It is too early to throw in the towel and wait for the end of the world.
Klassekampen, 8 Mar 2019
"Are you a climate optimist or a climate pessimist?", I was asked, just after I had given a lecture of an hour about the threat of climate change on the polar region. Without hesitation, I replied that I was an optimist, to which the audience responded with amazement. Perhaps this also applies to you, if you read this column more often, since I regularly report on the dire state of our climate. Considering this, how can I still be an optimist?
Granted, it's hard to stay optimistic. Last year there was the extremely dry summer in Europe, this winter there’s no sea ice between Alaska and Siberia, and last week, at the end of February: temperatures around twenty degrees in Western Europe. These are extremes that are already occurring – let alone what will await us in a few decades' time if we continue to pollute the atmosphere with CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
The problem is so vast and hard to grasp that it leads to a feeling of powerlessness, or even depression. While some people thought that it was fantastic that last week's weather in Southern Norway was so warm that you could sit outside on a terrace, for others this only leads to an intense sadness that this isn’t not normal. In this case, nice weather can quickly becomes depressing. I was also a bit uncomfortable, sitting in the sun while the snow was melting around me. I am an optimist against my better knowledge, because the alternative – to give up – is unthinkable for me.
Too much pessimism can turn into a suffocating fear
Too much pessimism can turn into a suffocating fear. In the United Kingdom, a group of women recently united under the slogan "BirthStrike". For them, the climate problem, and the global collapse of ecosystems, is so frightening that they have decided not to have children. A fear that was not reflected in the British House of Commons, where last week fewer than 1 out of 10 MPs showed up for the first debate on climate change in two years. If the climate problem is not set higher on the agenda, there will be no livable planet left in not too long, according to BirthStrike – and therefore it is useless to have children. That’s a decision I can respect, but I think it's too early to throw in the towel and assume that the world will go under.
We must not forget that we are in control of our own future. Suppose, for example, that a large amount of methane is released from the permafrost in the polar region, something that I am researching myself. Such a thing could worsen climate change, and will make it very difficult to achieve the Paris objectives. But in a recent article in Scientific Reports, my colleagues and I showed that emissions from human activities are much worse – and that we can reduce them sufficiently, with technologies that already exist, to compensate for even the worst methane emissions from the polar region. But only if there is a strong global climate policy to get it done.
The good news is that effective climate policy already exists in a good number of countries. Last week, a study was published in Nature Climate Change that investigated why emissions in 18 countries (in Europe but also the US) reached a peak in 2005 and steadily decreased since. These were real reductions that were not moved abroad or the result of the financial crisis. CO2 emissions decreased due to investments in renewable energy, lower energy consumption, and a strong climate policy. These countries, from Croatia to Sweden, have shown that climate policy does not have to come at the expense of economic growth, which is a reason to be optimistic that other countries will follow their example.
But optimism can also go too far – especially if there is no reason for it. Norway sees the future as very bright, even though emissions have barely fallen since 1990. If we can believe the government, we still have plenty of time. Oil and gas will remain an important part of the energy mix for decades to come, they argue, and all the extra CO2 emissions are no problem. Technological developments should go fast enough so we can, at a given moment, simply capture the excess CO2 from the air and store it underground. No reason to panic.
This optimism about future miracle solutions is, unfortunately, abused as an argument in the search for more oil, and the government's continued approval of oil exploration shows that it does not take genuine climate pessimism among the population seriously. The government would do well to show some more panic about the fate of our planet, and to follow the good example of the rest of Europe. Only this will lead to real optimism, based on the knowledge that we can solve the problem – and not just on hope.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 8 Mar 2019