While the search for oil continues, we are reaching a new climate normal.
Klassekampen, 31 August 2018
Forest fires that ravaged along the entire west coast of the US. The thickest and oldest arctic sea ice that broke up. Night temperatures in Oman that didn't drop below 41 degrees Celsius. Record after record was broken this summer, and Norway wasn't spared: the unprecedented drought led to dozens of forest fires and a disastrous year for Norwegian farmers.
Did climate change cause this heatwave, or not? Actually, that's the wrong question, said British climate scientist Ed Hawkins recently in an interview with ITV. The right question is not whether, but how climate change affected this event.
The long duration of the warm and sunny summer weather was caused by a high-pressure area that was stuck above Scandinavia. This is called a block by meteorologists and isn't that uncommon but, due to global warming, temperatures can rise higher than during previous comparable weather situations. Moreover, there are indications that the warming of the polar region has changed wind currents in such a way that a block can occur more often. It is therefore plausible that climate change made the heatwave both warmer and longer.
Maybe this summer was just a taste of things to come. A recent article in the American scientific journal PNAS described how we are approaching a "Hothouse Earth". The melting of arctic sea ice, the clearing of the Amazon rainforest and the widespread thaw of permafrost are examples of processes that warm up the climate even further. Together, these processes can cause a global and irreversible threshold to be exceeded, whereby climate is pushed to an extremely hot state, even if we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.
Although the article itself did not contain any new research, it pointed out the elephant in the room, that we do not know exactly at what atmospheric CO2 level we will exceed a dangerous threshold. With every increase in CO2, we gamble that the climate can handle even more, and that we do not initiate irreversible processes.
The article also caused a lot of unrest in the media. Many people wondered: is it already too late to save the climate? But that's also the wrong question. The right question is: how can we prevent worse? If a patient has a fever, we do not assume that he or she dies – we try to find a cure. The article does not state that a "Hothouse" is unavoidable, but that we must do our utmost to prevent that.
Is it too late to save the climate? That's the wrong question.
That's an immense task, especially because the responsible actors still do not see how serious the climate problem is and continue as before. Eldar Sætre, CEO of Equinor, reveled in this newspaper on Tuesday that the company is going to drill for more, not less, oil in the coming years. The Johan Sverdrup field appears to contain up to 3.2 billion barrels of oil. More than previously expected. Friends of the Earth Norway calculated that the amount of CO2 released is equal to 25 times the annual emission of Norway. In addition, the company plans to drill 3000 new wells in the next ten years. Almost as much as in the previous fifty years! I'm breaking into a fever sweat when I'm reading these plans.
But doesn't Equinor invest in renewable energy? Yes, but by far not enough. The oil company anticipates that only 15 to 20 percent of its investments in 2030 will be in renewable energy. And that's despite the fact that Norway's CO2 emissions must have dropped by at least 40% in that year, according to the climate law adopted just a year ago. It is clear that the change of name, from Statoil, is not enough to save the climate.
While the oil generation is lingering to change their ways, the first generation to live with the consequences of severe climate change has long since been born. No wonder that the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg has started to protest in front of the Swedish parliament for a better environment up until the elections, instead of going to school. Or as she puts it: "If you do not care about my future, I won't either".
If she lives until her 97th birthday, we'll be in the year 2100. How will last summer be remembered? As the beginning of uncontrollable climate change, in which the earth warmed up by four degrees, and where the summer of 2018 would be considered relatively mild? Or as the moment when we finally woke up, rolled up our sleeves, and saved the world in the nick of time from ourselves?
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 31 August 2018