Political leaders tell us not to worry; today’s problems can always be fixed up tomorrow. We can have our cake and eat it. But what if our actions today produce irreversible changes in the way the Earth system behaves? Maybe ‘waiting for tomorrow’s solutions’ is not the rational thing to do. Quentin Grafton reflects on the consequences.
As a teenager in 1977 I watched a BBC TV series entitled ‘The Age of Uncertainty’, hosted and written by John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the world’s leading economists of his day. It was Galbraith’s personal journey about the history of economic ideas and the state of the world. While it covered many challenges and risks (eg, conspicuous consumption, poverty, nuclear conflict, failures in democratic leadership) he did not mention climate change (which wasn’t on the public radar back then). Nevertheless, he highlighted an evasion by leaders to respond to the ‘big’ problems of his day and to confront the truth. He observed: “The greatest support to evasion comes from complexity. The problem seeming difficult, we postpone, compromise, yield to the conveniences of politics”.
Fast forward almost 50 years and Galbraith’s observations apply equally to the world’s environmental crises. A dominant idea among the world’s political and economic elite to the complex problem of climate change is to craft a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ narrative. That is, recognize the problem exists but tell a story that, with incremental change and a transition over time, we can have both increased prosperity (or at least the promise of it) for all and a sustainable planet. It’s a view of the world where we can eat cake and not have to worry (or only a little bit) about what the future may hold for humans and those with whom we share this planet. This idea is a fantasy.
I will argue here that the future is much less about eating cake today and tomorrow and much more about ‘Having our cake and eating it too’. That is, we can’t have both a prosperous and sustainable world in the future AND a slow transition in business as usual.
The ‘window’ closes
The Age of Uncertainty was broadcast five years after ‘Limits to Growth’ was published by the Club of Rome. The Club of Rome message (in 1972) was that there was still time for humanity to move away from business as usual and to live within material limits and avoid an unsustainable future. This window of opportunity to deliver both prosperity and a sustainable future was still available in 1977 and it was, arguably, still true in 1992, 15 years after the Age of Uncertainty was broadcast when the world met and agreed to control greenhouse gas emissions at the Rio Summit, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
The overwhelming evidence is, more than 50 years after Limits to Growth was first published, the world cannot have both rising prosperity and an incremental or a transitional response to the world’s environmental emergencies. This is because of the huge and negative impacts we continue to have (and which are growing) in terms of climate change and biodiversity loss. We also need to grow at least 25% more food, while responding to a world water crisis and heat extremes, by the time the world’s human population is projected to peak at over 10 billion this century.
Banking on tomorrow
Those who espouse transition rather than transformation frequently argue that what problems we create today we can solve tomorrow through innovation and technology. That is, life or the state of the world, is like a bank account. If we overdraw today, we can be back in the black the following week after we get our next pay. We may have to pay a small overdraft fee, but life can carry on pretty much as usual.
Many political leaders appear to have this ‘bank account view’ of climate change. Namely, if our greenhouse gas emissions are too large and we overspend the so-called ‘carbon budget’, we can fix it later. According to this idea, even if we go over the carbon budget and emit an additional 1,150 billion tons of CO2-equivalent (equal to about 30 years of global fossil-fuel emissions in 2023) we supposedly still have a close to 50% chance of not crossing a 2oC global average surface temperature threshold. According to this view, we have a ‘get out of jail card’ by later capturing and storing the extra carbon in the atmosphere and/or geo-engineering a cooler climate, with aerosols, or some other means.
This transition view about the carbon budget is like playing Russian roulette with our future. For a start, there are: one, uncertainties around the carbon budget such as the impacts of non-CO2 warming (such as from methane); two, the infeasibility of CO2 capture and storage at sufficient scale over the next 20-30 years to make a substantial difference to atmospheric CO2 concentrations given its current level is just 0.12% of global emissions; and, three, the very real risks of geo-engineering to cool the climate.
Each of these three ‘asides’ are alarming enough to seriously reconsider whether we can cake eat ourselves towards a sustainable future. My focus here is on something else even more alarming, irreversible climate tipping points. These are thresholds, or limits, that once crossed we cannot return from. To use the bank account analogy, it would be like having the bank manager tell us, because our account was temporarily overdrawn, that we can no longer have a bank account. And, because of our now reduced credit rating, we also cannot open a bank account anywhere else. That is, the state of the world after our bank account is overdrawn is very different to the world before.
Small increase, big change
Over the past two decades, by using measurements of past climate, climate models and current observations (eg, melting of ice sheets), researchers have identified a series of climate tipping points. Just like crossing from a small positive balance (credit) to a small negative balance in a bank account, a climate tipping point is where even an apparently small change in the state of the world (eg, increase in average surface temperature from 1.4oC to 1.6oC) results in a fundamental change in the system, what scientists call a non-linear response.
Some tipping points are reversible but several of the most damaging climate tipping points are irreversible. For instance, with sufficient warming, there is reduced reflection of incoming solar radiation back into space because there is less snow and ice (eg, reduction in arctic sea ice) which has a high albedo. Because more incoming solar radiation is absorbed when the albedo effect is diminished, the world’s equilibrium temperature is consequently greater for a given atmospheric concentrations of CO2 than if the amount of snow and ice cover had remained unchanged. This is an irreversibility.
Some climate tipping points may take centuries or even millennia for their full impacts to occur, such as the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, both of which are global in their effects. Other tipping points, such as the die-off of tropical coral reefs and boreal forests, are more regional (albeit at very large scales) in their impacts but are much more rapid and could happen within a few decades.
Climate tipping points are often viewed as separate but they also interact in complex ways. For instance, triggering one tipping point (eg, melting of the Greenland ice sheet that reduces seawater density) increases the likelihood of another tipping point (eg, reduction in strength and stability of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation that ensures a stable and desirable climate in Western Europe). That is, there is the very real risk of cascading climate tipping points.
A highly-cited 2022 scientific study identified six of nine climate tipping points that become likely if the average global surface temperature were to exceed 1.50C relative to its pre-industrial average surface temperature. Some of these climate tipping points are expected to be crossed when the global average surface temperature increase is in the range 1.5 to 20C. One of these is the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. If this were to happen it would have a profound impact on our planet and, ultimately, raise the average sea level by several metres, flooding the homes of hundreds of millions of people in low-lying coastal areas. The authors of the 2022 study observed that: “…1.5°C and above risks crossing multiple tipping points.” Yet, 2023 was the year that the world infamously achieved about 1.5oC warming relative the 1880-1920 annual average.
It’s possible that the unexpected high temperature record of 2023 is a harbinger of accelerated warming. If this were true then, pretty much whatever we do, we will experience average surface warming of more than 2oC, and before 2050. This means we will likely traverse several climate tipping points within the next 30 years.
If 2023 proves to be an outlier and there is no accelerated warming and climate change is as projected to 2100 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), then a 20C increase is still likely this century. In either case (accelerated or ‘IPPC projected’ warming), we are in the age of irreversibility.
Risks and precaution
A precautionary principle (or approach) to managing big risks has been adopted in multiple UN conventions and also by some national governments. It states that action is required before possible harm occurs AND before there is certainty about such harm if there is scientific evidence about the harm, even when this evidence is uncertain. Further, the action to prevent the harm should be proportional to the likelihood and magnitude of the possible harm. That is, the bigger and more likely the harm, the larger should be the proportional response. A wait-and-see attitude or a ‘hope-for-the-best’ approach until the harm is known for certain (or after the fact) is not precautionary.
We can no longer hope for the best or pretend that we don’t face a planetary emergency whether it be climate change and its multiple impacts (eg, higher temperatures, sea-level rise, etc) or a rate of species extinction that is orders of magnitude greater than what we have experienced in millions of years. The only sensible (and sustainable) response is to be precautionary. This does not mean incremental or transitional change. Instead, it requires rapid and transformational change to reduce both the likelihood and the severity of the planetary emergency and crossing very high impact and irreversible tipping points. To do anything else is to fail to confront the truth and, instead, have us eat what cake there is today while leaving only crumbs for tomorrow.
Banner image: “You can’t have your cake and eat it too” yet our political leadership seems happy to suggest you actually can because tomorrow will hold solutions to regenerate that cake regardless of what the science suggests. This is not a precautionary approach to our future existence. (Image by Steward Masweneng from Pixabay).