Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

The Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm is always a good place to spend a seminar morning on a beautiful Spring day, even when the topic is far from cheery. This is the day, called Valborg, when Swedes, in their several millions, gather around great bonfires to celebrate the coming of Spring. Male choruses sing songs of fertility and virility, the water of life (akvavit, schnaps) makes its inevitable appearance, and great piles of wood are converted into carbon dioxide and water and particulate matter, in a great whoosh of flame. Yes, this was the perfect day to receive an interdisciplinary update on global warming.

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

Royal Academy of Sciences, Stockholm

The 100th in a series of Stockholm Seminars featured a star cast of scientific minds, including Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, a lead author of the IPCC Report; Johan Rockström and Carl Folke, who together lead the Stockholm Resilience Center; Johan Kleman, an expert on ice sheets and how they melt; and several others. The topic was climate, ecosystems, and development, and the many ways in which their fates are inseparable.

And, potentially, quite bleak. “There is no good news from science right now,” said Johan Rockström. A recent meeting of 2,400 scientists in Copenhagen had concluded that the worst scenarios of the IPCC Fourth Assessment report were being realized. The “Quadruple Squeeze” of human growth, climate change, ecosystem degradation and ever-more-likely “surprises” was making the photo of planet Earth on his presentation slide look wobbly indeed. He named four dilemmas, each with a numerical signature:

• The 20/80 dilemma, with the 20% of Earth’s population that is rich causing most of the damage that could prevent the 80% that is poor of achieving their material aspirations.

• The 550/450/350 dilemma, where the world seems committed to a 550 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level even though 350 — or lower — is what may be necessary to preserve a stable climate.

• The 60%-loss dilemma, meaning, the sharp decay of the world’s ecosystems, precisely at the moment when we need strong ecosystems to buffer the shock of a changing/warming climate.

• And the 99/1 dilemma, meaning the increasing chance that unlikely things will happen — unpleasant surprises of various kinds, issuing out of the combined changes in social, economic, and ecological systems (think global food price shocks, times 10).

Phrases like “crisis,” “looming disaster,” and “worst-case scenario” are commonplace in the climate-and-ecosystems-and-development debate. Still, they take on a special weight when uttered in the room next to where the Nobel Prizes in science are decided. Not all was doom and gloom, as we shall see, but I could not help feeling a certain relief in knowing that later today, I would be drinking beer with friends in the crisp, clear, lengthening evenings of Sweden. I had the feeling I was going to need it.

One thing to cross off my list of global disasters to worry about is probably sea level rise. Not that it isn’t happening, or won’t happen — it is, and it will. By the end of the century, Johan Kleman told us, we’re looking at about an 85 centimeter (say 3 feet) rise from melting ice. That’s terrible news for Bangladesh, Alexandria, and New York City. But it’s not the worst news. Why?

Ice melt is highly predictable. It happens slowly. We can keep improving our prediction of it even as it happens. Yes, small hunks of Antarctica’s massive ice blanket will break up relatively suddenly. But on the whole, ice melt of this kind has many braking systems built in. We will have time to adjust. And most of the world’s coastlines are sparsely inhabited. Your average Inuit will just move his next fishing cottage 10 meters up the beach.

For those coasts that are highly built up, “the problem can be spelled ‘cost'”. Losing and/or moving all of that capital infrastructure and low-lying farmland will be very expensive, and will likely hit us just when we can least afford it. But, said Kleman, even if we are at the upper end of those worst-case sea-level projections, that will be the least of our problems. A one-meter sea-level rise would also mean lots of other, really awful things were probably happening that will be far worse problems to deal with.

Swine flu was seized upon as an example, for these presenters, of the kind of thing we’re talking about: a rapidly developing global crisis, full of uncertainties, spread by the very technologies that also bond us together (the flu by airplane, the worry about it via the internet, etc.). Of course, swine flu is not a product of global warming; in fact, lots of crises that are linked to global warming are not real climate-driven problems. They are driven, instead, by a vast array of social and economic factors, from values sets and aspirations to technology choices. And they emerge — like epidemics do — from the interplay of many factors, from land use policy to the dynamics of global trade, how those things affect ecosystem resilience, and much much else. We understand that it’s all connected; we just don’t know very much, yet, about exactly how.

This is particularly true when it comes to climate change. Michael Oppenheimer, while lauding the greatness and accomplishment of the IPCC (it “surpassed all the expectations of its founders” he said; it published “the most important report in human history” said Johan Rockström later) nonetheless noted several weaknesses in the process that were hampering its ability to really imform policy makers. Chief among these was a lack of inter-action between the various working groups, and a lack of social scientists who could really dig into these systemic interplays between science, policy, and societal response. The IPCC has earned its considerable reputation on its ability to use models and produce quantitative estimates that are considered authoritative. But these social-economic-ecosystem interactions are “essentially unmodelable.” We need other tools for analysis that can only come with a more highly integrated and inter-disciplinary approach — now lacking.

Without that broader basis of knowledge, we are bound to be more surprised than not, more often, and less prepared to deal with the surprises when they happen. And they will happen. Considering that our world system is a finely tuned mechanism of natural and socio-economic systems on which the basic sustenance and well-being of nearly 7 billion people absolutely depends, when those systems get perturbed (as they did recently when oil price rises and other factors sent food prices skyrocketing) the surprises are not likely to be happy ones.

Given the vast array of complex systemic factors, bad-news data streams, and the general density of our beloved fellow human beings, who still (say the polls) do not really understand climate change, and perhaps do not want to, where do we find hope?

According to Måns Lönnroth, a former Swedish political official operating at the boundary of science and politics, it’s probably in the US Senate.

The US, and the US-China relationship, are probably the key factors in determining what the world actually does on climate change. “Don’t expect to see a clear US policy in time for Copenhagen,” said Lönnroth. The factors at play, such as how raising the price of carbon in the US would affect US-China trade and balance of payments, are simply too complex to work through in less than a year’s time. And everything comes down to what a large majority of the US Senate — where Montana is equal to California in raw power terms — is willing to go along with.

Don’t worry too much about the uncertainty aspects, he said. These are over-stated. Decision-makers at that level deal with uncertainty every day, in many domains that also have high risk associated with them, from security to economics. What specifically has to be reduced is the uncertainty associated with the economic impacts of various climate policy instruments. As soon as these are understood, agreements can be made, and change can proceed more rapidly.

This is a rapidly-produced summary that includes more than a little of my own editorializing, and probably misinterpretations, to be sure. But on such a beautiful, crystalline day, with climate-neutral bonfires and festivity awaiting, it is the best I could do. And tonight, I will sing to the stars and find some measure of joy in the life that we celebrate, this one life we have on this extraordinary planet. I’ll take comfort in the company of my family and my friends.

No surprises there.

Warm regards from Stockholm,

2 thoughts on “Letter from Sweden: The State of the End of the World

  1. Thanks for the recap!

    I hate to be the American saying that it comes down to America, but unfortunately in this case, I think it does. The point raised about the impact of carbon limiting legislation (whether it be through cap and trade or a carbon tax or something else) is right on target. The US has moved beyond the happy ignorance of 2000 – 2008, when we were simply ignoring the problem. Now we must deal with the direct impact that effectively addressing climate change will have on the American economy.

    In the Senate, Michigan (home of the failing auto industry) and California (home of the most forward thinking climate change laws currently in the US) are equal and their opinions are equally divergent. I may be an optimist, but President Obama is the one that can and should bring this issue to the forefront. Unfortunately, even if it was brought to the top of the agenda tomorrow it would likely be too late to formulate an effective and unified US policy for Copenhagen in December.

    In the absence of this type of game changing stance from the US, what can make Copenhagen a success? All ideas encouraged!

    Thanks for writing Alan!

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