NVDL: It's been said that in the future we'll be filling up the space in newspapers and TV news bulletins with catastrophic stories about climate change. It will be the ruling zeitgeist. Who knows for how long. Here's a must read for those in the know, from GlobalPublicMedia.com:
Jorgen Randers: We should be working very very hard to try to avert climate change.
So, these are the four things I am going to say. If you think those are unsurprising and easily understood, you can leave, because there isn’t actually very much more to say about the issue.
Let’s start with the first question. The concept of global collapse was first launched in the Limits to Growth book in 1972. It was one of the central concepts of the book that was never picked up by anyone.
The general idea was that this was, as seen from 1972, a possibility in the next 130 years up to 2100, namely, as I said, a situation where the average well-being of global society actually declined from a high value to a much lower value a generation or so later on, perhaps, then, leveling out and starting a new period of economic expanse.
In the Limits to Growth book, global collapse was essentially caused by the ecological footprint becoming larger than the carrying capacity of the globe. The ecological footprint being essentially the resource draw and pollution emissions of society, and the problem discussed in the Limits to Growth book was what might happen when the total ecological footprint of mankind started to get close to the carrying capacity of the planet, and if not slowed down at that point in time, exceeding temporarily the carrying capacity, and then being forced into a decline at the later point in time, like the drawing to your right.
The opposite of a future involving upshoot and decline would be the one to the left, the smooth landing ideal, namely that humanity would expand essentially out to sustainable levels, the carrying capacity of the earth, and then it would smoothly fit itself under that capacity, which is drawn in the figure, as increasing over time as a reflection of man's increasing technological capability to increase the capacity of the planet.
So this was the basic introduction of the concept of global collapse, and it probably died with the end of the year 1972. There hasn’t been much talk about this general idea in the thirty years that has passed since. Typically, human welfare would be following more or less the ecological footprint here, where the yellow line is the footprint and the green line is the carrying capacity of the system.
Defining (and imagining) Collapse
So what is collapse? It is not gradual stagnation, but all of a sudden an uncontrollable decline in human welfare, a decline in something we value. It runs its course once it has started. If you overextend the carrying capacity, if you put too much cattle on a piece of land, once they overgraze the whole thing will die out until you get down to a new sustainable level which hopefully turns into new expansion after a while, and can of course be avoided if you decide to do so ahead of time. It’s difficult while you’re falling, but if you decide to act wisely ahead of time, collapse can be avoided.
Two ExamplesLet me give you two complete examples of collapse from the Limits to Growth book, which is a book which contains thirteen scenarios from the time period from 1970 to the year 2100. And some of those are actually collapse scenarios and many others are optimistic futures, some of them even sustainable futures. So this is the model that was used to generate the scenarios, and here is a typical resource collapse scenario, where you see smooth development from the year 1900 to the left, following more or less the historical development until the year 1970, and you can follow the black line, looking at the population developments, where the population, in this scenario, roughly peaks in 2030, and then goes down to one-half the population at the end of the century.
If you look at the finer detail of the model, you will understand that what goes on in this scenario is that nonrenewable resources, read fossil fuels, get scarce, actually they do get expensive, so that society needs to allocate an increasing amount of its investment resources into getting hold of the oil and gas and coal, and in this run, so much of the investment resources and so much social attention is needed to get hold of the energy, that the rest of the system starts to falter.
There is actually a huge agricultural sector, for instance, in the beginning of the 21st century in this graph, which produces enough food for a fairly large population at that time. Once they can no longer get enough energy and industrial input for irrigation and for fertilizer, the whole system collapses, and that is what is going on here.
For the same run, look at how human welfare evolves over the same period. So the welfare index is the UNDP, the welfare index which is a mixture of income and education and longevity, and you see that the world fares well during the 1900s, and the average welfare peaks around 2020, and something like this, and then it goes into a steep decline which lasts at least until the year 2100 in this scenario.
You see the human ecological footprint, the total burden that humanity is putting on the planet is increasing also impressively up until 2030 and then it starts declining once humanity's burden actually is forced down. That’s one type of global collapse, and that’s resource scarcity-induced collapse, or a collapse caused by lack of resources, or actually by expensive resources, and not a physical miss.
Let me give you scenario number 2, which is a pollution crisis, as it is called in the language of the early 1970s, and you should probably read this as a climate crisis more or less. CO2 emissions and greenhouse gas emissions are the modern version of pollution. And here, again, this is a world where one has assumed that there is actually enough oil and gas and coal to avoid the resource crisis of the first scenario.
So here is one where human activity is allowed to expand way beyond what it was in the first scenario. You can follow the population curve, you can see it is more or less the same thing, it goes to a fairly high level in the middle of the century and then it declines. If you look into the finer detail of the model you will find out that what causes the decline here is not expensive resources. Here it is caused by the red line that passes through the roof here, which is essentially making the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere. You really run into problems here in the first half of the century caused by agricultural productivity declining because of pollution levels, and human longevity or mortality starting to increase because of the pollution effects.
Society is trying to compensate by investing quite heavily in antipollution types of equipment. They don’t succeed and the system collapses. So here is a second case of a collapse, and if you follow the welfare developments you can see that the green line stays higher for a decade or so longer than it did in the resource-constrained future, but it still had the general picture of falling during most of this century. The human ecological footprint is at a very much higher level in this case because there is very much more fossil fuels around to drive the system and enable the system to have many more people at a much higher economic level for a temporary period before the collapse occurs.
It is important that the Limits to Growth book focused on physical constraints. There aren't many other constraints in the world. Possibly collapses can be caused by different things, not necessarily resource constraints or pollution constraints, but ideological warfare could certainly help and epidemics could also trigger the same type of overt collapse. I will concentrate on resource or pollution-induced collapses. I will disregard collapses caused by other types of phenomena. And, the interesting thing about Limits to Growth in retrospect was that what the book actually said at the high level, and this was a long time ago that it was written, it basically said that the political agenda of the 21st century would be dominated by resource and pollution issues. That's what the book really said.
Then it went on to recommending action that would avoid these problems, and so the book is full of hopeful language and positive suggestions as to how you could then achieve this type of run which is scenario number 9 in the book, which was at the time called equilibrium, but which at this point in time you would typically call it sustainability, where essentially human activity and numbers arise to a certain level which can then be maintained more or less stably, or at least slightly increasing over a long period into the future. This is a sustainable society, and where the welfare index basically keeps high during this century, and the footprint is gradually reduced, the resource draw and the pollution levels are slightly declining due to technology and essentially due to behavior adaptation, so that you don't burden the earth so badly.
So I have now told you what collapse is. Next question. Has collapse occurred since we wrote the book? And the answer is, global collapse has not occurred, but smaller collapses do actually occur and I will mention a few to you, just so that you get the idea.
Real Collapse Scenarios
So this is the collapse of the Canadian cod fisheries, which is fairly well known among seafaring nations. So basically there was a lot of cod east of Canada. There were huge fisheries in 1990, all the way to your right [on the chart], and they had finally over fished the stock sufficiently badly that the fisheries were closed in 1990, in the hope that they would actually recover again. They have not recovered and so there was really a collapse of the livelihood of the fishermen of Newfoundland.
Easter Island Collapse
Another collapse which is famous is the Easter Island collapse, where the wonderful culture of Easter Island developed based on trees, and so they were gradually cutting down the trees, and God knows what the man was thinking that was cutting down the last tree on Easter Island, but someone did, and the society faltered. So the upward curve indicates the best estimate, it is a broad band of what the population of Easter Island actually looked like up to the peak around 1600 and the decline afterward.
1929 and 1990 Stock Market Crashes
And a final example of collapse here is something that I included in case some of you held stock during the last stock decline, because then at least you get the feeling for what collapse is. This is this sinking feeling when you open the newspaper every morning and your shares are worth less than they were yesterday, and you are irritated like hell that you didn’t sell off at an earlier point in time. So here are three market crashes, the one in 1929 with a dotted line, the one in 1990 in Japan with a solid line, and then there is the dot.com crash with the red line, and you see there is a couple of years where things are really looking gloomy.
Many of you might remember how it feels to be in the middle of this, where one has the feeling that this will never end, and your analysts are looking for some kind of reason why it should end, and no one can see any reason for this.
Why do I speak so much of the stock market collapse?
Namely to make the following point: that once you have overshot, so in the case of stock value, that once you have driven stock values up to an unsustainable level, sooner or later they have to come down. And so, collapse is a necessary consequence once you have overshot.
Then you might ask the question, “Has humanity overshot the carrying capacity of the globe?”
And one of the interesting things that has happened over the last thirty years is that a band of young scientists, headed by a man called M. Wackernagel had been trying desperately for a decade now to measure the ecological footprint of humanity and tried to compare it with the carrying capacity, and this is of course still highly contested, whether this is a smart way of doing it and whether it actually reflects reality or not. But the interesting summary of their work looks like this. So here you have from 1960 to the year 2003 the amount of acres or hectares or square kilometers that humanity needs at the bottom to produce its food with the next layer, the grazing land needed in order to produce the meat that comes from grazing land, and the forest area necessary in order to produce pulp and paper and the building materials.
Then the area of fishing grounds necessary in order to produce the ninety million tons of wild fish that we actually consume, ninety to one hundred million every year. Then there is a broad blue band which is called energy. This is the amount of forest you would have needed to absorb all the CO2 that is emitted from the fossil fuels that we burn. This is a forest that does not exist. But this is what one would have had to have had in order to make what we are currently doing sustainable, and then there is the amount of space that you would need for the nuclear energy, and there is the built land, the highways, etc.
An interesting thing, compared to the acreage available to us, humanity, according to Wackernagel's way of doing it, and I do accept that it is contested, the last time humanity was sustainable was around the mid 1980's. At that time, we had a population and an economic activity level, which could have in principle been sustained for a long period of time. And it looks as if we are currently roughly 30 per cent above the carrying capacity of the globe. And notice this is an underestimate. There is no acreage set aside here for wild animals, and there is no acreage set aside here for pollution absorption. Most things are actually missing in his account. So interesting work, but this is the research on this score for the time being. So you have to take it with some pinch of salt, I presume, as you say in English.
So I have asked the question, “Has global collapse occurred?” since we wrote the book, and obviously the answer is no, since we are here. But there are smaller collapses that one can point to, and one can be very worried about this graph. Because once you have overshot, there is no way out except a collapse, or if you are exceedingly optimistic, controlled decline, where someone takes the share values that we know are 100 per cent above the sustainable level, let's take them down in an orderly fashion, 10 per cent every month. This is probably as easy as it is to get out of a physical overshoot.
What is global collapse?
My totally arbitrary definition, because here of course you can just choose, and I choose something that involves more than a billion people that loses at least fifty per cent of what they value and within a 25-year period. Then it’s big enough in my mind to call it a global collapse. Everything else is simply collapse. This would be a global collapse.
So the question is, “Is there anything on the horizon that could trigger global collapse?” So we have seen the local collapses, and if I am looking, as I said, I have concentrated on the resource and pollution types of collapses, those arising from the fact that the planet is actually quite small. And there are two very obvious contenders out there.
First of all, the rapidly increasing demand for oil, which could reduce welfare by overwhelming the supply rate and lead to reduced energy availability. Some people, like myself, believe that the amount of oil that can be produced is finite. Many people actually believe this but some believe it more strongly than others and some of us even believe that the amount of oil that is left in the ground is roughly more or less the same as what we have produced over the last hundred years, so that there isn’t an infinite amount, it is actually quite limited. That means that sooner or later we will get into a situation where the demand for oil will actually exceed the production rate and this will then lead to reduced energy availability and some people would say that this could trigger a collapse through economic channels, possibly.
Emissions from This Oil
The second contender would be rapidly increasing emissions of climate gases which could reduce welfare by causing all the negative effects that climate change is likely to cause.
So I will discuss whether these two contenders actually are likely to produce a global collapse. I add, with ugly orange writing at the bottom, the fact that I am discussing this doesn’t mean that it has to happen, and both of those threats are very easily handled if one had intelligent global government. So let's just transcend this and stick to my manuscript, but it is important not to forget about this.
So I will also, in order to simplify your task with your spouse tonight, repeat what will break the suspense by giving the answer ahead of time. I do not think that rapidly increasing oil demand will trigger a global collapse, and I even doubt that it could.
On the other hand, I do think that rapidly increasing emissions of climate gases are capable of triggering a collapse, and I must admit that I am just on the verge of admitting that it will trigger a collapse, or that at least it could. So my answer is the first one cannot and the second one can. And I will give you the arguments.
So this is how the world, the future of oil production looks if you are belonging to the group of people that believe there is a finite amount of oil. So the future from 2010, somewhere in the middle here, to the right, could fall either at the gray curve or at the yellow curve or at the blue curve, but in general, declining rates of oil production, because of scarcity.
And the question now is “Would we be able to compensate for such a fall in the physical production of oil, measured in tons per year, or in million barrels per day, it says up here, with other energy sources?”
My belief is, yes, first of all, because there is a large amount of coal, for instance, in Australia, and gas, for instance, in my country of Norway. So there exists a large amount of fossil substitutes that can be liquefied and can be made into a replacement for oil. It is more expensive, but it is there. So this can be done.
Secondly, there are huge potentialities in increased energy efficiency in the world. If the price of oil and energy increases, you will see a tremendous reduction in the use of energy per economic output. We saw that when OPEC did increase the price of oil for us in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s, the world responded just as an economics professor would want it to respond, by actually doing all of the efficiency actions that are desirable.
And thirdly, and particularly in the long run, there are a host of huge renewable energy sources on the horizon. There is a lot of wind energy out there, and there is even more solar and heat and there is solar direct conversion. There are many things that can be done and will be done once energy prices do rise high enough.
So my summary is the following: that sooner or later if this transpires, namely the decline in oil consumption, oil availability and oil consumption, prices will gradually increase and gradually they will fund a transition into alternatives and I think this will happen in a manner where the total energy available every year will not decline and so we will not have collapse, not even in the oil consumption. It will be a flat portion before it rises.
And for those of you who are quantitatively inclined, I have included this slide. For the rest of you, you don't have to worry. The red line at the bottom is my expectation, more or less, of how the oil consumption could fare over the next fifty years. Then I have assumed that we will manage to expand all substitutes for oil by ten percent a year, starting from a one percent contribution at this point in time. I’ve just added a two to see if we do get that decline in the blue curve, which is the sum of the oil and renewables. And you see, if you assume ten percent growth a year in the renewables, that is sufficient to avoid a decline in the total energy available. Most likely, the alternatives are going to grow much faster than ten percent a year if oil really gets scarce and energy prices go very high.
So I take this as the one element in my conclusion that I do not think that oil scarcity is actually going to trigger global collapse. The only thing it will do is to postpone by a decade or two welfare improvements. A number of people who would deserve a lot of energy in 2010 or 2020, will not get it until ten to fifteen years later, so clearly this is not a problem-free future, but it is not a future of collapse, it is a future of postponed gratification.
That moves me to the second contender for triggering global collapse. As the background here, you should look at this graph, which you all know, which is the human emissions of CO2, which is one of the greenhouse gases, and perhaps the most important one. There are two sources: the burning of fossil fuels, and the land change, as it is neutrally called by the IPCC and the mafia that are interested in climate things. Here you call it land clearing, I understand, which Australians are very good at doing. So you are basically removing the brush, which means that the CO2, which is sitting in the brush actually then moves into the atmosphere instead. And, as you can see, it is actually quite a significant amount of the CO2 that comes from that type of activity. It is not only the fossil fuel utilities that add CO2 to the atmosphere.
Humanity needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 80 percent. The sustainable level is down where the dotted line is. One does not agree totally on exactly where it is, but it is more or less down in that ball game. Those of you who are familiar with the Kyoto agreement know that the ambitious goal of Kyoto is to cut by five percent compared to 1990 levels. That is not going to take us much closer to a sustainable situation. We need really to follow up with Kyoto 2, 3, 4, and 5 in order to get to sustainable levels.
There is luckily agreement now on the need to do this, so the scientific tipping point, I presume, took place, roughly two to three years ago. Since then, no real credible scientist can argue that climate is independent of human activity. It is human activity that is driving what we are seeing. I assume that the economic tipping point is essentially now. What is the economic tipping point? It is the point in time when humanity accepts the fact that action on climate is feasible and not expensive. The Stern report, for those of you who know about this, was probably the third element that actually made the point that you can solve this problem at the cost of less than a percent of the GDP, which is a pittance. This means that you will be 99 percent as rich as you would otherwise have been, and most of you will not notice that one percent difference.
But the question is, “Will we decide to do this?"
It’s easy, it’s doable to cut, but will we decide to do so? And I will argue that we will, but we will much too late and much too little, and then we run the risk of creating a global collapse.
And the thinking goes as follows. In order to enact strong climate action, politicians need the support of the voters, at least in democracies. And most of the countries involved in causing this problem are democracies, like yours.
Are You Afraid?
People will only, it appears, vote in favor of strong action on climate once they are scared by climate change. And I come from a country where people love climate change. In Norway, the early signs of climate change are finally, the summers are warm enough that we can swim. And finally, the winters are warm enough that we don’t have to spend all of our time shoveling snow. And finally, from the point of view of the hydropower Mafia of the country that produces all of the electricity we use, the increased downpour occurs exactly where the reservoirs are, so we have gotten over the last ten years, roughly one nuclear reactor’s worth extra of hydropower, simply because of the increased downpour, which follows from the climate change.
So Norway is a country where the elite is concerned about climate change, and people are not at all concerned about climate change.
In your country, the elite has not been particularly interested in climate change, from my view, and when I come here I start understanding that the people are starting to get concerned about climate change because they see the drought.
And so, totally different positions, and I think this is important because I think that you will not get voter support for strong action on the climate, except in those cases where the voters actually see the damage on the ground, then they will be whining.
Then, you can ask the question “Who are those populations that will cry wolf first?”
And we know, these are the populations of the lower-lying islands in the Pacific, and some of the delta dwellers in Bangladesh. Then it is the people of the Arctic, where climate change is already three times what it is on the average, and the global average is up .7 degrees Centigrade. Up north it is many more times than this. Oslo is up 2 degrees Centigrade already. The last four months the journalists call me for comments every evening, because the numbers are in for November. We are now up 5 degrees Centigrade over the last four months, which in a country whose average temperature at this point in time should be 0, it’s plus 5, that’s a huge difference. I know Norwegians are very happy about this because of course there is no snow, and life is good.
Then there are populations of drought-ridden countries like yours, who start being worried, because it hasn’t rained in many years. This causes someone to start thinking. And then of course there are cross-country skiers like myself, who are really desperate about the fact that there is no place where you have the really good cold minus 20 degree snow, which is perfect for my sport.
The problem with all these groups that see the phenomenon is that typically they are not very big, they are not particularly central, and they are not very powerful. So these guys are convinced that it really doesn’t shift the whole system. And there is a systematic problem here, because most of the population at this point in time does not live in close contact with nature.
Like Australians and Norwegians, most of them live in huge cities in the developing and the developed world, where they are well-insulated from what goes on in nature, and they don’t perceive the early small signals that any birdwatcher or any cross-country skier sees very quickly. It takes a long time until this reaches the cafes of Paris. When you sit under the Arc de Triomphe, drinking your absinthe, at least if you are listening to all this, you are not particularly aware of whether the birds are laying their eggs three weeks early or later. This is left for the farmers in the countryside.
So the problem is that I don’t think the voter is going to be scared by climate change until it is very late.
Then there is also one other argument about why it will take time before we get strong action. Any strong action will tend to hurt one group badly in the short term, although it benefits the majority in the long term. So, for instance, when you try to put a tax on cars that emit a lot of CO2, because you think it would be useful to squeeze consumers to buy other types of cars, of course those companies that produce the cars that emit a lot of CO2 find this highly unjust, and the workers in those factories are also highly against such a special tax, and they organize and they are eloquent and they have a lot of money to support the view, and the government is of course sensitive to labor rights and jobs. So you have the horrible situation that very small special-interest groups exist for any type of strong climate action, and they are probably able to hold up things for an unnecessary five more years.
Then you can ask the question, “Does it matter?”
Because in the long term, the climate change will become so dramatic that people will be convinced, and the special-interest groups will be fought and conquered. And the fact is that yes, in the case of climate change, and that’s the basis for my worry, in the case of climate change, delay does matter. Because when you put CO2 in the atmosphere, it stays there for 100 years. That order of magnitude, it doesn’t come out again. So in a way, for every five years you work the concentration in the atmosphere for the next 100 years will be higher.
The second problem is even more serious. …This is Yakutsk. So you see Siberia, and of course one of the interesting places in Siberia is the Sakha Republic, which is roughly where the point points, and where the arrow points, and I will show you some pictures while I am talking from this part of the world when I get to the proper place. But you have heard about the melting tundra, I presume, and so I will show you some pictures that you can look at when you don’t want to listen.
So this is what melting tundra looks like. So one of the side effects of global warming is that the northern parts of Siberia which is normally frozen most of the year, thaws and becomes worse. And so this is the main road to Yakutsk. This is the only way to get things overland into that place. This is great, a couple of weeks on that road to get in is enough to test most people’s patience. This is what I wanted to get to, the boring thing of self-reinforcing effects of climate gas emissions.
So the second reason why it is dangerous to have delay in strong action on climate is that the world, sadly, includes what are called self-reinforcing mechanisms, that, once triggered, start driving up the temperature, basically, of the ecosystem and the atmosphere, and there is nothing you can do to stop it once it starts.
Let me give you three of those mechanisms. Because, I presume, your awareness of those three things would be the most important intellectual input here because this is what you should really worry about.
First of all, there is the feedback of increased absorption of solar heat in an ice-free Arctic Ocean. In the past, the Arctic was white, it was ice, sun rays come in and get reflected from the ice and go back into space. As the planet heats, the ice melts, the dark surface of the ocean absorbs the solar heat, which makes the ocean even warmer and which makes the ice even less, which makes it even warmer, etc. So here is a positive loop which keeps increasing the temperature until all the ice is gone. And once this thing is starting, there is very little you can do to stop it, because there is no way in which we can cool the whole atmosphere.
The second totally similar thing is the increased emission of methane gas from the tundra. The tundra is organic material that has rotting material that is there that has been in a freezer for the last, in that case I presume several hundred thousand years or possibly more like a million. Once it starts to thaw, the methane comes up. Methane is a greenhouse gas 21 times as strong as CO2. Once it gets into the atmosphere it gets warmer, so more of the tundra melts and more of the greenhouse gas comes up. So this is the second self-reinforcing mechanism, that once triggered, will drive the system way out of its past equilibrium.
The final thing is the reduced absorption of CO2 in acidic seawater. The increased acidity of the ocean water you know damages your coral reefs, but it also causes reduced absorption of further CO2 in the ocean, and this is one of these other self-reinforcing mechanisms.
Those three mechanisms, and there are perhaps four others that man hasn’t as of yet identified, are scary things. In the sense that, once you start moving, there is nothing you can do. And when you have heard about the number 2 degrees Centigrade as the EU-agreed maximum level of climate change temperature increase that we can tolerate, the background is this. One hopes that if you stay below +2 degrees Centigrade, you will not trigger any of these mechanisms. I think that is shoddy thinking. These mechanisms are there, and so they are at work even at much lower temperature increases, and of course I know that 2 degrees Centigrade is a political compromise.
I was number 2 in WWF International for six years, the world’s largest conservation organization, and I have been in on the negotiations on how to agree on the number. We wanted the number to be much below 2 degrees Centigrade. Other forces want the number to be much higher than 2 degrees Centigrade. This is a political compromise. So, please worry about those three mechanisms.
To complete the logic, I think the second trigger is capable of causing a lot of difficulty. I am not going to spend time on calculating how much difficulty, but I am quite certain that this will bother more than a billion people, and I am also quite sure that this is going to remove one-half of something they hold dear. I have already lost one-half of my winters in Oslo for cross-country skiing purposes. It has moved from being four months to two months. This has happened since 1986. I am very irritated by that. And others will be losing their things. Some of the people we saw in the pictures will be spending most of their lives on mud roads in the Arctic, instead of driving on frozen elegant hard surfaces.
Then comes the very interesting next question. So God forbid, but assume that climate collapse actually did occur sometime during this century. If we then put ourselves into the year 2100 and look back, would we then describe this as a climate collapse, or as global collapse? How will it be seen, how will the cards fall, and how will the historians describe the thing after the fact? Would the history book of the year 2100 say the 21st century was the century of climate collapse, where we experience global collapse caused by climate change?
My answer to this is probably not. This is probably going to remain invisible in the history books and I will try to explain to you why. I think that the root cause, which was the climate change, will probably be hidden behind a maze of local conflict, bad management decisions, technologies that failed, and a number of other things that people will focus on other than looking at the root cause.
And the best example I can think of this is the ongoing civil war in Iraq. Will the historians say that the civil war in Iraq was a consequence of scarce oil? Some will say yes, others will say this had nothing to do with scarce oil, this was American imperialism. Others again will say this has nothing to do with American imperialism; it had to do with the fact that Saddam Hussein kept together a nation that cannot and could not be kept together.
And so, exactly the same thing I am afraid will happen once we have experienced climate collapse. It too, will be described by the historians as something else. Which is of course irritating for people like myself who have made it a profession to be a doomsayer, which I am not, because I will not be allowed to say, "What did I say?" in 2100, because even if it happened, it probably will not be described as such.
And let me give you a number of interesting small stories here on how one might describe the 21st century. I will try one, and then we should probably give up, because of time. I thought this one is fairly good. This is one possible history written about the 21st century in 2100, where it basically says that looking back, one saw that in the beginning of the 21st century, most of the agricultural capacity, the excess agricultural capacity in Australia, the EU, and the United States, was quickly absorbed in production of biofuels. The bioethanols and the biodiesels for the world need agricultural land, and so quickly it was transferred there.
Economic growth in China from this led to the fact that the Chinese actually needed much more grain than they could produce on their own territory, so they started buying the remaining wheat in the market, so to speak, so they could have some hamburgers, or feed their feedstock. Then food prices in the world increased dramatically, for understandable reasons, and this led to malnutrition in South Africa, and in Africa south of the Sahara, because the poor people couldn't pay the high prices for food. Would this be described in the history books as global collapse due to climate change? I think not, whereas in my book this would be caused by climate change, because the interest in bioethanals and biofuels is of course because you would like CO2-free fuels for your cars.
I have another one. The drying up of the rivers in China, because of the melting glaciers in the Himalayas, made it very tempting for the Chinese to get some irrigation water from the vast empty expanses of east Russian, the Russian Far East, and so they basically went in and took some of the water as there were not too many people there. Russia did not really like this, and joined forces with the U.S., who decided they would side with Russia in the fight with China, to get the Chinese out in exchange for some gas from Russia, so they could run. So here we have another story that could easily lead to a global collapse. And you could ask the question, would this be described as climate collapse? I don’t know, I don’t think so.
So the point is, even if climate causes huge problems for humanity over the next 100 years, it is not certain that when we look back, it will be described as such. So global collapse could remain fiction even if it proved to be fact. This is where I had planned to stop the lecture because I think this is a great quote.
But I concluded that I should add, in order to avoid the impression of being a doomsayer, by asking the question rhetorically, “What should be done?” What should we do about this? It is of course, interesting academically that, most likely, posterity is going to look at what happened and say that it didn’t happen, or at least describe it in a different way.
So what should be done?
What should be done is of course to avoid climate change triggering global collapse. And the interesting thing about this is, that this is highly doable, it's important, and it's not terribly expensive. So it's just a question of leadership, both within nations, and at the global scene. If we decided to do it, we can very easily avoid climate-induced global collapse.
And I still think that this is the end sentence. Global collapse could remain fiction, even it if proved to be fact. Let’s avoid it becoming fact, by providing sufficient leadership to avoid triggering the big problem. Thank you very much.
Announcer: Thank you very much for delivering a fascinating combination of fiction, fact, doomsaying, and I not sure entirely what. I think that you allowed about ten minutes for questions? If anyone has questions, please ask, and because this is a very large room, please make your questions very clear.
Question: It seems certain that those positive feedback loops that you mentioned have already started. If they get going, can they be stopped? It seems like that might not be possible. The consequences might be really horrendous, and people like Lovelock think there really isn’t much that can be done to avert a pestilence that might leave only perhaps four to maybe five hundred million people. I think that most people would call that a global collapse. How do you respond to the sort of extreme view that James Lovelock takes?
JR: By doing what I tried to do at the end where I lost the thread, and consequently wasn't as good as it should be, basically by saying that even if this is true, there's only one way ahead, and that's to work very very hard to get down the climate change emissions, and then just hope that this isn't true. …Because it really doesn’t help to increase or continue the greenhouse gas emissions, and since the costs of cutting back steeply are not that high, I would continue doing so. So I think giving up is not meaningful.
Question: You said that you were number 2 at one point at the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature)…
JR: …in Geneva.
Question: and I guess that you would be close to the heart of European finance, and I am not sure whether you are a professor of science or economics…
Question: …then I presume that you would have some insight into the nature of Genevan finances and things like that. Some people in the Anglo-Saxon world who do accept the science of climate change suspect that it might be a Gaullist financial plot to strain the Anglo-Saxon world back onto the gold standard and resume the Bretton Woods institutions. Now for some people in the financial world that is unacceptable, though it is not something that is ever mentioned in the public debate. Would you say that….and whether WWF is an arm of a Gaullist financial front?
JR: So the question is, is this a plot? And the answer is no.
Announcer: There is a forest of arms, and I am going to have to discriminate somehow.
Question: You said that it was a matter of leadership, and you mentioned the need for a global government. Where practically, do you see the leadership coming from?
JR: We have one contender, who is Al Gore, which shows that something can be done at the supranational level outside the global institutions that exist. I assume a special-purpose type of operation in order to build humanity's response to the climate challenge would be appropriate. We have the roots of this in the IPCC scientific body (International Panel on Climate Change) who are those several thousand scientists who would like to participate in forming the consensus view on what is good science and what should be done and what should not be done. All it needs is a little bit of superstructure on this, and also the nations abiding by this superstructure, and then you would be going. Of course, the realism of this… But once people get scared enough I presume it will be possible to do things that you couldn’t do before.
Question: I noticed that you talked about historians looking back. That contains a fairly obvious assumption, namely that there are historians looking back. In the area that I am used to dealing with, which is nuclear weapons, and the famous quote from that which is, “I’m not making history, I’m making history possible.” I assume, therefore, that even your worst climate change scenario still involve their being historians looking back, unlike some of the nuclear weapon scenarios which really do not allow for human survival at all.
JR: The answer to this one is yes, because, and you will see the extent of the problem in the IPCC assessment report which will appear next spring, I mean within the next half year, for the first time in five or six years, they are now coming out with a new consensus view on what will actually happen under various scenarios over the next century. You will see that the effect of these positive feedback loops is that instead of saying that the likely temperature rise by the end of the 21st century is between 1.5 and 6 degrees Centigrade, they will say that it is between 1.5 degrees and 12, (the upper limit has now been lifted or I don’t know, it hasn't been agreed yet or whether they will say they cannot say any more what is the upper limit), but clearly one is starting to see in all the simulation models that you can trigger these things and that might lift the temperature.
But even at 12 degrees, Spitzbergen, which is at 80 degrees north, which is the island group that Norway administrates at that level, last January they had an average temperature which was actually 12 degrees Centigrade above the normal. So things happen, and we will probably survive, probably not being as luxurious as my life is currently, but we are not all dead. So there will be historians.
Question: I’d like to take and draw an analogy to carbon trading. Let's suppose that the attitude of all the Chinese is a bit like the Norwegians, as you describe them, they really love climate change, and perhaps the Fiji Islanders don't like it because they are drowning. Then perhaps the Chinese should just pay all the Fiji Islanders to move to China, and in that respect, everybody would be happy.
JR: So the question is, whether the Chinese should actually absorb all the low-lying areas’ populations in some way or other. I think I would suggest to the rich world's populations that they should pay for carbon capture and storage on all the coal-fired power plants in our part of the world first and then retrofit all the Chinese afterward. That's if you want to propose grandiose plans for something I think mine is better than yours.
Question: Are carbon offsets like planting trees a good short-term or medium-term solution?
JR: Planting trees, (as long as it is a project according to the gold standards of the WWF), is an OK activity. It’s much too mild, it’s much too little in the big picture. In the big picture in my book the only thing that really matters, and I am pushing as hard as I can, is carbon capture and storage. It’s technologically simple, the only thing it does is increase the cost of power by something between 30 and 50 percent, which actually doesn’t matter an iota at our income levels. It has distributional problems, but this is the way to do it, and there you can get some real volume into absorption and capacity.
Question: How can the market or economic forces lead us forward to help solve this problem?
JR: Good question, and the answer is luckily very simple in principle. It is even in practice, if there was voter support for it, one could do it. In principle, the answer is that we should just increase the prices of energy, and particularly of carbon emissions, so that they incorporate the damage done when you use the energy. So full-cost pricing, incorporating all the externalities, is what it takes. Then you ask the question, “How can we do that?" Very clearly, an all-encompassing carbon tax, at 40 euros or 50 of your dollars I presume, per ton of CO2, introduced on everything. Whenever you emit a ton of CO2 you have to pay 50 Australian dollars somewhere, would do the whole trick. Because at that level, it’s cheaper to build a carbon capture and storage plant and just suck the CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it underground. Clearly, another way of going about this is to put taxes on electricity and taxes on fuel, and just put a credible increase over time on these two prices and then have people adjust to the new reality, and technology is then developed to minimize the impact of this. Then, in principle you see, in practice doable, if you have the voter support. But of course you do not have the voter support, so you can't do it.
Announcer: In deference to Professor Randers, whose own temperature I suspect is rising at the moment; we are just going to take another couple of questions.
Question: How can research and development contribute to solving these problems?
JR: Knowledge is good. Research and development can solve most of the problems that are here. I was the chair of a commission that was appointed by the Norwegian authorities eighteen months ago to look at how Norway could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. We handed in our report one month ago. We tell the Norwegian Cabinet that this can be done easily with existing technology and at a cost which is .1 percent of the GDP. So even without further knowledge and without further R&D you can solve the climate problem. So with further knowledge and with further R&D you can solve it very easily.
Question: I have a burning question about that very subject, about these emissions. What has the Norwegian government done with that proposal?
JR: So this is one part of the Norwegian elite asking another part of the Norwegian elite to advise on what should be done, and then of course you have to convince the voter that this is a good idea. I’ve replied to you already that that is going to be a hard sell, so one of the recommendations of the elite to the elite is that we ought to establish a huge public education campaign in the country in order to see if we could make the voter be more serious about climate change. I think that what will happen is that we will move, but much slower than our neighbor, Sweden, who has agreed that they want to make their country independent of carbon fossil imports by 2020, and they are moving fast, because they start seeing that relying on Russian gas and oil from Saudi Arabia is fairly dangerous living, and since they have a lot of forests they can make the bioethanol and they can heat their homes with wood, etc., etc., and so you will have an easier time there.
The easiest time, and this is a good end to all this, is the one that our dear friend Governor Schwarzenegger of California has had over the last half year or so. You may know that Mr. Schwarzenegger has actually appointed his Commission to reduce greenhouse gases from California by two-thirds by 2050 or he appointed it last July or eighteen months ago. The Commission reported last summer, and Schwarzenegger has already managed to get a bipartisan agreement between the Democrats and the Republicans in California for a program that will cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, and this is 39 million out of the 300 million inhabitants of the U.S. So the U.S. is not only Bush and a negative attitude to climate, it is also Schwarzenegger with solid support from the people.
And then comes the question, again for your spouse when he or she asks, “What did he say?” Why do you think this is possible in California? So clearly the voter must be scared. Why is the voter in California scared? Because the three early effects of climate change in California are what? Fires are one, so they have wonderful forest fires burning the film stars' homes, so you can see it on the telly, and it is very nice, it works nice. Second? Drought, so it is basically glaciers melting so the rivers run dry at the end of the summer, which bothers the farmers, and it bothers other people. And the third one? The third one is that it is already a degree or so warmer in the summer, which of course draws up the air conditioning bill and leads to the brownouts that we have heard about. So Schwarzenegger is luckily the king in a country where the voter is scared and finally it is possible to do things. So let’s hope that many get scared over the decades that come.