The lesson of the coronavirus on the climate crisis – Gwynne Dyer


Human beings respond well to the crises they know, especially if they are also imminent. But they don’t do the same when the threat is unusual, and it still appears quite far away. Just think of our response to the pandemic.

The East Asian countries that have recently known similar viruses, such as Sars, immediately responded with a “test, tracking and isolation” strategy, plus an immediate block of activities if the virus had already spread to the population.

Other countries, with the same high levels of wealth and education, possessed the same information, but still waited several months before taking emergency measures that distorted the comfortable routine of their lives. And so the United States, the United Kingdom and France have all ended up having mortality rates per inhabitant over fifty times higher than those of China, Korea and Japan.

The same goes for global warming, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us have had previous experience of a real climate crisis and, even if what we have known for thirty years would justify an urgent action, we have not done anything serious about it.

We have a lot of “clean” technologies, but overall energy demand has grown so rapidly that we continue to produce eighty percent of what we consume from fossil fuels. Realistically, things won’t change much. We are what we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors did not make long-term plans: they had to focus on very serious and urgent problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat can therefore only come when its effects are truly felt. Unfortunately, it will probably be too late at that point.

Nonlinear changes
The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, stones and all the components that govern the climate – follows its rules. It will absorb new contributions, such as heating, for a long time, changing as little as possible: this is what is called a homeostatic system.

Currently this feature is still playing in our favor: although the global average temperature has already increased by more than one day, there is not much to report, apart from warmer summers, shorter winters and more violent storms. But when the pressure on the climate system becomes too strong, reaching a “breaking point”, it is possible that it will break loose quickly in unpredictable directions.

They call them “nonlinear changes”, and we won’t like them at all. Hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, will begin to die.

Then we will be ready to make big changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will collapse under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees. Moreover, when the climate takes the path of non-linear change, it is almost impossible to bring it back to the starting point. We will have to survive in the conditions in which we find ourselves, regardless of whether they allow the survival of a great human civilization or not.

How far is such a disaster? We probably still have a decade or two left. Will we reset all our greenhouse gas emissions by then? Probably not.

“Reducing” emissions is not enough. Actually we have to reset all our emissions before we pushed the climate system over the limit. And we don’t even know exactly what this limit is.

Each portion of emissions that we manage to cut today will give us some more time before reaching this limit, but the global population will continue to grow and people in poor countries will continue to increase their energy consumption (it’s their turn. now, you can’t deny it).

So the crisis will almost certainly come, and at that point we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need, then, will be more time. This is why we will need climate engineering.

Climate engineering is not a cure. It is a way of temporarily offsetting the warming caused by our greenhouse gas emissions, somehow reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight.

In fact, we could speak of “positive” climate engineering, as opposed to the “negative” one that we have applied on a large scale over the past two centuries, pouring huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively against global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes necessary to preserve the global civilization and the biosphere that it dominates today. Only climate engineering can create this window.

It is not necessary to start practicing climate engineering right away. It would be fantastic if it never needed to be done, but it would take a miracle. We also cannot know how long we will have to continue to do this: certainly enough to bring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere down to safe levels, which would take at least a few decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we must clearly begin immediately to accelerate the research and development of the various possible climate engineering techniques.

(Translated by Federico Ferrone)

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