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Climate change’s tipping points

Either humans change their lifestyle or the climate will trigger a chain of unfortunate events

By Jean-Luc Burlone

No longer a serious scientific quarrel, the dispute over climate change has become a political battle between special interest groups and people from all walks of life demanding actions to protect the environment. For once, an elite is trusted and followed by a majority. Indeed, civil society, as well as corporations and deep pocket institutions, heed to scientific arguments; basically warning that an environmental catastrophe triggered by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is underway if not prevented or at least mitigated by human corrective actions.

The scientific dispute revisited

The World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have created the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) to assess scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information that are relevant to understanding the impact and consequences of human-induced climate change.

The IPCC compiles research from leading experts on the climate to provide a “clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.”¹ A transparent process selects hundreds of experts, authors and peer-reviewers from different fields. Together, they bring a high level of credibility to the IPCC, whose reports have an effective impact on governments and the civil society.

No longer a serious scientific quarrel, the dispute over climate change has become a political battle between special interest groups and people from all walks of life demanding actions to protect the environment.

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) expresses most of the climate-sceptic’s views and arguments; it denigrates the IPCC findings and thus, its credibility. Its leitmotiv is that nature, not human activity, rules the climate. True enough, since the sun is the primary source of heat² on Earth but it should be mentioned that its output has slightly decreased since 1970 while the Earth’s temperature kept increasing.

NIPCC considers that the IPCC’s very existence is slanted as its mandate carries a prejudice towards human activities, seen as the main cause for excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. True again, the IPCC’s mandate is specifically concerned by human activities for two good reasons: first, CO2 emissions from human activities have increased by over 400% since 1950³; and second, human activities are the only factor affecting climate that can be managed.

The NIPCC claims that CO2 is an essential nutriment for plants and hence, more of it would foster plant growth. True to a point as it is a complex subject. We know, however, that an increase in carbon dioxide changes the composition of plants as they adapt to additional CO2 by reducing the number of tiny breathing holes located on the back of their leafs.

Climate-sceptics also question the IPCC climate models, particularly the Mann, Bradley and Hughes model of 1998 (MBH98) that used proxy indicators to estimate temperatures of past centuries, going back to 1400 and extended further to the year 1000 (MBH99). Their findings form a graph coined “hockey stick” because its dots show a flat design followed by an abrupt uptick4.

The MBH98/99 constructions of past temperatures were disputed by some that claim the medieval warmth period was much warmer. That claim was quickly dismissed by scientists. In 2003, 2004 and in 2005, papers were published that disputed the data, criticized the statistical techniques as well as the methodology used for the MBH studies. Reviews and investigations ordered by the National Research Council and Congress found technical failings in the MBH’s analysis but none that affect the final result.

‘Diehard climate-sceptics maintain that humans will adapt to any climate change… They are unwilling to constrain our economic growth i.e. our way of life, to satisfy climate-change mongers.’

Eight independent investigations dismissed all arguments against the MBH studies and more than two-dozen different models using different statistical methods and proxies have confirmed the original MBH98’s conclusion. In 2007, the IPCC cited fourteen reconstructions that strengthen the same result and all subsequent studies up to 2013 supported the same conclusion: it is most likely that the twentieth century temperatures were the highest in the past 1400 years.

Diehard climate-sceptics maintain that humans will adapt to any climate change. For instance, if the sea level rises, humans will build their houses a foot or two higher! Hence, they see no need to worry and no urgency to act. They are unwilling to constrain our economic growth i.e. our way of life, to satisfy climate-change mongers.

Geological and human timescale

The climate change dispute compares to the dispute over the rotation of the Earth as in both cases, one needs to take a distance from the issue to grasp it. In ancient times, one saw a stable unmoving Earth while he saw the sun rise in the East and set in the West. The fact that the Earth rotates at one thousand miles per hour was unnoticed, hence, it was not real.

Today, one sees no smoke plumes when using a smart phone or a terminal. Nonetheless, the digital economy, including networks, data centres, and the production, use and disposal of digital equipment, generates between 3 and 4% of global GHG emissions (50 G metric tons) with a growth rate of 10% per year5. As developing countries transit toward the digital economy, the ensuing digital consumption will be untenable and should therefore be managed for sustainability.

‘Though wrongly, people no longer accept the argument that fossil energy is needed. They want renewable energy, they want a secured environment, they want change.’

More rapidly than can be imagined, green energy is taking on its old enemy, fossil energy. It is expected that within five to ten years every car will be hybrid or totally electric6. The fossil industry finds it harder and harder to push an exploitation project without causing public outcry. People are saying no to economic development when they refuse to sacrifice the Hambach forest for additional coal or when they wish to prevent the construction of a needed third runway at Heathrow airport.

Though wrongly, people no longer accept the argument that fossil energy is needed. They want renewable energy, they want a secured environment, they want change. Marginal, utopian ideas – such as reduce consumption, buy local, repair or recycle and seek a steady economic growth rather than an increasing one – that were once considered bizarre and irrational social visions, are becoming mainstream objectives.

The importance of a sane, stable environment is gaining ground. Seeking a constant economic growth, based on managing goods and services rather than relying on production and consumption, may have a long-term value. But the need to survive in the short-term dominates the long-term survival issue – elites will hopefully shape up to satisfy people’s need for a decent lifestyle and build a cohesive effort toward a common good.

Throughout geological times, GHG have regulated the Earth’s temperature; a lack of or an excess of GHG will endanger life as we know it. Looking two hundred fifty-two million years back, sediments and fossils from the Permian extinction period reveal that massive emissions of GHG had heated the atmosphere and acidified the oceans – extinguishing 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial life in just two centuries7.

‘… the need to survive in the short-term dominates the long-term survival issue – elites will hopefully shape up to satisfy people’s need for a decent lifestyle and build a cohesive effort toward a common good.’

There were no warning signs of the Permian extinction: “If it turns out to reflect an environmental tipping point within a longer interval of ongoing environmental change, that should make us particularly concerned about potential parallels to global change happening in the world around us right now.” (Pr. Jonathan Payne, Stanford University, 2018).

Therefore, the question is: Will we select an environmentally friendly lifestyle before the climate reaches it own tipping point? If we don’t, it is possible that the next question will be about survival.

  1. Centre for International Governance Innovation, October 23, 2018
  2. Earth’s energy budget accounts for the balance between the energy Earth receives from the Sun, the energy the Earth radiates back into outer space after having been distributed throughout the climate system and having thus powered the so-called Earth heat engine.
  3. Committee on Climate Change (theccc.org.uk)
  4. Hockey stick: Hockey stick
  5. The Shift Project Report, Pour une sobriété numérique, l’impact environnemental du numérique, October 2018
  6. The Future of Electric Cars, CST Inspired Minds, Careers 2030, July 2018
  7. Shu-Zhong Shen et al. A sudden end-Permian mass extinction in South China, GSA Bulletin 2018

Bouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre – WestmountMag.caFeature image: Pixabay

Read also: Trade and values in geopolitics


jean-luc_burlone

Jean-Luc Burlone, Ms. Sc. Economy, FCSI (1996)
Opinion Writer
Economic Analysis & Financial Strategies
jlb@jlburlone.com

The text above is my personal view, based on a review of the economic and financial press. November 12, 2018. – JLB

Fellow of the Canadian Securities Institute (FCSI), Jean-Luc Burlone has an excellent knowledge of financial product management and holds a Master’s degree in economics from the Université de Montréal with a dual specialization in development economics and International economy – finance and trade.


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There are 4 comments

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  1. Georges Dupras

    Excellent article. Unfortunately the reasoning will be lost on our present political mindset. Science, natural history and simple logic will always come second to economic, and by extension, political interests.

    Georges R. Dupras

    • JL BURLONE

      Indeed, only when financial interests will be in line with environmental objectives will an efficient virtuous circle be in place. Some hope in this regard though; deep pocket institutions like pension funds and insurance companies, which have long-term fiduciary duties, are now rating a company’s GHG management as a financial criteria to be met to secure lending. This said, we have quite a challenge in front of us.

      Regards
      JLB

  2. Anne Streeter

    Thank you for this important article – much to learn and absorb. For instance I did not know about the environmental downside of digital equipment. Climate change is a huge issue slow to take off (not helped by deniers) but not difficult to understand today. The evidence is overwhelming, even to my unscientific mind. There is much that individuals can do in their personal lives to contribute but it is government that must supply the leadership. Unfortunately I’m not seeing this – certainly not in Canada where we are promoting multiple pipelines while investing very little in green technology. Sadly decisions are made in four year terms and on whatever it takes to stay in power.

    An interesting and welcome sidebar was a recent local news item that said vegetarian restaurants have increased in Montreal by 20% in the last year alone – well over 300 now. A major concern is the devastating effect that the meat industry has on the environment!

    • JL Burlone

      You are right Anne, there is often a hidden cost in what seems a simple solution to an environmental problem. Recently electric cars got blasted by a Life Cycle Analysis from Montreal Polytechnic.

      The results of their analysis show that once an electric car stands in a car dealer showroom, it has generated twice as much GHG as a similar car fuelled by gas. It takes three years of driving (50 thousand kilometres) for the carbon foot print of the electric car to equal that of regular car.

      The electric car requires large amount of metals (lithium, cobalt etc) whose extraction and recycling are very costly in terms of GHG. At best, scientists now see the electric car as transition toward a better solution.

      Regards
      JLB


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