Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Survival in the Anthropocene - Part 2


The Anthropocene is felt in so many areas -- habitat destruction, rising greenhouse gases that are changing the climate and threatening us profoundly, water stress, human dominance of the natural nitrogen cycle through heavy use of manmade fertilisers that allow us to feed a world population of 6.5 billion people on its way to 9 billion, new diseases that emerge when human populations and animal populations come into contact in new ways, and of course in the vast over-fishing, over-hunting, over-gathering, and over-exploitation of natural resources in large parts of the planet, leading to population collapses and species extinction.

I want to touch on one of these many aspects, because it is not only of central importance, but helps to illuminate the challenge of squaring the circle of development and environmental sustainability. Climate change, a vast challenge that reflects at the core the fact that modern economic growth since the Industrial Revolution has been built on the use of fossil fuels , which leads to the emission of carbon dioxide and , through the greenhouse effect, the warming of the planet and fundamental changes to the earth's climate. The effect was identified more than a century ago, in 1896, but it has only come to our attention in recent years, because it is only in the last couple of decades that we have come to understand just how big the human effect is on the growing concentrations of carbon dioxide and a number of other such greenhouse gases, and on our changing climate.

This is a case where what we are doing today is not sustainable, because each year we are raising the carbon concentration in the atmosphere by two or more parts per million of molecules in the atmosphere. When projected over the course of this century, that rate of emission would lead to such a high level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that the climate would be changed, we now understand, to the point of dire risk for us and for vast parts of the global eco-system. Species extinction, extreme weather events, massive changes of precipitation, grave risks to food production, disease transmission and the like, would all reach harrowing levels later in this century if we merely continue to do what we're doing now. But here comes the puzzle. With the world economy barrelling ahead, the amount of energy use is also rising dramatically, and so too the use of fossil fuels, which will be in sufficient abundance long enough for us to wreck the climate before we run out. And so if the concentration of carbon dioxide is increasing by roughly two parts per million each year, it could easily be four parts per million in a few decades, with the rate increasing over time. The projections are that by mid-century we might have doubled the pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide. By the end of this century, if we continue on a business as usual course with the economic development we so hope for in this country and in the rest of the developing world, perhaps the concentration will have tripled or quadrupled. We know, as we learned once again by the recent scientific consensus of the inter-governmental panel on climate change, which reported in its fourth assessment round beginning in February of this year, that the effects of that kind of increase pose risks to this planet that we simply cannot afford to take.

What can we do? Do we have to end economic growth? Do we have to end the hopes of the developing world? Do we need dire cutbacks in living conditions, inevitable in today's rich world? I believe that there is another course, and it's the course we must take. There are at least three ways out of this conundrum. First of course is fuel and energy efficiency, so that we can get more economic output with less direct use of fossil fuels. Second of course is the substitution of non-fossil fuels for fossil fuels, so that per unit of energy the emissions of carbon dioxide can be reduced, whether it's with safely deployed nuclear power, or more economical solar power, or wind, or bio-mass, there's definitely a role, though perhaps not as dramatic as we might hope, for non-fossil fuels.

There's a third alternative as well, and that is to learn to use our existing fossil fuels safely. And for China and India this is perhaps the single most important hope for these countries and for the planet. One idea on the drawing board which needs to get into demonstration and production in this country as soon as possible - and that means nearly immediately - is the idea of power plants that burn coal to generate electricity, capturing the carbon dioxide that they would otherwise emit, pumping it into pipelines and safely storing it in safe geologic reservoirs in the earth.

The big question for the planet is the unprecedented challenge to move to a sustainable energy system, requiring a great degree of co-operation, foresight, and planning, over a time span of decades. Can we do it? Can we find that level of public understanding, political consensus, direction and determination? We may fake it with nice speeches, but the climate will change whether we fake it or not. There is no spinning this one. This one is dependent on what we actually do, not what we say we do.

I want to mention one hopeful analogy, and that is how we have successfully as a world avoided what was another desperate risk, and that was the depletion of the ozone layer. That was also discovered by Paul Crutzen, the scientist who brought us the Anthropocene. He and two colleagues, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina, discovered, accidentally as it were, that the chemicals that we use for refrigeration and for our aerosols, the chloro-fluorocarbons, or CFCs, posed a grave risk to survival on the planet because of their accidental interactions in the stratosphere that could have destroyed the ozone layer. It was an accidental, brilliant discovery. It took some years for the public to become aware of it. When the scientists said it, the makers of the CFCs said that it was junk science, that they'd heard it before. They went into denial. But then NASA in the United States snapped a picture from one of its remarkable satellites, showing the hole in the ozone layer. In a way it may be the picture that saved the world, because as soon as people saw that hole with their own eyes, they weren't listening to the Chairman of DuPont anymore, they were thinking about their survival and the survival of their children. The public awareness soared, the pressure for action increased. At that point DuPont and other companies' scientists went to work. They determined there was an alternative to the CFCs, there were other safer chemicals that could be refrigerants and aerosols. Then a fourth step took place. The companies whispered in the ears of the politicians, "it's okay, you can reach an international agreement, we can handle this." And quickly, -- from the basic science to the international agreements took about fifteen years -- by 1990 a global framework was in place that called for the phasing out of the chloro-fluorocarbons and has put us on a path of at least relative safety with regard to that risk.

With climate I believe we have the same prospects now. It is a much more difficult issue, a problem that gets to the core of the functioning of the world economy, so it cannot be solved from one day to the next, requiring a basic change of our infrastructure and our energy systems which will take decades to complete, but a process nonetheless that I think is underway in the same way. First came the science, back in 1896, and then the modern science in the last twenty-five years. And as soon as the science came, came the companies with the vested interests claiming junk science, because their instinct is to start lobbying. But you don't lobby against nature. Nature has its principles: it doesn't matter what the boards of these companies say. What matters is the actual physical mechanisms. The science was right, it becomes more and more known.

Now like the ozone crisis, public awareness has been the second step. For a long time climate change was discussed as something for the far future. Now it's understood as something that imperils us today as well. The heatwave in Europe in 2003, claiming more than twenty thousand lives; Hurricane Katrina, a storm of devastating proportions, shocking the American people and the world about what climate can do; the mega-drought in Australia that took place this year, and destroyed a substantial part of Australia's export crop; the massive typhoons being experienced by this country, as well as the warming taking place in large parts of this country, and severe droughts in the interior of China - have all made climate change an immediate issue, an understandable issue, and one that of course will get worse, no matter what we do right now, for a while, because we are on a trajectory of worsening climate change stresses that is locked in place for the near term.

The good news is that the scientists and the engineers are now scurrying. Technological alternatives are being developed. Carbon capture and sequestration is beginning to be put into place in demonstration projects. So too are alternative non-fossil fuel energy sources, and so too remarkable breakthroughs in energy efficiency, such as hybrid and plug-in hybrid automobiles, which promise us vast efficiency gains, more distance per unit of fuel.

The good news is that those technological breakthroughs are similarly leading the companies to whisper in the ears of the politicians - "it's okay, we can handle this." And that's the best news of all. Companies around the world are now in the lead of their politicians. In fact they're telling the politicians we have to act, we want a framework, we need an incentive mechanism, we need a price structure so that we can move ahead with sustainable energy. I believe we're going to get there. Global negotiations on a truly global framework open in December of this year, in Bali, Indonesia. We've agreed in principle on a Framework Convention on Climate Change, that we must stabilise greenhouse gases. We took an early small step in the so-called Kyoto Protocol, but this only involved a very small set of commitments for a limited part of the world - mainly Europe, because the United States did not even join. Now in December we must have the US and China, and India, and the European Union, and other parts of the world, all coming together and saying we must do this for ourselves and for the future. Nature has spoken more loudly than vested interests. This is not a matter of vested interests, it is a matter of common interest. These steps, from the science to the public awareness, to the technological alternatives, to the international agreements, are the very steps that we will need for all aspects of the Anthropocene. This will be the mark of our new era - science-based global policy-making based on worldwide public awareness. That's going to be true for saving the rain forests, for saving our oceans from over-fishing, for managing water stress, and for choosing population alternatives that are sound for the planet and sound for individuals as well. We don't have to accept the population trends, because people would choose fertility reduction voluntarily in large parts of the developing world, if the alternatives were made available to them. We can do this, and we will learn that the costs of action are tiny, compared with the risks of inaction. Climate change can be solved, according to the best current estimates, for less than one per cent of world income each year, and perhaps well under that, where the potential costs are a devastating multiple of several per cent of world income if we continue on the business as usual trajectory.

I want to end where I started the first lecture, with my favourite speech by President John F. Kennedy. He talked about the challenge of peace. That is our biggest challenge on the planet. And peace is also threatened by environmental risk. But he also told us in that speech that we have chances. He said, and I repeat because I think it is our common thread: "Our problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again."4 That is the spirit of the Anthropocene.

Thank you very much.

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