Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Opinion | Let’s not ruin the planet with an intergenerational ponzi scheme

The first step towards tackling climate change is to accept the science and create conditions for innovative solutions

In the last few weeks, these pages have witnessed columns by Sandipan Deb and Bibek Bhattacharya that have focused to some extent on the Greta Thunberg phenomenon and on her mental health. Thunberg herself has taken attacks on her as compliments, so my column will stick to correcting misrepresentations of the science and also offer readers a taste of the history of climate science and its politics.

It is not commonly known that the physics explaining global warming is 200 years old. Joseph Fourier had understood by 1820 that gases in the atmosphere might trap heat received from the sun. In 1859, John Tyndall suggested that water vapour, CO2 and other radiatively active ingredients of the atmosphere could produce “all of the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal". Svante Arrhenius published a climate model in 1896 demonstrating the sensitivity of surface temperature to atmospheric CO2 levels and, by the 1930s, Guy Callendar had concluded that fossil-fuel burning was increasing atmospheric CO2. Measurements since then have confirmed that CO2 levels have continued to rise and that many parts of the climate system have changed—for example, melting glaciers and more extreme weather. These changes are consistent with well-accepted physics. Every Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report since its establishment in 1988 has shown stronger evidence of climate changes caused by human activity.

But how might climate evolve in the future? The projections of future climate are based on scenarios of socio-economic changes. These tell us how much CO2 we might emit in the future, which are then fed into computer climate models to estimate our future climate. As populations rise and economies continue to grow, CO2 emissions will rise unless steps are taken to reduce them. The models tell us that temperatures will rise as a consequence and the climate will change.

Are these computer models perfect? Certainly not. But there is useful information we learn from them and that is what gets used. This is not unlike a weighing machine being a little off, but you would still know if you are gaining or losing weight. Any rigorous scientific study would list these caveats or risk being considered scientifically dishonest. The existence of uncertainties doesn’t mean models should be discarded. Also, uncertainty can work both ways. We could be underestimating future changes, as it appears to be with the current rate of melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Much of what to expect from climate change has been known for well over 40 years, dating back at least to the Jule Charney report in 1979 (back when Greta Thunberg’s parents were not yet teenagers). In fact, ExxonMobil scientists knew this in 1977, but it seems they chose to cover it up and mislead the public. That small island nations could be wiped off because of sea-level rise was predicted by scientists at Shell Corporation in 1988, a year before the United Nations official Deb quotes. Yet, these oil companies appear to have chosen to fund disinformation campaigns and prevent governments from enacting clean-energy policies. Why should anyone believe that human innovation has been fostered by these purveyors of disinformation and that protesting teenagers are stifling it?

Deb uses classic oil industry tactics of sowing uncertainty and doubt in the reader’s mind. First tell people that the solutions are so drastic that they could send us back to the Stone Age. Or that leftists are calling for this or that position, and make readers afraid. Then, cherry-pick statements on scientific uncertainty and take sentences from papers out of context to contend that “no one bothers to check that IPCC is wrong all the time". The IPCC has been wrong once—when it said that the Himalayan glaciers will melt away by 2035. The reasons for that lapse were tracked down, and the process by which reports are written, reviewed and produced was changed. The IPCC reports are agreed to “line by line" by all the governments before approval. The IPCC should be told what other mistakes it has made that Deb is privy to. By sowing these doubts in the mind of the reader, the aim, it seems, is to prevent people from calling for action on climate change. This job is completed by shooting the messenger (“Al Gore bought a beachfront house" or a Pol Pot comparison).

The first step in tackling climate change is to accept the science and create conditions for innovative solutions to be found. By pushing the myth that we can continue to act as usual and innovations will magically happen in the future to bail us out, a great disservice is being done, especially to today’s children. They are being burdened with the responsibility of not only dealing with the changing climate, but also innovating and fixing it. Meanwhile, the generation that Deb and I belong to vents at them and continues to emit. We are taking a loan and expecting our children to pay it off. That is an intergenerational Ponzi scheme. Surely, we can do better than that.

Krishna AchutaRao is associate professor, Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

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