CLIMATE CHANGE: five easy pieces about the past and the coming 30 years.
translation of a paper written for and published in “DOSSIER MEDITERRANEO” nr 68. 2022)
(written: January 2022)
1. CLIMATE CHANGE IS UPON US!
When we entered climate change research, 30 years ago, we were told that if we would not put a break on the use of fossil fuels -coal, oil and natural gas- and reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, we would warm up our Planet and create a serious problem for our grandchildren. Solving this was a matter of developing new energy technologies and implementing them through subsidies and innovative taxation mechanisms. However, the world did not nearly do enough of all this. In the meantime, most of us have grandchildren and climate change is upon us.
According to the latest IPCC (1) report in 2021, it is a fact that humans have warmed up the Planet by 1,1 °C compared to pre-industrial times. It is a fact like it is a fact that humans have built cities or cut down tropical forests. The report further states that the observed increase in local extreme weather events such as hot and cold spells, droughts and heavy precipitation, are a result of this global warming of “only” 1,1 °C. Every 0,1 degree more will further increase the frequency and intensity of these local events and it is only a matter of chance whether the next weather disaster will hit our backyard or that of our neighbour. A kind of Russian roulette, indeed, but one in which the number of bullets in the cylinder increases with time.
Today the climate problem is more complex and wicked. We have to continue and try to phase out the use of fossil fuels to avoid the worst of climate change impacts, but we now also have to deal with the impacts that we could not avoid. We also learned that such impacts are mainly felt in poor and therefore vulnerable communities, both in developing and developed countries, communities that hardly emit greenhouse gasses and hence hardly contribute to the problem. The impacts will also be felt during the lifetime of those who aren’t born yet and, obviously, didn’t contribute to the problem either (2). Climate change is fundamentally an ethical problem and if it is not solved it will only exacerbate existing inequalities. Who are we in the rich part of the world that we can destroy livelihoods in its poor part? Who are we adults that we can “steal the dreams” (3) of the children about their future? Who are we Homo Sapiens that we can destroy animal and plant species, glaciers, forests, entire landscapes?
2. WE BETTER TREAT IT AS AN EMERGENCY.
In 2018 the IPCC (1) published a special report in which it states that: “… instabilities [in the climate system, leading to multi-meter sea level rise] could be triggered at around 1.5°C to 2°C of global warming.” The report further showed that, whatever we do, global warming could reach 1,5 degrees as early as 2030. After having read this report, Greta Thunberg, who had been concerned about climate change for years, got angry. Having the impression that nobody was seriously reducing the emissions of greenhouse gasses, and nobody asked to prepare for climate change impacts, she pointed out that the world is in a climate emergency: “around 2030 […] we will set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control [= tipping points] that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it.”(3)
In 2021 the IPCC consensus is more prudent and states that “establishing links between specific levels of global warming with tipping points and irreversible behaviour is challenging … ”, but it continues saying: “… [tipping points] however cannot be excluded, and their likelihood of occurrence generally increases at greater warming levels.” This all means that 1,5 °C is not a hard wall where we risk crashing into. It is rather a signpost indicating that we are entering uncharted terrain in which the world’s climate could tip into something much less benign for Life as we know it. That is something “too risky to bet against (4)”. In this spirit of precaution and in a strange move that put climate policy-making ahead of climate science, low laying island states that are obviously vulnerable to raising sea levels, pushed the United Nations and finally succeeded to have an objective of 1,5 °C in the 2015 Paris Agreement. In practice, not going beyond 1.5 °C of global warming requires that the global net emissions of greenhouse gases should be zeroed over the next 30 years.
3. WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO SOLVE?
Despite 30 years of IPCC reports and UN negotiations and resulting agreements, pacts, roadmaps, etc. the burning of coal and oil continued and global emissions of greenhouse gases increased year after year (5). Why? The problem is wicked, the reasons are many and intertwined, but the following is certainly an important part of it: in most of the past 30 years, a close-knit group of global investors and entrepreneurs, supported by neo-liberal policies that gave them free rein, increasingly put company and even personal profit ahead of the wellbeing of others and that of the Planet. Hence, investments were simply made where the returns were highest, i.e. in the most profitable companies. In the years before COVID, these companies were banks (one makes money with money …), high tech companies followed by oil and gas companies as well as car companies (see table).
The twenty most profitable companies in the world, according to Fortune (6) in 2019 and 2021: before and during the COVID pandemic. They are dominated by financial institutes, high-tech companies, oil producers and car manufacturers, at least before the pandemic. The first coal producer is the Australian BHP Group with a profit of 8 billion $ in 2021. Other interesting examples: in 2021 the pharmaceutical company Pfizer made a profit of 9 billion $ and the electric car manufacturer Tesla 0,7 billion $.
In the COVID years 2020 and 2021, oil companies were much less profitable. In 2021, according to Fortune (6), BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobile even made losses of around 20 billion $ each. These losses are undoubtedly due to less demand for transport during the pandemic. But in their forecasts for the next decades, European oil companies consider continued lower demand because of greater public awareness and political discourse about climate change, as demonstrated by e.g. the 2015 Paris Agreement (7). This poses a risk for investors and they might start turning away from fossil fuel companies and invest elsewhere. That “elsewhere” could well be renewable energies, for which demand is clearly on the rise and production cost has fallen significantly during the past decade.
Putting all this together, many observers of the energy sector claim that a process might have been set in motion that could effectively phase out fossil fuels. The crucial questions are: if this transition can be completed within the next 30 years, and if it can be done without leaving the neo-liberal logic in which the individual is blindly put above the collective. With many others, we think the answer, at least on the second question, is negative.
4. CHANGE, CRISES and SOCIAL TIPPING POINTS.
Despite the increase in global emissions, the emissions in the EU dropped by 30% between 1990 and 2020 (8). They decreased for three reasons: 1- moving heavy polluting industries outside the EU, 2- successful implementation of dedicated climate and environmental policies and 3- the occurrence of several unpredictable events (crises/opportunities). Each crisis (the fall of the Berlin Wall, the financial crisis 2008-2010, COVID 2020-?) lead to structural changes in the European economy and society with a significant decrease in emissions as a result. About half of the 30% decrease can be linked to these three crises.Unpredictable events will also occur in the next 30 years (9), simply because society is a complex system, and a complex system under stress (!) can suddenly tip into another state. Tipping points are now very much discussed in the climate system and are a main reason of concern. But history shows that also in society small events can lead to large and irreversible changes: revolutions they are often called. Crossing tipping points should not always be painful. Greta Thunberg has clearly created a revolution. She has been that grain of sand that created an avalanche in the mountain of public awareness (see figure). It came as something totally unpredictable, but it could only happen because the mountain had been built by scientists and activists in the decades before, piece by piece, steeper and steeper and under ever more stress.
Greta Thunberg, the unpredictable small grain of sand that created an avalanche in the mountain of public awareness, created by scientists and activists in the decades before her.
In the coming decades there will be further crossings of social tipping points: new (or old) ideas can co viral (such as, e.g., “value is more important than price” or “economy is part of ecology, not vice versa”), the financial world might indeed shift investments overnight, and there will certainly be technological breakthroughs. There will also be disastrous catastrophic events, including climate change related ones that can no longer be avoided. When they occur, we need to see also the opportunities to improve, so that the pain is not in vain.
5. THE PICTURE ON THE COVER: “The Garden of Tyred Utopia’s”
Climate change is an ethical problem, which asks us to answer fundamental Political (with major P!) questions, about how we live on this Planet, among ourselves and with the rest of nature. We are in many to believe that solving the climate crises will require not only technological innovations or responsible investments, but also a much broader cultural change. Culture is the amalgam of stories and theories, shared by a group of people, that explains and justifies how they live on this Planet. Modern consumeristic culture is by now shared globally, and is based on a narrative that makes us believe that our way of living has nothing to do with climate or nature, that our Technosphere is totally separated from the Biosphere or any other sphere of the Earth System. That is obviously not true. If we really care for all people and everything that is on our Planet, we clearly have to rethink the relationships between humans and non-humans. For doing that, we will not only need engineers, but all creatives: inventors, entrepreneurs, architects, agrarians, educators, Politicians, philosophers, … and last but not least: artists, with the eyes of children, who will help to build the new narrative while telling and showing it. Excluding violence, only creativity can put the necessary stress on the system to make it tip into a state that is more benign for the Planet and its inhabitants.
The picture on the cover of the Italian journal where the original paper was published, shows its author in the “Garden of Tyred Utopia’s” of the Museum of Anthropocene Technology (10). The garden shows/grows statues that are symbols of various narratives that try to go beyond the problematic dualisms of modernity: culture/nature, art/science, economy/environment, etc …. These narratives include: sustainability, circularity, the third paradise (11), the donut economy, the moebian strip, … However, their symbols are still made of tyres, and high above thrones Micky Mouse with its big circle representing the economy, and its two small marginal circles representing society and environment. (note added Sept, 2023: A wind storm has knocked down the Micky Mouse statue, as if nature wanted to show that it indeed represents the least sustainable model. The Museum decided to to leave the broken statue laying on the ground.)
The Museum was created as a kind of Wunderkammer of the 21st century, as an instrument to study our times. It mixes not only objects in ever changing installations, it also mixes science and art, in an attempt to go beyond the dualities of modern thinking and to help and recompose knowledge. If the separation between Humans and Nature no longer works, what can be the new categories? Could, for instance, things be divided into Light ones and Multiple ones, or Quick ones and Consistent ones (12)? Could these qualities be useful to see and live the world in a different way, and to better tackle the collective issues of the Anthropocene? The Museum is investigating.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
(1) IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A Panel set up by the United Nations in 1990, to report every 5 years about the state of knowledge about climate change, its effects and the solutions to the problem. All reports can be downloaded at www.ipcc.ch
(2) This is all due to the fact that once a molecule is emitted in the atmosphere it stay there for about 100 years.
(3) Greta Thunberg, No one is too small to make a difference, Penguin Random House UK, 2019
(4) Lenton et al., Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against, Nature, Vol 575, 2019
(5) According the International Energy Agency, the COVID pandemic has caused a reduction in global CO2 emissions of 5,8% in 2020 compared to 2019. But in 2021 these emissions increased again and have reached nearly the levels of 2019 again. IEA, Global energy-related CO2 emissions, 1990-2021.
(6) Fortune 500, https://fortune.com/global500/, consulted December 2021
(7) Carbon Tracker, https://carbontracker.org/changing-the-game/, 2020.
(8) Annual European Union greenhouse gas inventory, European Environment Agency, 2020
(9) This paper was written a month before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
(11) Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Third Paradise, Marsilio, 2010
(12) Italo Calvino, Lezioni Americane, Garzanti, 1985
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