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Do We Have an “Existential Crisis” with Climate Change?

06.04.19 | Blog | By:

There is widespread belief that unless “something is done”, the world will go through an “existential crisis” because of climate change. As a result, several initiatives calling for drastic cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are gaining traction. For instance, the Extinction Rebellion movement, which organized high-profile disruptions in central London recently, is demanding that U.K. GHG emissions should go to “net zero” by 2025. The New Green Deal (NGD) which is gaining increasing support amongst leading politicians in the U.S., is aiming to “eliminate the US’s carbon footprint by 2030 through a massive mobilization of renewable energy and energy-saving projects”. School strikes in support of drastic change in society are getting stronger. The U.K. and Scottish parliaments have passed resolutions declaring a “climate emergency.” The central premise appears to be that “science” says that the world is rapidly heading towards disaster and there is an “existential crisis” and a “climate emergency”.  But is this true? Consider the following:

  • All objective/empirical measures of human development (e.g., absolute poverty levels, life expectancy, share of the population that is undernourished, education…. ) have been improving consistently, particularly in poorer countries, over the past few decades (source).
  • World food production (and per capita food consumption, productivity per acre) has been increasing consistently over the past few decades (sources here and here.) India has just announced another bumper year for food production.
  • A related point is that “From a quarter to half of Earth’s vegetated lands has shown significant greening over the last 35 years largely due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide” (source.) So this could repair the Earth’s climate since green plants would absorb CO2.
  • According to the IPCC (AR5, Ch4), the UN body which assesses the evidence for and about climate change, there is little or no empirical evidence to suggest that the incidence of tropical and extra-tropical storms, floods and droughts have increased in recent decades. The more recent IPCC report (on global warming of 1.5°C) does not alter these conclusions but says that there is evidence now of increased incidence of warm days and nights. However, this report also projects that such extreme weather events will increase based on model projections. To me, this does not sound like an “existential crisis”, certainly not by 2030. The evidence is also discussed by Roger Pielke. (Additional source here.)  
  • Though there are many claims that forest fires have been increasing, empirical evidence shows that there is no global trend (source). Increase of forest fires in the U.S. in the recent past has causes other than climate change (source).  
  • Deaths attributed to natural disasters have declined drastically over the past century (Source here and here). Because of increased prosperity and development, the financial losses have increased for the same reason (source).  
  • There is a lot of concern about sea level rise. However, sea levels have been rising consistently for at least 150 years but there have been many reports that they are rising faster in recent years. However, there are very credible assessments of data that show that the current level of rise of 3 mm/year are not abnormal (source). Of course, if there are catastrophic events like the melting of Antarctic ice, that would be a serious problem but human intervention could neither cause it nor prevent it. Anyway, how likely is this? The average annual temperature of Antarctica ranges from about −10°C on the Antarctic coast to −60°C at the highest parts of the interior.
  • Incidentally, polar bear populations have been increasing or are stable apart from in a handful of locations (source here and here).
  • Again incidentally, I have heard many people talking about CO2 as a pollutant or even a poison but the concentration of CO2 in one’s nostril when one breathes out is around 40,000 ppm or 100 times that in the atmosphere; in a closed lecture room it is around 1,000 ppm. So how can it be a poison? Without CO2, there would be no photosynthesis and no green plants.[1]

In summary, there is no empirical evidence that there is an “existential threat”. The world is a far better place in almost all countries not affected by war, compared to the past. Of course, there will be some consequences of increasing temperature because of increasing GHGs but as economies grow, they will be better able to cope with these changes and for growth, they need affordable energy.

The targets to decarbonize any economy by 2025 or 2030 are unachievable, in my opinion. It is dishonest or at least naïve to believe that it will be possible to achieve such targets in democratic societies. If such rapid changes are forced, there will be terrible economic and environmental consequences. Fossil fuels supply around 85% of global primary energy and a substantial portion of the remaining 15% is made up of “combustible renewables” – poor people burning wood and cow dung, for instance.  If the only sources of energy in five or ten years’ time are to be solar and wind (I assume no nuclear) and the world uses the same amount of energy as now, it will require an unprecedented effort to build more of this energy infrastructure. For instance, in 2017, wind and solar supplied 2.7% of the UK’s primary energy used by industry, transport, homes, businesses and services ( p13 in UK Energy in Brief, 2018).

In five years, the UK will need to produce 30 times more wind and solar. There will have to be a complete overhaul of the electricity distribution infrastructure to accommodate such a change. Storage capacity has to be built to supply energy when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine, a smart grid has to be built in five or ten years to accommodate the mismatch between supply and demand. Simultaneously, the existing energy infrastructure which has been built over more than a century has to be safely dismantled.  

As another example, the New Green Deal calls for massive expansion and transformation of the existing infrastructure, e.g., revamping all buildings in the U.S. to improve their energy efficiency. Where is the extra energy, steel, concrete and other materials going to come from for this unprecedented increase in economic activity? How are we going to handle the extra CO2 generated as we change this infrastructure? Will this not accelerate the “existential crisis”? Where will the extra land come from, let alone the money? How are we going to handle the plight of a large number of people employed in the conventional economy who will lose their jobs? How is this change to be financed?

If such targets are to be achieved by persuading people to use less energy, it will require the people of the U.S. to live like those whose carbon footprint is 20-30 times lower, say as in sub-Saharan Africa. This would perhaps mean, in a very short time, no heavy industry, no heating (no natural gas), no pets, no children, no transport, no flying, no dairy farming, no steel, chemicals or cement production, no internet (the fastest rise in CO2 is from the IT sector).

The alternative would be to bring coercive measures to force people to stop using fossil energy and institute incentives to promote fossil-free energy. However, such measures are very regressive and affect the poorest in society the most. For instance, it is unconscionable that governments have been subsidizing people who can afford to buy battery electric vehicles ― until recently, £4500 in the UK to people who could afford to shell out £40000 for a car. There has been a public revolt wherever there has been a big increase in fuel taxes; France currently with the Yellow Vest movement and the lorry drivers’ strike in the UK in 2000. In any case, if such measures are enforced in democracies, political parties that propose them will not get elected. For example, this occurred with the recent elections in Australia.

If such policies are forced on to the economy prematurely, there will also be bad environmental consequences. For instance, unless the electricity generation and the energy system used to make batteries is sufficiently decarbonized, expansion of battery electric vehicle (BEV) use will increase GHG emissions. In addition, a massive increase in BEV numbers will also lead to serious human toxicity impacts associated with mining of metals like cobalt (see my paper in Applied Energy, vol 225, pp 965-974, 2018). There are many other instances where policies implemented because of climate change concerns have probably been harmful. For instance, in the UK, Drax power station burns wood pellets imported from the U.S. because they are considered “low-carbon”. The biofuels policy, especially if it involves palm oil is not very environmentally friendly. The honest way of assessing any alternative is on a lifecycle basis and this is hardly ever done before policies are implemented. Governments continue believing in the myth that BEVs are “zero emission” vehicles.

Moreover, since climate change is a global problem, what impact will local sacrifice have? China, India and the U.S. account for around 50% of global GHG emissions and in2018, CO2 emissions increased in India by 6.3%, in China by 4.7% and in the U.S. by 2.3% (source). This trend will continue as developing countries develop their economies and pull hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. It is also very worrying that vulnerable children like Greta Thunberg have been convinced that they don’t have much of a future and seem to be worried out of their minds! I find it disgusting that opportunist politicians are exploiting them. By the way, since the Scottish Parliament has declared a “climate emergency”, will Scotland stop exploiting Scottish oil which was supposed to be its main source of income?

Campaigning organizations like Extinction Rebellion must insist that politicians should move beyond empty gestures and slogans and sign up to concrete targets, and propose concrete and time-bound measures to meet those targets. Those measure need to be assessed on a lifecycle basis to understand their true economic and environmental impacts. Public spending, policy (for example, banning all internal combustion (IC) engines by 2025) and taxation to meet those targets must be published and parties should fight elections based on such a manifesto. My feeling is that the public will not buy into such policies which will inevitably take their living standards to those comparable to the poorest societies. Of course, if societies collectively decide to go down such routes, such policies will have to be implemented.

Meanwhile most of the developing world will continue to focus on growth and on moving their populations out of poverty. This simply cannot be done only through wind and solar. For instance, even though India is investing hugely in solar and wind, 75% of its electricity will come from coal for decades (source). Nor will India get rid of its cattle and go to a dairy-free diet any time soon!  Global GHG levels will continue to grow in the coming decades. Climate justice should mean, above all, that the world’s poor (not just in Western countries) have a right to a better life. This will require affordable energy and this will essentially come from fossil fuels until wind and solar are practical and affordable.

Therefore, it is far better to focus on no-regrets adaptation policies rather than on unachievable mitigation targets. For instance, investments could focus on making lives and infrastructure resilient to weather extremes, e.g., better flood defenses. Historically, as societies become more prosperous, they are better able to cope with weather extremes. The focus should be on energy efficiency and on reducing waste of resources generally. There could be a move to renewables if and where they make true sense in terms of their environmental and economic benefits. In fact, it would be a no-brainer not to shift to such alternatives when they really are better on both fronts.

And above all, don’t give vulnerable children the message that their generation will have no future unless they renounce everything that makes their lives far, far better than that of their ancestors. Give them a message of hope. Their lives, on average, will be better than that of their parents. Climate change is happening and will happen, not least because of the actions of humanity. However, we need to be optimistic that human ingenuity will make it possible to cope with any changes that result. Indeed, concerned young people should focus on how they can make it easier, as they grow up, for humanity to cope with climate change.

Dr. Gautam Kalghatgi, FREng, FSAE, FIMechE, CEng is a Visiting Professor at Oxford University (Engineering Science) and Imperial College (Mechanical Engineering). He recently retired from Saudi Aramco and was with Shell for more than 30 years. He has over a hundred external publications on combustion, fuels and engine research and is the author of a book, “Fuel/Engine Interactions”. He is a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, SAE and I.Mech.E.

[1] Those who are interested may want to read “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn Lomborg and “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling, et al.

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