Five to Ten Years, a Lifetime

Five to Ten Years, a Lifetime

Professor Will Steffen on global tipping points

An interview by Christian Smetana

Professor Will Steffen, a leading climate scientist, shapes our understanding of global climate. Due to Steffen’s work, we learned about the planet’s limits. We also learned how and how much our emissions affect our ecological system. Few like to hear prophecies of doom. That might be why some people don’t like what Steffen has to say. Based on his research, he presents the possibility of our end in an understandable way. In his 2018 lecture The Big U-Turn Ahead, Steffen pointed out developments we’ll face in coming years with global temperatures and weather, as well as which tipping points we’ll face. This lecture referred to 2020 as a crucial time for important decisions. Here, near the end of 2020, we talk with Steffen about what has happened and what might come to pass.

Christian Smetana: Could you tell us about the current global climate situation? In 2018, you pointed out in The Big U-Turn Ahead that decisions needed to be made by 2020.

Will Steffen: Every year matters now. In that lecture, I pointed out we needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, we’re not going to do it. Emissions and CO2 concentration went up from 2018 to 2019. They won’t go up again in 2020, but only because of COVID-19 and not climate action. The real question now is how we come out of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic gives us a real chance for a change in transport systems and related fundamental systems. Now is the time to change directions.

With the carbon-budget approach—when you consider how much more carbon we can put into the atmosphere to keep a certain temperature—three or four years of high emissions like those of 2019 make it impossible to reach the 1.5-degree goal. So, it’s very important how we come out of the COVID-19 crisis.

CS: What do you think will happen?

WS: It’s a critical point, and I’m not very optimistic. Taking a look at Australia, where I live, the government is considering opening up massive new gas fields. They’re also talking about a new coal-fired power plant. China is also opening coal-fired power plants, though they recently announced they want to reduce their carbon emissions. The political reality doesn’t make me optimistic. My guess is that we’ll return to 2019 global-emission levels. We’ll miss our chance.

COVID-19 could be a chance for radical changes in our economy, our industry, and our transport. But it won’t happen as quickly as we need.

Graphics: Will Steffen
Graphics: Will Steffen

CS: What about those tipping points?

WS: Recently, we looked at some of those tipping points we were talking about in 2018 and how they look today. What we see is that many tipping points have been activated in the meantime. In other words, many aspects of our ecological system are starting to move toward their tipping points. But we can’t clearly say how fast they’ll move or how much pressure it might take to tip them. That process needs to be examined.

My assessment is we’ll activate a tipping cascade only if we go above 1.5 degrees. By the time we hit 3 degrees, we’re in deep trouble. A lot of these points will tip, and the danger of the whole tipping cascade will become significant.

CS: You’re saying that at 3 degrees we’ll have no chance to make effective change?

WS: That’s my estimate. If we go 3degrees or higher, then the probability is high that we’ll tip many of these points. Then, we won’t be able to stop them. It’s very important to assess the problems as we pass 1.5, 2, or 3 degrees. We don’t know the answers yet, and so we need more research. It’s very important for this research to get done.  We must understand in a much better way where different parts of our ecosystem are vulnerable. And we need to find out at which temperature range individual tipping points lie. We also need to understand more about the links between different tipping points and how this chain reaction, which I predicted in 2018, might take place in detail.

CS: Has the pandemic increased awareness? Have people reflected on nature and the need for change in industry and politics?

WS: That’s an interesting question. People still have no enthusiasm about the topic.

Here in Australia, we’re a big fossil-fuel producer in terms of coal and gas. We also suffer from huge impacts caused by global warming. We had massive fires up and down the coast of Australia in 2019 and 2020. Half the Great Barrier Reef is dead. Here, we see a lot of consequences of climate change clearly. But we still have very powerful fossil-fuel industries, and they have a strong influence on our government. That government proposes to massively expand the gas industry and much of this expansion will be in “unconventional gas” acquired by fracking. Such production increases emissions during the production process and in the future, and we’re talking about an exceptional greenhouse gas. We in Australia have suffered a lot because of climate change, but that’s still not enough to influence government and industry to change direction and invest in renewable energy and new technologies.

Russia is a big gas producer and wants to continue. China produces a lot of coal and is building a lot of coal-fired power stations. India has the same problem. The US is a big question mark. If they re-elect Trump, his administration will continue to weaken all kinds of climate actions. If all this happens, then COVID 19 won’t make a big difference in the long term regarding the climate.

CS: You have collaborated with the military in Australia, the US, and Great Britain. They’re interested in the consequences of climate change. Are they spending more on security concerns than positive changes—changes that could positively affect the future?

WS: That’s a good question. We studied that topic several years ago. The US and UK see climate change as a security issue. If large population centers in poorer countries see climate impacts, especially in food production, you have a recipe for large refugee flows. And we know how that flow can become a security risk in combination with destabilized governments and other factors. Think about the Arab Spring and the massive immigration to Europe from Northern Africa. Here in Australia, the military is worried about southeast Asia. Immigration from south and southeast Asia to Australia is likely if low-lying areas see climate impacts. Security forces of all nations are concerned about climate change scenarios and their consequences. A lot of research is going on to determine how these forces need to react to affected countries and climate refugees.

CS: The world’s oceans are important to the global ecosystem and sensitive to rising temperature. You spoke about the subject in 2018, but what’s the situation now?

WS: The big issue is that the oceans absorb carbon. They absorb around 25 percent of our emissions. As we produce more carbon, the oceans absorb more. But carbon in the oceans causes an increase in acidity. That acid affects biology in the ocean in a massive way, particularly on the level of small organisms and plankton. Many of these creatures have calcium-carbon shells, and ocean acidity weakens those shells. Plankton also form the base of the marine food chain, so any loss on that level becomes a problem for all ocean life.

Besides that, the oceans are also warming. They absorb heat from our atmosphere, and hot water expands. Combined with melting ice, that expansion leads to increasing sea level. Roughly 50 percent of the rise we see is caused by melting ice from the poles. And the other 50 percent is due to the oceans warming and expanding.

Graphics: Will Steffen
Graphics: Will Steffen

CS: Can you predict which tipping points might be first?As with those terrible fires in Australia or California, which catastrophes are next?

WS: Those fires are consequences of crossed tipping points. We’ve crossed some crucial points already. The Great Barrier Reef has crossed a tipping point.

As for big problems in the tipping cascade we’ve been talking about, two could be close. One of them is ice that flows into the Arctic Ocean from melting at the North Pole. As warming accelerates, less and less ice stays on the pole each summer. In the next five to ten years, so little white ice will be left that heat absorption by the dark, open ocean will cause more regional warming. That warming will cause the ice to shrink more. You see the feedback loop. In five to ten years, this process will be unstoppable. Another issue is the Amazon rainforest. The Bolsonaro government has exacerbated problems of deforestation, but the other major problem is increasing drought. A slowdown of the ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, related to melting ice, causes these droughts. The Greenland ice sheet, this big mass of ice sitting on Greenland, is melting and running into the North Atlantic Ocean. That slows down the ocean’s circulation. Reduced circulation reduces rainfall over the Amazon. Deforestation reduces rainfall, too. Once you reach a critical level of dryness, the forest will become vulnerable to fire. It’ll burn. That will affect air conditions, causing more fires. Again, you have another feedback loop. We’ll also reach this tipping point in the next five to ten years.

CS:  What can each of us do to change the current situation?

WS: Put pressure on the political system and on large, carbon-emitting corporations to fundamentally change the system toward carbon-free energy, transport, agricultural systems, and so on. We can change our consumption patterns. That’s important. But foremost, we must change the global system as a whole. If we don’t, we won’t solve this problem.

CS: You’re saying we’re facing a global crisis that can be solved only on a global level. Do you see any collaboration that makes you hope the world is reacting properly to climate change?

WS: To be honest, I’m not hopeful. Five global entities need to band together—the United States, Russia, the EU, China, and India need to sit together. But the EU doesn’t speak with one voice on climate, so you see the problem. But get those five together, and if they decide to start real and meaningful action, that could solve a lot of problems. Everyone else would have to go along with it. Besides that, those five produce 60 to 70 percent of the world’s emissions anyway.

But we have increasing tensions between China and the US. The relationship between the EU and the US is also getting worse, mainly because of the current US administration. Russia is also a problem. No one can tell what Russia is going to do, except that they want to produce and export more gas. India has a drive to bring its people out of poverty. Therefore, they need more energy.

The problem we face is that we have these five massive countries, if we can call the EU a country for the moment, and they’re in very different situations. They each have different perspectives on the climate issue. And getting them to realize that it’s in all their interests to keep a habitable planet should be easy. But it seems impossible. We have to get them to step back from national interests and agree that without a stable Earth ecosystem, no one will prosper.

It seems they haven’t come to that realization yet. But it’s the most important thing we need to do.

Will Steffen (born 1947) is an American chemist. He was the executive director of the Australian National University (ANU) Climate Change Institute and a member of the Australian Climate Commission until its dissolution in September 2013. From 1998 to 2004, he was the executive director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, a coordinating body of national environmental change organizations based in Stockholm. Steffen is one of the founding Climate Councillors of the Climate Council with whom he frequently coauthors reports and speaks in the media on issues relating to climate change and renewable energy. In 2018, he was an author of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C published by the IPCC.

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