Thursday, April 10, 2014

Climate Change Approaching Tipping Point

Professor Schellnhuber
In an exclusive interview to the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research Website, the Founding Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, Professor Hans Joachim ‘John’ Schellnhuber, criticized that although governments around the world have pledged to reduce global warming there are few mechanisms in place for delivering the goal. He also countered charges made by critics of climate change and shed light on the exciting technological innovations currently taking place in the energy sector.

Q. You have been speaking of the prospect of a ‘four-degree hotter world’ in the not-so-distant future. Have not governments around the world agreed to halt the rise of global warming by up to two degrees only, and are they not taking important action in this regard?

Ans: Indeed, they have agreed that global warming should not exceed two degrees above pre-industrial levels. This move was more or less introduced formally at the Copenhagen Conference in 2009 and it was largely confirmed as an international agreement in Cancun the next year. So yes, you are right, there is that target! Actually some developing countries—including certain small island states—have even asked for a more ambitious threshold of about 1.5 degrees. So, yes, there is the official determination of the world to limit global warming, but at the same time there are no mechanisms in place that will deliver that goal. Now, what we did at our institute in Potsdam is that we calculated the pledges which were made on a voluntary basis by all countries; this brought us to a world that is warming by the year 2100 by 3.5 degrees to 4 degrees. But more importantly, the warming does not stop there. If you have a physical system like the Earth and you overcome the initial inertia then the warming will go on. Thus by 2300 it will probably go into the 6 degrees realm in a business-as-usual scenario. To sum things up, we have the right goal, but we have no way to get there – to get away from the fossil-fuel based system with its harmful greenhouse-gas emissions. This means a big responsibility for the states of the world, including those in the Gulf region which so much profited from the fossil-fuel era.

Q. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently accepted that in a report it had mistakenly claimed that Himalayan glaciers would melt by the year 2035. Such admissions of mistakes at times put a question mark on even good and carefully conducted research. In such a situation, how would you allay the skepticism in certain quarters toward human role in climate change and silence the vociferous opposition that objects to climate change mitigating measures?

Ans: My immediate answer would be that if your child gets seriously ill, would you not go to the best hospital in town or in the country where a team of doctors work on a diagnosis, even though some details of this diagnosis may prove to be wrong? One error cannot change the credibility of the overall system of science, unless you want to discredit it, and this is precisely what happened. Attacks on the credibility of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included stealing emails from the University of East Anglia and disseminating snippets of them out of context worldwide. The allegation was that the climate community is systematically manipulating data. There have been several independent juries on all that—such as by the British parliament, by the University of Pennsylvania—and everything was cleared. Scientists have done a tremendously precise job and nothing was manipulated. Every subsequent analysis has confirmed the results. The only error in the entire IPCC report, which is of about 3000 pages, is this wrong number that the Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, where it should have read 2350. Now, of course it shouldn’t have happened. I was very furious when I learnt about it. But certain mistakes cannot be avoided when human beings are involved, and it is outrageous to suggest that it was manipulated and done deliberately. Actually, I attended a meeting at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at Rome on mountain glaciers and several Nobel laureates were involved in the discussions. As for the Himalayan glaciers, of course they will not melt in the upper range by 2035, but this doesn’t change anything concerning the vast bulk of scientific findings on the risks that climate change brings about. Again, do you believe in the work of the best universities in the world, such as Harvard, MIT, Imperial College, Oxford and Cambridge, with all of them coming to a similar conclusion or rather somebody who doesn’t even have a degree in physics but says, I can explain why the planet is warming through some obscure theory? You would only believe the latter if you want to believe it – because you have vested interests.

Q. What would a four-degree hotter world look like and what are the dire consequences of continued global warming?

Ans: On the one hand, you have the conventional impacts that everybody is talking about, like simply more and more intense heat waves. In a six degrees warmer world on average, continents would warm by 9-10 degrees! This would entail that summer temperatures in the Gulf region would be closer to 60 degrees than to 50 degrees. In addition, you would have a substantial rise in sea levels. By the way, I think a sea level rise of a meter by the end of the century is fairly probable already now.This or more means that all the low-lying areas and coastal areas could be threatened, including the mangroves in this region. But in addition to this, we have so called tipping points in the Earth system. This is non-linear physics: when you continue going up with the temperature over time you reach a point when certain elements of the system as a whole collapse. For example, we have calculated that the Greenland Ice Sheet with another warming of two degrees will melt down—which would of course take place over several centuries or even millennia – and would raise sea levels by seven meters. The Amazon rainforest faces a similar risk and the monsoon systems – that affect the Indian summer and the Gulf region – could change. So, in a certain physical system, when you change a parameter and when you have a critical threshold the whole system switches. This is the research I have done with my colleagues and we have identified about a dozen high risk and high probability events. Often we talk of high-risk-low-probability events, such as terrorism etc., but here we are talking of both high risk and high probability. In a four-degree hotter world several of these systems would probably tip into a different mode of operation and that is something which could become more or less irreversible. So, I am not that much worried about the gradual change that global warming would cause but more about this non-linear change. In a four-degree world we are running the risk of completely changing the surface of the planet.I would like to add here that such far-reaching changes could lead to geo-political risks. For one, there could be large-scale migration with displaced people moving into rich countries, thereby causing broad tensions and instability.

Q. One of the main issues facing innovation to address climate change is the cost of using such technology for industries, particularly in the developing world.  Can you highlight some important breakthroughs in making these innovations more cost-effective and attractive to developing economies?

Ans: We first have to understand that the fossil fuel-based system – which has served us wonderfully well since the 1950s – is reaching a peak, if not of oil, but clearly of cheap oil. If you use the tar sands in Alberta, you invest one unit of energy and you extract perhaps one-and-a-half unit. Contrast this with when Rockefeller struck oil in Pennsylvania more than a century ago; he put in one unit of energy and got out hundred. Therefore, the decline in exploitation of cheap fossil fuel resources will force us to adopt a different industrial metabolism anyway, sooner or later. So, why not try to get a double dividend, which would be to get us out of the fossil system harmful for the climate and find sustainable energy resources which can be virtually used forever. The potential is enormous as the sun is shining for free and you have radioactive decay in the Earth’s interior which is creating its high temperatures, which can be tapped. So, in the end it all turns out to be much cheaper. Yes, you have to make upfront investment in innovation but over decades it turns out to be more cost-effective. I had this debate with the Indians who have a lot of coal but very little oil. I do not see how they – being such a huge country – could electrify their rural environment without the use of solar or wind energy, something which can be started immediately. I would also like to suggest to countries of the Gulf region that they could use their rich fossil-fuel resources to propel themselves into the next phase of industrialism, like a rocket which consists of several segments. The fossil segment brings you to a higher orbit.  But this segment will eventually burn out and you have to then resort to different sources. I see this as the only sustainable development possible.

Q.  It is said that technology has yet to provide a silver-bullet solution or substitute to hydrocarbons as an energy resource. Which field do you think comes closest to making such a breakthrough?

Ans: One could say the photovoltaic cell is such a silver bullet, which was built at Bell Laboratories in the United States at a time when the transistor was invented. Yet I would argue that the silver bullet is not a single technology but also a systems innovation. You can make a city much smarter, when it comes to transport, air-conditioning, manufacturing, etc. if you use a combination of intelligent mechanisms. You can use smart demand-side management, with which you can reduce the use of energy by 30% to 40%. In Germany, we are now developing powerhouses that produce energy by harnessing wind, heat pumps from the underground and recycling of waste water. If you feed the excess energy into a national grid, you integrate all types of energy resources. In this mix, carbon capture and storage may play a role as well as gas and oil, but the entire system will be the silver bullet, if you like. About two decades ago people used to talk about cold fusion—when it was imagined that you could have a nuclear reactor on your kitchen table – but this is not physically possible. But we do not have to wait for miracles for we already have fantastic technology available which has to be put together in the right way to optimize a complex system. So, the silver bullet is here, but it is quite a big one.

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