10/10/10: Will it take a disaster to make us stop climate change?
– I do believe there can be global political action on climate change, but only when we reach a point of critical realisation, a point where something so dramatic and eye-opening happens that the problem can no longer be ignored, says Svante Björck.
Professor Svante Björck from Lund University is answering questions from around 40 students gathered to watch a panel debate on climate change solutions, the final installment of a hectic program of activities planned by Hållbart Universitet (sustainable university) to mark the global day of action against climate change, 10/10/10. Throughout the day there have been 7347 events in 188 countries around the world, bringing people and communities together to show the world’s leaders that action must and can be taken to stop greenhouse gas emissions. To many it is also a powerful reminder of the failure of these same leaders to create a common solution to the problem barely a year ago at the climate summit in Copenhagen.
When I meet professor Björck again for this interview, it is a week later, on a cold autumn day in the south of Sweden. Anxious to start the interview he offers me a chair, and I commence, despite being decidedly short of breath from a last-minute uphill bike ride and several flights of stairs.
– My research as a geologist gives me insight into the, geologically speaking, recent climate changes on the planet since the last glacial period, Björck tells me. – I also track and study changes in sea levels and seek to understand the natural processes on Earth, including those relating to the greenhouse effect. In other words, I have insight into the historical climate situation on the planet.
Björck describes his particular field of interest as the climatic relationship between the northern and southern hemispheres, and an effect he calls a seesaw mechanism. By this he means that the two hemispheres have shown opposite climatic tendencies with one heating while the other cools. The absence of this bipolar pattern in the climate changes of today strike Björck as an indicator of the man-made nature of the changes, or, as he put it in his presentation at the panel debate; globally synchronous warmings are unique events in interglacial periods. If this is what the scientist says, is it also the view that is communicated through mainstream media? Björck believes that the scientific community is largely in agreement about the causes and reality of current climate change.
– The media seeks out conflict and therefore risks misrepresenting the views of the scientific community. I can say that the level of consensus among scientists is around 95% on this issue, while the media focuses heavily on those who present alternative scenarios. In my view, we should be educating the public rather than speculating. The discussion should be about what we know and how much we know rather than about dissent – the indications we have are strong enough to call for alarm.
– What do you think caused the failure of the COP 15 climate summit?
– I would say that the problem lies in inequality. Developing countries want to be able to develop, while at the same time it is the very few people in the developed countries that have created this global problem, that everyone is forced to deal with. But there are ways in which we can combat this unfairness. For example, aid agreements can be made that promise developing countries instant access to new technology and information that allow for sustainable development.
Björck is dismissive of the idea that change can be made entirely outside of political channels. – The grassroots movement has its role, he says, and local initiatives certainly matter, but in the end it is whole industries and systems of transport that are the biggest polluters. We can only target these through political action and legislation, though the grassroots are important in pushing for this to happen.
I remind Björck that he has previously singled out the success of the international community in targeting the problem of the ozone layer as an example of how global political change can be brought about, and ask him what he believes can be learned from the experience.
– Well, the two situations are different in that climate change is far more complex, its causes are far more diverse than those of the ozone layer hole. The most important lesson we can draw from it is that when dramatic incidents happen, political willingness to embrace solutions increases. In the case of the ozone layer of course, people couldn’t stay outside in the sun, people were getting skin cancer. It was serious, and we realised it.
– What would be enough then, now, to trigger this same kind of serious reaction?
Björck considers his answer in silence for some time, before starting to debate the issue with himself out loud. – I have been thinking about this, he replies, and I suppose that should there be huge monsoon rains in China and East Asia, with extensive flooding for several consecutive years, which is certainly a realistic scenario, many people’s eyes would be opened. On the other hand, if something happened in Europe or North America, there is a greater certainty that something would be done, fast. The heat waves that southern Europe experienced a few years ago could start recurring every summer. People died, it sparked a lot of discussion.
My brows furrow to match the look of thought on Svante Björck’s face. The idea of escalating climate change and the problems this would pose to us all is not an uplifting one. I think back to the rather more hopeful message of the activists behind the global day of action, the reason I ended up in this office in the first place. We can all do something; we can all be part of the solution. So, to round off the interview on a slightly lighter note, I ask professor Björck what he would call himself. Is he an activist?
– Hah, well, I think I would say that I am engaged in the issue of climate change. I want to do my part, I cycle to work, and, among my friends I might be a little bit of an activist. Also, I talk to people who want to learn. It’s important to me as a scientist to educate the public about what I know. I am also a born optimist so in the end I think we will deal with climate change in a sensible way. But action is of course needed and I am really happy that so many of you young people are engaged. That´s very hopeful and promising!
by Agnes Walton