Today I had the once in a lifetime opportunity of attending the climate lecture of prof. Johan Rockström at Ghent University. If you don’t know him, in the picture below he is talking to Richard Branson. Yes, he’s talking with the big guys and politicians as the leading environmental expert. I’ll shortly summarize some key points of this wake up call for you. Bear in mind that this is my own interpretation.
This whole post can be summarized as such: ‘Will we be too late?”.
Picture from Virgin.com; Image by Karina Ljungdahl, hosted by Gracian Collection (source)
We are a very unique generation in a whole of 8000 years of civillization
30 years of science show that our planet is self regulatory. In a whole of 8000 years of civillization, it is now the first time that our planet is ‘tipping over’. Why did our civillization start in the first place? Look at the below graph. It shows that earth temperature became pretty ‘stable’ around 10.000 years ago. This holocene is the only era that is proven to be able to sustain 7billion people. Most likely we started domesticating and farming just because of that. Imagine you were farming before: you might have good crops for 5 years, but 1 huge variation the 6th year would kill you. The holocene might thus explain why agriculture started everywhere in the world almost at the same time. And people did not have cell phones then. At least that’s what we think. Rockström mentioned that humans were almost extinct in the millenia before (around 15.000 humans were left). This also puts racism into another perspective haha.
Prepare for the Anthropocene! Yes, you will live in our new climate era, and most likely you will have to adapt to it.
We are the first generation in 8.000 years that has no excuse to act, because the data is there. In only 50years, we tipped from 10.000y holocene to the Anthropocene. The next 50y will determine the next 10.000y.
Figure from http://www.dandebat.dk (source)
Oh yes, people seem to be aware now. The real question is ‘will we be too late?’
Concepts such as ‘corporate social responsibility’ are dead. A very recent quote by Peter Bakker, president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (see here). We have had enough talking and planning. It is in the board rooms of company’s, so at least that goal is reached. However, what is very frightening, is that appropriate action is missing. People tend to forget that a paradigm shift is not enough.
Our planet never sent us an invoice. It is coming.
I run a business, and there is always a lag between your action and invoicing. It can even kill your business. We once were a small world on a large planet. We now are a large world on a small planet. Our planet has a huge absorption capacity, and worked a lot. However, the slightly unexpected invoice still has to come. In fact, the People-Planet-Profit was what Rockström called the Mickey Mouse economy:
Have you ever had an invoice for the environmental impact of your shoes, pants or car? Not really, because the earth was in fact subsidising. And oversubsidised systems always collapse (just read about the .com or Cleantech bubbles…). The problem is that our planet was not subsidising in money terms. Hence we did not see it coming. So what’s happening? Well, in fact we have lost control and earth will now continue to invoice (started slowly with it in 80s).
How the invoice will look like.
If we sum up all the CO2 humans emit, we should have a yearly average increase of 1-1,5ppm (see below figure for yearly emissions). What frightens scientists is that the actual increase in 2017 was 2-3ppm. Where the heck is that coming from? Most likely from the biosphere… Figure below shows yearly CO2 emmissions. Note that during the Paris agreement, the trend looked very positive… until the red dot in 2017 appeared.
Figure: Yearly worldwide CO2 emissions. There was a flattening curve!!…until 2016… (globalcarbonproject.org)
The biosphere is what surrounds us: forests, seas, oceans, terrain, … So the theory is that now these parts start emitting extra CO2. Rockström had a good quote (from The Economist):
When things are changing faster than what science stipulates it should, a little nervousness is appropriate
Humans started the menu with aperitif. Earth will take care of the main dish. So what does that mean? Well, let’s look at climate cycles in the figure below. Higher means higher temperature; more right means higher sea level.
Figure: The earth’s former cycle is intermittent glacial/interglacial. We are evolving tot the anthropocene (ice free world). Steffen et al. (stockholmresilience.org; source)
Bye bye tropical coral reefs
We are now rapidly diverging from the interglacial holocene. The question is 1) how the anthropocene will look like and 2) if we can still avoid full transition. Translated to tangible impact, the result looks as follows:
Figure: tipping points (drastic earth changes) as function of increasing temperature. Schellnhuber et al, Nature Climate Change (2016)
Even if we only go to 2°C as agreed in Paris – which is very unlikely – Coral reefs will certainly disappear. Also Alpine glaciers, arctic summer sea ice, Greenland ice and West Antarctic ice sheet are higly endangered. If I were you, I would visit the coral reefs and alpine glaciers asap. By the way, notice the temperature change compared to the whole 10.000y holocene…
We humans are blind for slow changes and repeat mistakes
Look at the economy. I was watching Ray Dalio’s video ‘how the economic machine works in 30min‘. Over and over again we face economic crises. We just don’t notice the cycles of 5-10years, let away 75-100y. This is how humans view cycles:
Figure: orange frame shows how we humans see cycles: we see none, although we are the only animals that could know they exist. From the video mentioned above.
Another example is war. It seems that the lessons from war are lost together with each generation. It is obvious that some of the world leaders haven’t learned lessons from history…
The thing with war cycles and economic cycles, although painful, is that we can more or less come back to normal once it is over. It is however very unlikely that we can go back to the holocene.
So what to do next?
It is obvious that we will need exponential efforts. Simply said: every year we will have to do much more than the year before. And even then, the future is very uncertain. Similar to Moore’s law (exponential increase of computing power), we talk about ‘Carbon law’. So let’s hope carbon innovation will grow exponentially. If I would become professor tomorrow, I would start research on carbon, as there will be a lot of research money coming.
Some personal thoughts on economy and war
Probably the anthropocene will give new economic opportunities. For example: greenhouses that are resistant to hail and other extreme weather conditions. Or an engineering company specialised in high water prevention. Let alone carbon technologies.
I am just a bit worried about the people and the nature of people: we are with 7 billion now, and according to prof. Hans Rosling (recently passed away) population will most likely finally stabilize at 11 billion (climate impact not accounted for). Hmm, what if one continent would not be well suited anymore to live. Will we welcome these climate refugees? We are now worried about a few 100.000 people escaping war and conflict. What if 10s to 100s of millions of people start searching for new homes? Let’s not extrapolate too much for now and show ‘productive pessimism’ (terminology from Jim Collins), which is in fact realistic optimism.
Let’s hope humans will evolve in a new intelligent* species, along with the climate.
*using our unique brain capacity for the good. This is certainly possible and happening at many places already.