Monday

12th Apr 2021

Interview

Climate won't go back to normal in our time

  • Professor Michael Tjernström: 'The decision in my view must be to stop burning fossil fuels. Completely. While preserving welfare, fighting poverty and counteracting the depletion of biodiversity' (Photo: Nordisk Råd og Nordisk Ministerråd)

"There is a common misconception among many people that if we can get rid of the emissions of carbon dioxide the climate would peak and then go back to normal. Forget it. It will only come back on a geological timescale," Sweden's leading climate specialist, professor Michael Tjernström has said.

"For all decisions that you and I make in our lives, for all the decisions that parliamentarians make for their countries, climate change is irreversible. What we can hope for is to stabilise the climate at the new level and adapt to it", he told EUobserver in an interview.

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Tjernström is professor at the department of meteorology at Stockholm University (MISU) and talked after addressing the Nordic council's yearly session in Stockholm (31 October).

"I am no climate activist - I am climate researcher", he described his own role.

"I often get mail from young people who seriously believe that they are going to die from this [climate change] before they turn old. But that is not on the cards", he assures.

"Obviously, a lot of people are going to die from this, it's clear. But we are not moving towards the extinction of the human race. Absolutely not. So that kind of anxiety is useless and results from a heated debate about the climate, where you just talk about crises and not solutions".

Tjernström does not mention his fellow countryman, Greta Thunberg, who turned down the Nordic Council's environment award this year, because politicians are not doing enough to solve the climate issues.

But he said: "When faced with really important decisions, panic and anxiety are rarely a constructive state of mind. The climate crisis is not a crisis for the climate, but for society. What is missing is the political leadership in the climate issue. Do not listen to what you think people want. But take the community in the right directions," he said with reference to the politicians.

"It is our politician's role to help those who would like more cars and cheaper gasoline to realise that this is no longer an option. We cannot continue as we have been used to".

"On the other hand, we should not go back to ... stop the economic development. That would only do harm. Instead we must integrate climate into all political decisions so that it becomes something that is always taken into account, whether you discuss welfare, research and development, culture or education", he said.

Tjernström was addressing the Nordic Council, a parliamentary assembly composed of national parliamentarians from the Nordic countries, including climate threatened Arctic countries like Greenland.

The fastest warming occurs in the polar regions and in particular in the Arctic, where warming happens between two and four times faster than the Earth's average.

Greenland's icecap loses 300 giga tonnes of water every year and practically all glaciers all over the earth are melting.

"Just this summer, in September, Sweden's highest point was moved because the old one had melted away", Tjernström noted.

"The ice responds now to the warming we had 20 years ago. So if we just stabilise the climate at two degrees or more degrees, it will still continue to melt for maybe 50-100 years. No one knows exactly for how long. But it is a slow and tedious process so the question is whether to focus on what is affecting people today, in ten years or whether to focus on what is going to hit the world in 50 years".

Climate change is expected to lead to more rainfall in areas where there is already plenty of rainfall. And to less rainfall in areas where rainfall is already sparse.

"In the Mediterranean area, for example, it will be much drier and much warmer and in the future, people from the Nordic countries are not likely to travel to the Mediterranean for sun and heat in their holidays. Instead people from the Mediterranean might come to the North in the summer to flee heat and drought", he said.

"I am convinced however that rising sea levels will lead to the most serious consequences of climate change. It will change the conditions of life for many millions of people and cost billions," the professor said.

If we continue as so far, an average global warming of about four degrees can be expected, which implies 10-12 degrees warmer climate in the Arctic.

It will be felt in coastal areas around the globe, in particular when high water and bad whether happens at the same time.

"The biggest problem in the long run is the rise in sea level rise because it affects so many people. And all these people have to go somewhere else to live".

"And when millions of people have to be redistributed or relocated due to sea level rise, it will lead to huge fluctuations in economy and politics", he said.

Paris goals already 'off'

"The goal of limiting heating to 1.5 degrees from the Paris agreement is probably off. Already the 2 degree target is going to be extremely challenging. But we decide for ourselves what is going to happen," he said.

He thinks however that the goals themselves are not the most important things about the Paris agreement.

"I believe the structure of the agreement is the important thing, where you moved from telling people how much they can release to what each country can do. It made it a race, like a competition about taking action that will help us. Making caps and that sort of things didn't work", he explained.

"The decision in my view must be to stop burning fossil fuels. Completely. While preserving welfare, fighting poverty and counteracting the depletion of biodiversity", Tjernström demanded.

That is a big ambition and requested in a week when the next UN climate change conference (COP 25) set to take place in Chile in December was cancelled, due to public unrest over a fare hike for public transit, but rooted in deep public disillusionment over inequality.

If you are an ordinary person, what should you do about the climate?, EUobserver asked the professor.

"The debate has focused too much on one or two or three issues. I get quite a lot of emails from people and I usually say: Think about it. Use your common sense. If you use the car for work all week, could you arrange to only use it for two days a week somehow? When you sit in the car to pick up the kids from football, think about it. Is it possible to travel by public transport? Could you take the bus today instead?

"When you stand at the shelf in the supermarket and have to decide which food to choose. Think about it. Could you buy something instead and make a wiser choice?

"I think a big part of the problem is that we have habits. We do as we have always done. I did it myself. I've been driving by car to work, though I didn't really need it. I might as well have cycled instead. Now I don't do it anymore [driving a car for the job]. I don't think it's about quitting flying or not eating red meat, but it's about thinking. It is about applying common sense".

What is then the most important thing that politicians should do?

"I think the most important thing is that you do not stare blindly at two or three solutions. But trying instead to create a unified system of incentives that carries in the right direction and that draws many different solutions.

"Politicians have a great responsibility, and should not think about which issues make them most popular for re-election at the next election, but go for solutions that are the best in the 50-year term".

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The Nordic Council's prestigious annual awards ceremony this year turned into a youth revolt, with climate activist Greta Thunberg declining the environment prize and another winner criticising the Danish prime minister for racism.

Livestream

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Although the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled climate negotiations, work has not stopped. The 'Choosing Green' debate will address some of the most important and most complex key areas relating to the global green transition. Live on EUobserver from 10:00 (CET).

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