November 19, 2008
It is encouraging to see how many countries have already take action to reduce their contributions to global climate changes caused by humans and hopefully the Copenhagen summit in December will give this action a further boost. However, what is it we really are trying to do?
How the earth was in the past can put the current situation in perspective. Without going into a discussion of the different conclusions presented in the geological literature, the following brief summary might be useful. The climate has been changing since the earth was formed more than 4 billion years ago, and it will continue to change. During most of the earth’s history, the Polar Regions were free of ice, and we can expect that the earth will return to that state, whether the climate is influenced by humans or not. Both plants and animals (including humans) can be expected to influence the climate. Blue-green algae have changed the climate more than humans ever might be able to do. Besides live organisms there are many other factors driving climate change, including the presence or absence of young tall mountains with snow covered peaks, the level of mid ocean ridge volcanic activity, the distribution of continents and how they influence the ocean currents. The climatic system is quite complex and in some cases a small change in one parameter can result in a large net climatic change.
As long as there is ice in the Polar Regions, the temperature in these regions will be kept down (buffered by the enthalpy of melting of ice), so if the earth heats up, there will be an increasing temperature difference between equator and the poles. Everything else equal, the larger the temperature difference, the more severe weather events can be expected, with corresponding increase in consequential damages. Furthermore, a warmer earth will see more water evaporation, and therefore more rain. The sea level will increase when the polar ice melts, however, in the short term it is going to be negligible compared to the flooding caused by severe weather events. Lots of people live in the proximity of the oceans, and that is, unfortunately, where we can expect the most weather related damages to occur. So what can we do?
1. If we take no action, the climate will continue to change for all of the above reasons, including human activity. Letting it happen totally haphazardly, like the blue-green algae did, could potentially lead to a lot of problems for us as human beings.
2. A lot of people seem to believe that we live in a world that remains the same year after year. It does not, and trying to halt changes in the climate is unachievable because of the inherent dynamic nature of the system. And not all of it is necessarily bad news, some of those changes could, in the long run, turn out to be better for humans.
3. Trying to minimize the human component of climate change is doable, but even if we totally eliminated our contribution, we would still experience the effect of all the non-human factors. And looking at the climate changes that took place during the 1000 years preceding the industrial revolution, climate change could be very significant. Then why not look at the entire system, and evaluate if we through our contributions to climate change, intelligently can direct the climate for the better? Do we need more rain in Sahara? Do we need fewer hurricanes? Earlier attempts to change the physical environment often lead to disasters, in part because we did not fully understand what we were doing, and did not understand the consequences in other area, such as the impact on ecosystems. Therefore, we will need to understand the climate system better than we do today, and understand what we can do to take an active part in the Earth’s climatic development process. And we need to accept that the climate is not like an industrial process; in an industrial process we often try to control every significant variable, however, when it comes to climate we can only influence a few of the variables. Therefore, we can only evaluate the expected consequences of different courses of actions, and then select the course most beneficial or least damaging. While this is the best we can do it may not lead to the ideal climate.
4. No matter how successful we become at influencing or directing the earth’s climate it will continue to change and we need to improve our ability to cope with change. We as humans are outstanding innovators, and we may need to invent in this context. For example, we may need to figure out how we can change the way we live to better and more quickly adapt to a dynamic world. When governments spend money building new and larger dikes along the sea or contribute to the reconstruction of homes destroyed by hurricanes, they are sending people the message that there is no need to adapt to a changing world. However, when people feel a need to address the problems on their own or through commercial solutions, we can expect a lot of creativity from the way houses are built to the global settlement patterns. In order to save money most builders tend to stick with the minimum requirements specified in the building codes. However, if the building codes were replaced by a requirement that all new buildings must be guaranteed to withstand the usage and environment in which they are put, then the builders will have to become creative, especially in areas where floods or high winds can occur. Or it may turn out to be less costly to build in less risky areas, which would make a lot of sense. Similarly, replacing detailed rules with clearly defined general objectives and a free market approach can also boost creativity and outcome in many other areas than construction.
5. Finally, we may need to help the rest of the earth change. When the climate changes, how can we help plants and animals explore the new environments as they become available? How can we oversee the soil forming processes and reduce erosion in areas where erosion is undesirable?
Now imagine a world in which we actually could take an active role in the management of the earth’s climate. That would lead to a big controversy between governments, because changes that benefits some countries, might adversely affect others. The political system is clearly not designed to handle long term changes in the environment. Climate is a global issue, and it needs to be addressed by a global organization, with more actual power than the UN. Maybe one could consider direct global elections to a climate council? Like the European Central Bank is tasked with maintaining price stability in the Eurozone, this climate council could be tasked with maintaining a reasonable climate. The EU has shown that it is possible to create a democratic organization above the country level, in a way that would have been almost unthinkable 70 years ago. That success puts the EU is in a unique position to promote the creation of global climate council, maybe not today but over the years to come. We need to take a long term perspective and focus on collaboration and innovation. We all live on the same planet. And that planet is a dynamic system which we are part of.
Note: There are many opinions, and this is only one of them. In order to solve the problems, we need creativity and a broad range of ways of looking at the issues. Hopefully, this entry will contribute to a diversity of thoughts.
By K. Tobias Winther, Ph.D. (geophysical sciences), MBA.