Mag­i­cal think­ing won’t stop climate change

The Myanmar Times - - Views - MARK BUCHANAN newsroom@mm­

WORLD lead­ers have started to gen­er­ate some real op­ti­mism with their ef­forts to ad­dress global climate change. What’s trou­bling, though, is how far we re­main from get­ting carbon emis­sions un­der con­trol – and how much wish­ful think­ing is still re­quired to be­lieve we can do so.

The Paris agree­ment on climate change has gar­nered the na­tional sig­na­to­ries needed to go into force on Novem­ber 4. Some econ­o­mists see it as a promis­ing frame­work for co­op­er­a­tion among many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, es­pe­cially if those not pulling their weight suf­fer penal­ties such as trade sanc­tions.

There’s even talk of aim­ing for the more am­bi­tious goal of keep­ing global tem­per­a­tures within 1.5 de­grees Cel­sius or less of their pre-in­dus­trial level, as op­posed to the cur­rently agreed 2 de­grees. Mean­while, an­other ma­jor in­ter­na­tional deal has been reached to phase out green­house gases used in re­frig­er­a­tion sys­tems, and so­lar en­ergy tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues its rapid ad­vance.

For all the progress, though, the gap be­tween what needs to hap­pen and what is hap­pen­ing re­mains large. Worse, it’s grow­ing.

Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, how far the planet re­mains from any of the carbon emis­sion tra­jec­to­ries in which – ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Climate Change – global warm­ing would re­main be­low 2 de­grees. Even in the most le­nient sce­nar­ios, we would have to be cut­ting net emis­sions al­ready. Yet un­der the pledges coun­tries have made in the Paris frame­work, emis­sions will keep in­creas­ing sharply through at least 2030.

As climate sci­en­tists Kevin An­der­son and Glen Peters ar­gue, an el­e­ment of mag­i­cal think­ing has crept into the pro­jec­tions of the In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Climate Change. Specif­i­cally, they rely heav­ily on the as­sump­tion that new tech­nolo­gies will al­low hu­mans to start suck­ing carbon out of the at­mos­phere on a grand scale, re­sult­ing in large net neg­a­tive emis­sions some­time in the sec­ond half of this cen­tury. This might hap­pen, but we don’t know how to do it yet.

The as­sump­tions about neg­a­tive emis­sions amount to a bizarre step in what ought to be a cau­tious and con­ser­va­tive anal­y­sis. The In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Climate Change sce­nar­ios es­sen­tially ig­nore the vast un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing a tech­nol­ogy that does not yet ex­ist, and about our abil­ity to ramp it up to the re­quired scale.

To elim­i­nate that much at­mo­spheric carbon, as geo­physi­cist An­drew Skuce es­ti­mates, we would need an in­dus­try roughly three times as big as the en­tire cur­rent fos­sil fuel in­dus­try – and we would need to cre­ate it fast, build­ing some­thing like one new large plant to cap­ture and store carbon ev­ery day for the next 70 years. Does that sound likely?

Per­haps such wish­ful think­ing is an in­evitable symp­tom of our ad­dic­tion to fos­sil fu­els – and our fear of the wrench­ing pain that mov­ing away from them will en­tail. In re­al­ity, if we’re not feel­ing the change, we’re prob­a­bly not do­ing enough.

– Bloomberg Views Mark Buchanan, a physi­cist and science writer, is the au­thor of the book

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