon-intensive energy demanding processes. The moment that carbon tax is implemented, you will leave your less-forward-thinking competitors behind in the dust. Companies like Google and now also Facebook, with their huge energy requirements for their data centers, know what is coming and they are acting now - even if their government is still in denial.

Governments too will do well by accepting this reality earlier than later. For policymakers it is important to remember that - bearing in mind the rate of carbon reduction that will be required - decision on long term investments in the power sector made today will have to be turned around before the anticipated payback period is achieved (e.g. a gas-fired power plant that needs to be shutdown before it has reached the end of its economic life).

Just because most frogs stay in the pot that is slowly being brought to a boil, doesn’t mean that you have to do the same. Jump out of that pot, now!

 

Tuesday
Jun262012

Climate Change: Are you sure you are past denial?

Please watch the following YouTube video that I made, explaining in less than 12 minutes the fundamentals of Climate Change, its implications for the near future and the urgency for action.

It is based on my own research over the last couple of months and I was certainly inspired after reading Paul Gilding's book The Great Disruption. I initially presented part of this material Pecha Kucha-style at a Nerd Night in Phnom Penh in January 2012, but I refined the content and expiremented with a for me new way of presenting using Prezi.

I look forward to hearing your comments and please do share!

 

Friday
Jun012012

Who cares if proof of man-made global warming is inconclusive?

"I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong" - Bertrand Russell (philosopher)

Doubt is healthy. It is prudent to be flexible to adjust your beliefs or be open to somebody else’s view, as we expect other people to also be open and flexible to new ideas. But at the same time, you cannot doubt everything, all the time - it is simply unworkable (Are you sure that the sun rises tomorrow? Is it true that eating 3 hamburgers a day makes me obese?). That's why doubt should come in those healthy doses.

There is a huge amount of skepticism created around the issue of global warming, particularly whether is it anthropogenic (man-made) or just a natural phenomenon. Leading climate scientists are publishing study after study to demonstrate that our CO2 emissions are in fact the main reason that the planet is heating up. And at the same time, there are numerous publications trying to argue that the opposite is true: "You have nothing to worry about, simply continue what you were doing". If you look at our news headlines (and then I mean all of them, not just the ones that we have cherry-picked through your RSS and Twitter feeds) there can be only one conclusion, there is still doubt.

According to the scientific community and most environmental activists, this means the so-called climate skeptics or deniers have already won the debate. Because they don't have to prove the contrary, they just need to create the doubt. As long as the general public believes that the proof of man-made global warming is still inconclusive, our governments remain inactive.

I am arguing that this is no excuse for inaction. There is doubt and uncertainty about everything in our lives: Our relationships, our jobs, our competencies, our health. Yet we do not remain inactive. Instead, our brains deal with those uncertainties by assessing the chance (probability) of something happening, and its consequences, and then take the best decision. All of us are risk managers: while some of us literally make difficult decisions by writing the chances and consequences down, we all continuously risk assess in our heads about the choices we need to make on a daily basis. Whether you jaywalk to cross the street to save time or insist to search for the nearest pedestrian crossing is a choice you make after you have assessed the risks.

Sometimes we need to make important decisions but we are forced to rely on input from others in order to make our risk assessment: "Do I continue smoking or do I believe the medical experts who tell me that I am increasing the chances of a heart attack?" Even though most people do not have the skills or the knowledge to calculate the increased risk of a heart attack in relation to smoking, they are willing to follow the advice from medical experts. Why? Because the scientific community has built up a great reputation over the years and we know we can rely on peer-reviewed scientific research. They only make recommendations to the general public after elaborate research accompanied by extensive test results. Such tests are never 100% clear, but statistically they have sufficient value for society to let lives depend on it. Modern day medicine completely relies on this principle.

Of course scientists can make mistakes, so it is always good to keep that healthy dose of skepticism. That is why most of us look at the pros and cons of changing our behavior: "If the scientists are right and I don't quit smoking, then they say there is a high chance that I will die young. However, if I do quit, but the scientists turn out to be wrong, then the only risk is that I have deprived myself of the pleasure of smoking for no reason." So most rational people decide to quit - although not all: for some even risking their own life can be worth enjoying certain pleasures.

When it comes to our children though, then we all want them to stay safe, we want to minimize any possible risk. There has to be only one scientist who claims that playing with certain toys increases the chance of cancer and within weeks the whole country is aware, the toys are banned and the company goes out of business. We only want the best for our kids, right?

Now back to global warming: 97-98% of climate scientists worldwide agree that global warming is man-made. So even though, statistically, we should have enough confidence in these conclusions to accept them as true, maybe you are someone who believes that Fox News is a reliable news source or you think that politicians can give unbiased views on this matter that somehow outweigh the majority of scientists in the world. So maybe you feel the above conclusion is not 98% certain, but only say... 50% certain.

OK in that case let's look at the pros and cons of acting against global warming: If the scientists are wrong, then the risk is that we are forcing ourselves to stop using fossil fuels while we don't need to - at least we don't need to do it so quickly because eventually we will run out anyway - if not in the next 50 years then for sure in the next 100 after that.

Now if the scientists are right however, we will bring catastrophic and irreversible damage to our global climate once the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reach 450 ppm. Today we are at 395 ppm and at the current rate we will hit 450 within the next 20 years. Once the climate spins out of control, billions of lives will be affected and our modern society as we know it will most likely cease to exist.

So with the information we have today we need to risk assess and decide on behalf of our (future) kids: Are we going to ignore man-made global warming, or are we going to do everything in our power to stop it, beginning today?