Has humanity reached an irreversible stage with regard to climate change?
If not, can we halt the phenomenon of global warming from fulfilling a catastrophic scenario which will cause inestimable damage to the global economy, destroy entire cities and island states, cause mass human migration waves that will disrupt irreversibly the fabric of Western civilization and even threaten with extinction the human species?
World renowned economist Graciela Chichilnisky, author of the Carbon Market of the Kyoto Protocol and creator of the formal theory of Sustainable Development, thinks there is a way out of the climate change conundrum but it requires adopting both a long-run and a short-run strategy as well as changing our overall attitudes towards the Earth’s resources and producing new economic values.
In the exclusive interview that follows for Global Policy Journal, Professor Chichilnisky shared her views about how to reverse climate change, which is the subject of her latest and forthcoming book.
She is also the author, among many other books and scores of academic articles, of Saving Kyoto: An Insider’s Guide to the Kyoto Protocol.
Marcus Rolle: Professor Chichilnisky, your latest and soon to appear book titled Reversing Climate Change: Carbon Negative Technologies and the Carbon Market (World Scientific, 2016) deals with new technologies and the carbon market.
First, I’d like to start by asking you a basic question: namely, how much of climate change is caused by human activity and how exactly our economic activities are impacting planet Earth?
Graciela Chichilnisky: We need to understand and come to terms with the fact that, for the first time in history, humans are dominating completely planet Earth.
We are changing the basic metabolism of the planet: the composition of gases in the atmosphere, its bodies of water, and the complex web of species that makes life on Earth.
The result of this is disruptions in climate and global warming.
Both the North and the South Poles are melting.
Water expands when it is heated. Since the seas are warming, sea level is rising all over the world.
This irrevocable upward trend is well documented: slowly but surely the rising waters will sink most island states. There are 43 island states in the United Nations representing about 23% of the global vote and most or all could disappear soon under the warming seas.
In addition, the current shift in climate patterns threatens many species.
It has allowed for the spread of insects that are migrating to areas they did not previously inhabit, bringing with them a variety of vector- borne illnesses. For example, new outbreaks of malaria in Africa are on the rise.
Humans are also shifting ground. The UN reports that 21 million people are reportedly migrating due to drought and other climate change induced conditions, and the numbers are increasing rapidly.
The 2014 migration of one million people into the EU is causing considerable political stress leading to anti-immigration candidates in German, UK, and US elections, and Brexit, and some anticipate that it could damage the fabric of Western democracy.
In the U.S., the consequences are less extreme but still evident: the mighty Colorado River is drying up, prompting orders to turn off farm water in several states. Lake Mead’s waters in Nevada are exhibiting record lows, threatening the main supply of water to Las Vegas. Wild fires from drought conditions have multiplied and have spread rapidly around the region and in California since 2006.
MR: While what you have described seem to be irrevocable facts, has the connection between climate change and fossil energy entered fully the world’s consciousness?
GC: The world is clearly aware of the connection that scientists postulate between climate change and the use of fossil energy.
The largest segment of carbon emissions, about 45% of the global emissions of CO2, originate in the world’s power plant infrastructure, 87% of which are fossil fuel plants that produce the overwhelming majority of the world’s electricity.
This power plant infrastructure represents a value worth $45-55 trillion according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which is about the scope of the world’s economic output. Moreover, new forms of clean energy are emerging, such as wind farms in Scotland and solar farms in Spain and the US, in an attempt to forestall carbon emissions.
But the process is necessarily slow since the world’s fossil power plant infrastructure is comparable in monetary value to the world’s entire GDP, and changing this infrastructure can take decades. Transforming the power plant infrastructure is too slow to avert the potential catastrophes that are anticipated in the next 10-20 years.
MR: Before I ask you about a solution to the climate change threat, aren’t there other environmental crises facing us today?
GC: Climate change is indeed just one of several global environmental areas that are in crisis today.
Biodiversity is another; industrialization and climate warming threaten the world’s ecosystems.
Endangered species include sea-mammals, birds such as cockatoos, polar bears, and marine life such as coral, saw-fish, whales, sharks, dogfish, sea turtles, skates, grouper, seals, rays, bass, elephants, and even primates, our cousins in evolution.
Scientists know that we are in the midst of the sixth largest extinction of biodiversity in the history of our planet, and that the scope of extinction is so large that 75% of all known species are at risk today.
The UN Millennium Report documents rates of extinction at 1,000 times higher than fossil records.
The current extinction event is the largest following the dinosaurs’ extinction that took place 60 to 65 million years ago. But today’s extinction event is unique in that it is caused by human activity.
And it puts our own species at risk.
There is a warning signal worth bringing up: all major recorded planetary extinctions were related to changes in climate conditions.
Through industrialization we have created environmental conditions that could threaten our own species’ survival. 99.9% of all species that ever existed are now extinct.
Are we next? Will humans survive?
These are the critical questions facing is and the issue is none other than how to avoid extinction.
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