MICHAEL OBERSTEINER

‘The new normal is here’

The director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute speaks to Kathimerini about the climate crisis

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The director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford is a leading world expert on all issues related to climate change. With more than 250 research papers, he takes a holistic approach to the challenges humanity is facing, ranging from protecting ecosystems, agriculture and forestry to all issues related to economic and institutional factors relevant to the adjustment needed in order for societies and countries to cope in a world of increasing climate instability. Michael Obersteiner talked to Kathimerini about the global climate situation as it is today and the particular challenges Greece is facing. 

Until recently, the climate debate had given the public the impression that climate crisis would be a thing of 2060 or 2100. But it seems like climate change is already having a impact on weather, causing many extreme events globally. Can we say that heatwaves, wildfires, droughts and floods are quickly becoming the new normal? 

Climate models were created to replicate climate phenomena over millennia and were not constructed to predict and assess phenomena of weather extremes. Yet climate drives the probability of these weather extremes and we have increasing evidence that there is already a strong climate signal in the heatwaves and droughts we observe today. The new normal is here today and it is bound to become worse as the world is already committed to more climate change – countries are not planning to stop emitting greenhouse gases.

Should we expect that the heavy disruption caused by continuing climate events will almost certainly result in disorder, tensions and discord on a world scale? Have we entered an era where increased climate system instability is transferred to social, economic and national systems?

There is emerging scientific literature out there which demonstrates that social disorder and cascading effects such as refugee movements are causally correlated with climate-related natural disasters. More hazards from the climate system, together with a less resilient global social system, could lead to new large-scale system failures ranging from spreading armed conflicts all the way to economic infeasibilities to absorb influxes of new migration waves. All of which causing major human suffering. What is unsettling is that not even the most advanced economies are prepared to manage emerging systemic risks arising from climate-related emergencies.

Greece has a central position in the Eastern Mediterranean, where the models have had already predicted severe droughts coupled with a significant rise in sea levels in the next few decades. What should we do to mitigate the various consequences? As the Environmental Change Institute explores strategies for coping, what would be the best strategy to cope with this kind of change?

Greece is indeed heavily exposed to the intensifying climate-related weather hazards and at the same time it has done rather little to reduce vulnerabilities. For example, the early warning systems to detect and predict forest fires all the way to the capacity to actively fight fires is far from ideal. This we all were able to repeatedly observe in the last years. Climate proofing of key sectors of the economy ranging from agriculture and tourism to infrastructure adaptation for the shipping industry requires detailed planning and evaluation against the new hazards related to a changing climate. This requires major investments and know-how which is yet to be built. Greece is advised to benefit from its European partners to draw up and implement system-wide adaptation plans.

Are we sure that net-zero could turn the clock back? Also, can humanity hope for a game-changer like geoengineering systems that could easily reduce all excess CO2 from the atmosphere while we safely continue our energy transition? Is there any magic bullet? 

Net-zero by 2050 as it is currently planned commits us to more warming (compared to what we are seeing today) during this century and after 2050 the world will have to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere to still limit warming to 1.5 degrees by 2100. We might soon find out that this is an undesirable and too risky strategy. However, when we look at what major emitting countries are planning for climate mitigation then we see that we will not even be able to meet a 2 degree target by 2100. Given the current political will of countries to solve the global climate problem it can be predicted that we are heading towards a significantly disturbed climate system. Preparing for very unconventional new technologies such as geoengineering techniques appears to be a very rational strategy for humanity and should be taken more seriously and we should prepare ourselves better for their deployment. We should not use them as unproven vaccines! We need to test them in small demonstration projects and use digital twins of the Earth system (computer models) to assess what the consequences would be if we were to deploy these technologies on larger scales. In this case we can learn lessons from in silico experiments before we actually go big with these technologies. We should do the same for climate adaptation planning.

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Michael Obersteiner, director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford.