In 2008, mankind pumped 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the result of the combustion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. The burning of fossil fuels has been responsible for almost 2 trillion tons of CO2 emissions since the invention of the steam engine. Added to that are another 4.4 billion tons from agriculture and forestry, as well as other climate gases like methane and nitrous oxide, which arise primarily in the agrarian economy.
The evil genie escaping from smokestacks, exhaust pipes and cow intestines is causing temperatures to rise on Earth. Since the early days of industrialization, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen close to a level last seen 3 million years ago. If the current trend continues, average temperatures on Earth could rise by 4.5 degrees Celsius (8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. "That's roughly the value that differentiates our warm period before industrialization from the last cold period," says German paleoclimatologist Humbertus Fischer of the University of Bern in Switzerland.
A Fine Line of Climatic Stability
Is mankind heading for a climatic state resembling that of the middle Pliocene warm period? It was a time when temperatures were three degrees warmer than they are today. The northern hemisphere was practically ice-free, and sea levels were at least seven meters (23 feet) higher than they are now. If that happens, places where hundreds of millions of people live today could be underwater once again.
"Throughout the history of civilization," says Fischer, "people have gravitated toward the oceans. They have settled regions where environmental conditions are such that life is only possible along a fine line of climatic stability." Climate change could force all of these people to either protect themselves against the elements or move away. But where would they go, given a projected global population of 9 billion by the year 2050?
Some of the model calculations of climatologists paint even more alarming scenarios. For instance, if the glaciers in the Himalayas and the Alps were to disappear, drinking water would become scarce for billions of people. In Asia, this would produce changes in the monsoon system that would threaten agriculture.
Deserts are expected to expand in California, southern Europe and Africa. Ecologists predict that rainforest regions in the Amazon, the Congo basin and Indonesia will gradually become more arid. Marine life is also at risk. Because the oceans absorb a large share of CO2 emissions, producing carbonic acid in the process, they become more and more acidic. This endangers coral reefs and microorganisms that are sensitive to acid and exist at the bottom of the fish food chain, which forms part of man's food chain.
'All of Mankind Would Lose'
The changes would not happen overnight. Nevertheless, 9 billion people are a sluggish mass, and it costs a lot of money to adjust to a changed climate. According to environmental economists, the damage caused by climate change will consume between 5 and 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product, which was $61 trillion in 2008.
If the extreme climate scenarios became reality, there would no longer be winners and losers of climate change. "Then all of mankind would lose" says geoclimatologist Gerald Haug of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH).
But will those scenarios materialize? All climate prognoses are based on computer models, which are computed with the help of reconstructed, historic and current climate data. They cannot claim to be accurate down to the last detail.
Last week, it became clear once again that mistakes do occur. Scientists from various institutions, including the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), published a compendium of the latest scientific results in their field. "We have underestimated the climate crisis until now," says Hans Joachim Schnellnhuber, director of the PIK and chairman of the German government's Scientific Advisory Board on Global Environmental Changes (WBGU). "Many changes are happening faster than we thought."
But could climatologists have also erred in the other direction? Is it possible that things will not be as bad as expected? Such questions were raised when an unknown hacker recently gained access to 2,000 e-mails from leading British climatologists, some of which seem to suggest that scientists have doctored scenarios to enhance their sensationalist effects. However, there is no proof that this actually occurred.
The vast majority of climatologists believe that the evidence of climate change caused by human activity is overwhelming, and they are demanding action.
A Call for Action from the West
Their call for action is directed primarily at the West -- at least for the time being. The affluent Western countries are responsible for 70 percent of the additional greenhouse gases found in the atmosphere, even though they are home to only a small percentage of the world's population. Climatologists have calculated that no more than 750 billion tons of carbon dioxide can enter the atmosphere by 2020 if temperatures on Earth are to be prevented from increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius.
If 750 billion tons were distributed evenly among all human beings, the resulting budget would be shocking: Effective immediately, only about two tons of CO2 emissions per year would be available for each inhabitant of the earth. In Germany, each citizen is responsible for an average of 10 tons of emissions per year. By contrast, that number drops to only 50 kilograms in Mali. "Ultimately, we are taking out a CO2 loan from these people," says Schnellnhuber."
Nevertheless, things still don't add up. The Western countries already consume too much today, and poorer countries will become more affluent and their populations will grow. Ten years ago, there were 3 million cars and motorcycles in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. Today there are 10 million.
It is critical that the developing world and emerging economies participate in a global climate policy. They must refrain from attempting to achieve Western affluence at similar carbon dioxide emissions levels. In other words, they need new technologies, which they cannot afford on their own. Without the West's help, nothing will happen. If a different model than the current Western lifestyle is needed, the West must take the lead.
A different lifestyle is unavoidable. Either it happens today, as part of a social and ultimately democratic movement, or it will be implemented in few years as a result of political and economic imperatives -- when the price of oil reaches $200 a barrel or national leaders can no longer avoid the gravity of the climate problem. In the worst case scenario, the reality of the climate crisis itself -- floods, storms, droughts -- will forcibly bring about radical change. Of course, it would then be under extremely unfavorable conditions.
The longer Western societies wait, the more likely it is a scenario Schnellnhuber calls the "wartime economy" will come true. Under it, national economies would be as strongly regulated as they were in the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and Germany during World War II.
And what will the necessary CO2 reductions yield? It is easiest to eliminate waste. Valuable energy is still being wasted in the form of exhaust heat, be it in cars, homes or computers. With little investment, massive amounts of energy could be saved in the long term. New technologies like renewable sources of energy and electric cars are also helpful. But it takes time for these innovations to reach the market.
Dennis Meadows, the American scientist who explored the "limits of growth" on behalf of the Club of Rome in 1972, says: "New technologies alone are like aspirin for cancer patients. They help, but they don't get rid of the real problem." For that reason, a new "European way of life" is needed -- sustainable, but by no means unpleasant. This new lifestyle is about making sacrifices, not pauperization. Jobs will disappear in old industries, while new jobs will be created in the green economy.