The best of times, the worst of times: bridging the gap in ambition towards a sustainable future

by Stefanie Ypma

‘There is no case in which there is any scenario where we should not do absolutely anything we can, straight away’. This is one of the key messages from the first Future Scientist Webinar organized by Scientists for Future NL organised on May the 6th, 2021. Paul Behrens, an assistant professor at Leiden University in environmental change, shared his insights on the connections between pessimistic and hopeful pathways to the future. Can we turn the tide on emissions? Should we worry about overpopulation? Can technological innovations compensate for a delay in social change? Just a few topics that are addressed during the webinar and discussed in his recently published book ‘The best of times, the worst of times: Futures from the frontiers of climate science’.

Being pessimistic is OK, but we should always end with hope

We have continuously underestimated climate risks, global warming below 1.5°C seems impossible without also actively removing carbon from the atmosphere and climate change impacts are happening and unavoidable; we have lost that battle. But Behrens emphasizes that every bit we can do matters. Where the interconnectivity of the climate system has made it so difficult to accurately predict climate risks, positive feedback loops in societal systems could actually accelerate the transition to a sustainable future.

We’ve all heard about the catastrophic tipping points in natural systems; rapid events that are irreversible. But we also have social tipping points, where only a minority of people is needed for wide spread behavioral change. Overpopulation, a key word often used when addressing causes of human induced climate change, might not be an issue as population growth rates are decreasing world wide. And this decrease is accelerating due to the increase in women’s liberty.

Behrens addresses many more hopeful developments during the webinar; renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel, the number of successful legal lawsuits related to climate change is increasing rapidly forcing countries to make their non-binding targets. And the first transitions that are taking place seem to convey a very important message; it is not so much about giving something up, it is about opening new (and maybe better and healthier) doors.

What can we as scientists do?

But things are still moving in a slow pace and even as a climate scientist, it is sometimes difficult to remind yourself of the urgency for change. ‘I regularly return to it, just to anchor myself’ – Behrens mentions when talking about a map from carbonbrief.org that shows which extreme weather events can be attributed to climate change. He talks about the internal actions, e.g. changing your diet, and external actions someone can take. As mentioned at the beginning, any action matters. And talking about it can be very effective. Especially when talking on an emotional level, talking about how you feel, sharing your concerns and, maybe now after this webinar, also hope.

Watch the webinar here

Additional questions from the audience answered by Paul Behrens

  • On whether we have enough resources
    • It might depend on what pathway we choose, if we choose a pathway with lots of behavior changes where we use less – such as bikes instead of cars, and dietary change instead of more burgers (often with health benefits), we should be fine. If we attempt to continue with the systems we have and rely on large scale carbon capture in the second half of the century we may start to see significant issues with materials. Even under the more optimistic scenarios there will be many changes in geopolitics due to material requirements around the world.
  • Role of finance
    • The role of finance is a key pillar along with legal, and civil action. I think there are some areas of finance that are well aware of climate change – like insurance. They are seeing how uninsurable the some climate futures might be (in fact there are many areas around the world that are increasingly uninsurable). Unfortunately finance is another system where the current inertia for the way of doing things is very strong. We are seeing some promising signs, with development banks banning fossil fuel investment, and central banks rethinking asset valuations, but it needs to move faster.
  • How much can we rely on future innovations to address climate change?
    • My personal opinion is that we should rely only a small amount on future innovations. There will certainly be many, and they will help in many different ways. But we know we can make massive changes for the better today with the technology we have. We also know that costs come down and innovations increase as we deploy the technology we have (look at wind and solar!).
  • View on nuclear
    • I think we should not be shutting down existing nuclear. As for future nuclear I worry about the huge costs and the exposure to climate extremes – such as flooding and droughts. New technologies such as SMRs are promising and I’m not adverse to them per se. But again, modelling studies (e.g. Williams et al. 2021) show that 100% renewable futures are possible and although they suggest a higher cost than those with nuclear, my sense is that costs will continue to drop faster than expected as we continue to deploy, making those 100% RE futures less expensive than we think today.

References mentioned during the webinar

  • W. Steffen, W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney, C. Ludwig, The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. Anthr. Rev. 2, 81–98 (2015).
  • H. D. Matthews et al., An integrated approach to quantifying uncertainties in the remaining carbon budget. Commun. Earth Environ., 1–11 (2020).
  • McKinsey Global Institute. Global Energy Perspective 2019 : Reference Case. Energy Insights (2019).
  • W. Steffen et al., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. 115, 8252–8259 (2018).
  • B. R. Jasny, _Science (80-)., (2018) doi:10.1126/science.360.6393.1082-d.
  • Oxfam report: There have been a number of updates on this report since. For example: https://oxfamapps.org/media/press_release/carbon-emissions-of-richest-1-more-than-double-those-of-poorest-half-of-the-world-oxfam/
  • For rapid birth rate reductions see: https://www.economist.com/international/2019/02/02/thanks-to-education-global-fertility-could-fall-faster-than-expected
  • G. J. Kramer, M. Haigh, No quick switch to low-carbon energy. Nature. 462, 568–9 (2009).
  • C. Wilson et al., Granular technologies to accelerate decarbonization. Science (80-. ). 368, 36–39 (2020).
  • P. Marbaix et al., Burning embers: towards more transparent and robust climate-change risk assessments. Nat. Rev. Earth Environ. 1 (2020), doi:10.1038/s43017-020-0088-0.
  • C. Mora et al., Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions. Nat. Clim. Chang. 8, 1062–1071 (2018).
  • F. C. Moore, N. Obradovich, F. Lehner, P. Baylis, Rapidly declining remarkability of temperature anomalies may obscure public perception of climate change. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 116, 4905–4910 (2019).
  • Williams, J. H. et al. Carbon‐Neutral Pathways for the United States. AGU Adv. 2, (2021).