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GLOBAL HEATING

What coronavirus teaches about climate change

A truly serious response will come only when it is actually starting to hurt.

In Summary
  • How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.
  • ‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.
What coronavirus teaches about climate change
What coronavirus teaches about climate change
Image: OZONE

Human beings respond well to a crisis that is familiar, especially if it is also imminent. They don’t do nearly as well when the threat is unfamiliar and still apparently quite distant. Consider our response to the current coronavirus threat.

Countries in East Asia with recent experience of similar viruses (SARS, etc.) immediately responded with ‘test, track and isolate’ drills, plus instant lock-downs if the virus had already gained a foothold in the population.

Other countries, just as rich and well-educated, had the same information, but they still waited several months before taking emergency measures that upset the comfortable routine of their lives. So the United States, Britain and France all ended up with death rates per million more than fifty times higher than China, Korea and Japan.

 

The same applies to global heating, except that in this case we are all Americans. None of us has prior experience of a genuine climate crisis, and although we have known enough about what’s going to happen to justify urgent action for thirty years now, we have done nothing decisive about it.

We have lots of ‘clean’ technology, but total demand for energy has grown so fast that we are still getting a steady 80% of our energy from fossil fuels. Realistically, this is not going to change much. We are who we are, shaped by millions of years of evolution, and our ancestors didn’t do long-term planning; they had to concentrate on acute short-term problems.

A truly serious response to the climate threat will therefore come only when it is actually starting to hurt. Unfortunately, by then it will probably be too late.

The Earth system – biosphere, atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks, all the components that govern the climate – plays by its own rules. It will absorb new inputs like warming for a long time while changing as little as possible: it’s a ‘homeostatic’ system.

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering. Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

We are still benefiting from this feature now: a full degree Celsius of warming already, and not much to show for it except hotter summers, shorter winters and bigger storms. But when the pressure on the climate system gets too great – reaches a ‘tipping point’ – it is liable to charge off in unpredictable directions at high speed.

‘Non-linear change’, they call it, and we won’t like it a bit. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, will start to die.

THEN we’ll be ready to make great changes to save ourselves, but it will be too late. Human systems will be collapsing under the impact of famines, wars and endless waves of refugees, and besides once the climate hits non-linear change it’s almost impossible to bring it back. We’re stuck with wherever it ends up, whether that new state will support a large human civilisation or not.

 

How far ahead is this calamity? We probably have at least a decade or two. Will we end all our greenhouse gas emissions in that time? Probably not.

‘Cutting’ our emissions isn’t enough. We actually have to stop all of our emissions before we push the climate system over the edge, and we don’t even know precisely where the edge is.

Every bit of emissions we can cut now gives us a little more time before we reach the edge, but the global population will still be going up and people in the poorer countries will still be increasing their energy use. (It’s their turn; you can’t deny them that.)

So the crisis almost certainly will arrive, and then we will finally be willing to make radical changes. What we will desperately need at that point is more time. That’s why we will need geoengineering.

Geoengineering is not a cure; it is a way of temporarily counteracting the warming caused by our emissions of greenhouse gases, by reflecting a small part of the incoming sunlight in one way or another.

In fact, you could say that it is ‘positive’ geoengineering, as opposed to the large-scale ‘negative’ geoengineering we have been doing for the past two centuries by dumping huge amounts of warming gases into the atmosphere.

When we are finally ready to act decisively on global warming, we will need a window of time to make the changes that are required to preserve this global civilisation and the biosphere it now dominates. Only geoengineering can create that window.

We don’t need to start geoengineering now. It would be wonderful if we never have to do it, but that would take a miracle. We cannot know how long we would have to go on doing it, either: long enough to get the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back down to a safe level, certainly, which would be at least a matter of decades.

But even without knowing the answers to these questions, we clearly need to speed up research and testing of the various potential techniques for geoengineering now.