This article was written by Alex Steffen in June 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Here at the Tällberg Forum, both daylight and heady discussion about sustainability and global understanding seem to go on around the clock, but the show-stealer so far was the panel on climate change.
"Rogue" NASA scientist James Hansen lead the panel off with a grim pronouncement, saying that there looms a "huge gap" between what is understood (by scientists) about global warming and what is known by the public. In short, Hansen says, the climate crisis is a far more dire and present danger than most of us like to think. "We are closer to a level of dangerous, human-made interference with the climate than we realize. ... We are about to leave the Holocene"
Hansen is particularly concerned about the timeframe within which we must act. There is increasing evidence that we are rapidly approaching a series of climate tipping points, where feedback loops in the environment (the march of forests pole-wards and melting glaciers and sea ice, meaning the Earth's darkening surface retains more of the sun's heat; melting tundra releasing increasing amounts of methane as it thaws; etc.) began to contribute to a galloping greenhouse effect brought on by our actions. (For a particularly elegant discussion of the concept of climate tipping points, I highly recommend the Real Climate post on the subject.) If we wish to avoid crossing these thresholds, we need, Hansen (and others) say, to try to restrain global temperature increases to two degrees celsius above the pre-industrial norm.
Because we have already committed ourselves to a certain amount of climate change (temperatures have already risen about a degree, he says), and because the emissions we are now putting into the climate will be there for a long while, time is not on our side here: since no matter how great our resolve, our emissions will not cease immediately, and many decisions being made now (power plant construction, urban planning, forest clearance) will continue to have climate implications in the future, we really have run out of time to delay change. We need, Hansen says, to have start acting like a climate neutral society within the next ten years.
"We're really at the crisis point," Hansen says.
C. S. Kiang, chairman of the Beijing University Environment Fund, reminds us that China has just recently become the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gasses. He goes on to joke that the Swedes shouldn't be to proud of themselves for the leadership they're showing on shrinking their climate footprint, since changing "23 million people is relatively easy -- try changing 1.3 billion!"
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the German Government's Chief Advisor on climate change, minces no words, either: "Our environmental maneuvering space is shrinking very fast now."
Schellnhuber, however, is somewhat hopeful about the precedent set at the recent G8 summit in Heiligendamm. There, the leaders of the world's richest nations agreed not only to creating a follow-up agreement to Kyoto by 2009, and to giving "serious consideration" to halving global climate emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by the year 2050, an achievement which he says is, compared to recent political realities "almost a revolution."
Indeed, many think there are reasons to believe that a 50% global reduction by 2050 is possible, if undertaken on an aggressive enough timetable. Though it's very worthwhile remembering that the 50% reduction is global, which means -- given the higher current and historical emissions of developed nations and the need for climate equity if we are to expect emerging nations like China, India and Brazil to participate (and without them, the reductions are meaningless) -- that we here in the developed world will probably be looking at far deeper reductions, far more quickly, perhaps as much as 80-90%.
Still, Schellnhuber says we have little alternative but pushing our political leaders towards real action. "We see the symptoms of a serious collapse looming now... we will have to reinvent our civilization."
Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, completes the discussion by reminding us that threatening people (with the degree of catastrophe looming in front of us) can back-fire. People may well decide that the problem is so severe there is no point in acting.
Instead, she urges a pragmatic optimism, one that acknowledges that "things are not getting better, they're getting harder, and we're going to have to work very hard" to continue to experience the increases in standards of living that we enjoy today in the developed world and that so many others in the developing world aspire to, but that we can do -- solutions are possible.
Which, if anything, is the point of this site: the problems are big, but the possibilities, if we change our thinking, may be bigger still...
Creative Commons Image Credit
Letter from Tällberg: We are about to leave the Holocene is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.
How i may contact admin this site? I have a question.
How i may contact admin this site? I have a question.