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Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World
Alan AtKisson, 11 May 09
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The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm is always a good place to spend a seminar morning on a beautiful Spring day, even when the topic is far from cheery. This is the day, called Valborg, when Swedes, in their several millions, gather around great bonfires to celebrate the coming of Spring. Male choruses sing songs of fertility and virility, the water of life (akvavit, schnaps) makes its inevitable appearance, and great piles of wood are converted into carbon dioxide and water and particulate matter, in a great whoosh of flame. Yes, this was the perfect day to receive an interdisciplinary update on global warming.

The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor from achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen —; unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.

Don't Worry About the Ice Sheets
One thing to cross off my list of global disasters to worry about is probably sea level rise. Not that it isn’t happening, or won’t happen — it is, and it will. By the end of the century, Johan Kleman told us, we’re looking at about an 85 centimeter (say 3 feet) rise from melting ice. That’s terrible news for Bangladesh, Alexandria, and New York City. But it’s not the worst news. Why?

Ice melt is highly predictable. It happens slowly. We can keep improving our prediction of it even as it happens. Yes, small hunks of Antarctica’s massive ice blanket will break up relatively suddenly. But on the whole, ice melt of this kind has many braking systems built in. We will have time to adjust. And most of the world’s coastlines are sparsely inhabited. Your average Inuit will just move his next fishing cottage 10 meters up the beach.

For those coasts that are highly built up, “the problem can be spelled ‘cost.’” Losing and/or moving all of that capital infrastructure and low-lying farmland will be very expensive, and will likely hit us just when we can least afford it. But, said Kleman, even if we are at the upper end of those worst-case sea-level projections, that will be the least of our problems. A one-meter sea-level rise would also mean lots of other, really awful things were probably happening that will be far worse problems to deal with.

Worry About the Surprises
Swine flu was seized upon as an example, for these presenters, of the kind of thing we’re talking about: a rapidly developing global crisis, full of uncertainties, spread by the very technologies that also bond us together (the flu by airplane, the worry about it via the internet, etc.). Of course, swine flu is not a product of global warming; in fact, lots of crises that are linked to global warming are not real climate-driven problems. They are driven, instead, by a vast array of social and economic factors, from values sets and aspirations to technology choices. And they emerge — like epidemics do — from the interplay of many factors, from land use policy to the dynamics of global trade, how those things affect ecosystem resilience, and much much else. We understand that it’s all connected; we just don’t know very much, yet, about exactly how.

This is particularly true when it comes to climate change. Michael Oppenheimer, while lauding the greatness and accomplishment of the IPCC (it “surpassed all the expectations of its founders” he said; it published “the most important report in human history” said Johan Rockström later) nonetheless noted several weaknesses in the process that were hampering its ability to really imform policy makers. Chief among these was a lack of interaction between the various working groups, and a lack of social scientists who could really dig into these systemic interplays between science, policy, and societal response. The IPCC has earned its considerable reputation on its ability to use models and produce quantitative estimates that are considered authoritative. But these social-economic-ecosystem interactions are “essentially unmodelable.” We need other tools for analysis that can only come with a more highly integrated and inter-disciplinary approach — now lacking.

Without that broader basis of knowledge, we are bound to be more surprised than not, more often, and less prepared to deal with the surprises when they happen. And they will happen. Considering that our world system is a finely tuned mechanism of natural and socio-economic systems on which the basic sustenance and well-being of nearly 7 billion people absolutely depends, when those systems get perturbed (as they did recently when oil price rises and other factors sent food prices skyrocketing) the surprises are not likely to be happy ones.

Hope in America, Friendship With Uncertainty
Given the vast array of complex systemic factors, bad-news data streams, and the general density of our beloved fellow human beings, who still (say the polls) do not really understand climate change, and perhaps do not want to, where do we find hope?

According to Måns Lönnroth, a former Swedish political official operating at the boundary of science and politics, it’s probably in the US Senate.

The US, and the US-China relationship, are probably the key factors in determining what the world actually does on climate change. “Don’t expect to see a clear US policy in time for Copenhagen,” said Lönnroth. The factors at play, such as how raising the price of carbon in the US would affect US-China trade and balance of payments, are simply too complex to work through in less than a year’s time. And everything comes down to what a large majority of the US Senate — where Montana is equal to California in raw power terms — is willing to go along with.

Don’t worry too much about the uncertainty aspects, he said. These are over-stated. Decision-makers at that level deal with uncertainty every day, in many domains that also have high risk associated with them, from security to economics. What specifically has to be reduced is the uncertainty associated with the economic impacts of various climate policy instruments. As soon as these are understood, agreements can be made, and change can proceed more rapidly.

This is a rapidly-produced summary that includes more than a little of my own editorializing, and probably misinterpretations, to be sure. But on such a beautiful, crystalline day, with climate-neutral bonfires and festivity awaiting, it is the best I could do. And tonight, I will sing to the stars and find some measure of joy in the life that we celebrate, this one life we have on this extraordinary planet. I’ll take comfort in the company of my family and my friends.

No surprises there.

Warm regards from Stockholm,

This post originally appeared on

Image: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Image credit: Wikimedia

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>>uncertainties... surprises

Yes -- As Asimov pointed out, all one's best-laid Plans can be thrown into a tizzy by one unexpectable kicking Mule.

Posted by: Skip Mendler on 11 May 09

Having played Superstruct last year, the news these days makes me understand how Ender Wiggin felt.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 12 May 09

I think your article is too pessimistic. Our company, Genesys, LLC,, has developed a method to produce cheap, efficient hydrogen from any water source (e.g. sea or waste water) this non-electrolytic process uses electromagnetic radiation to break the OH bond in water. A working pilot plant is in operation produce pure hydrogen. An abandoned oil well or geothermal well can be used to create the necessary heat to produce hydrogen. Other primary sources such as solar heat can also be used. There is hope.

Posted by: Ronny on 13 May 09

Improved tools for analysis are certainly worthwhile, and I wouldn't disagree that better understanding social-economic-ecosystem interactions is also important, especially so that we can anticipate more of the sorts of "surprises" that you describe. But I wonder just how much uncertainty we need to reduce before we take action and whether that's really what is holding back our beloved fellow human beings. Of course, what's holding us back is the million dollar question in climate change communication, and I won't purport to have figured that one out, but I do think it is important to keep in mind the power of political will. Eight years ago I would never have guessed that the political situation in the US would change as much as it has, and yet political will is what got us the current administration. Reducing uncertainty around the economic impacts of climate policy instruments may convince senators, but convincing the general public is a separate task, which could prove easier–or more difficult–than reducing uncertainty. I'm hoping that the big surprise is that it's easier.

Posted by: Jennifer Kane on 13 May 09

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