Ausgabe 45/2006

Our Warming World The Day the Climate Changed

The climate change debate may have turned an important corner. Sir Nicholas Stern's report not only put a price tag on global warming, but also argues for an economically viable solution. But will humanity act in time?

The day the world's climate changed was a Monday -- Monday of last week, to be more precise, at exactly 10 a.m. That was when a gray-haired man with frameless glasses stood before the press to deliver a clear but alarming message. Now, his message having been delivered, no one can claim not to know the true extent of the damage each individual has been doing to the world.

The core of that message was a number that immediately drove up the planet's perceived temperature: 5.5 trillion. Sir Nicholas Stern has attached a figure to a phenomenon that is little more than a set of vague concepts for most people. He converted complex physical processes into a unit of measure that directly affects people's daily lives: money.

If humanity continues to pump such vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the cost to society could amount to €5.5 trillion, or about 20 percent of the world's total economic output. By comparison, the Great Depression of the 1930s weighed in with a similar cost to the global economy.

Stern, the former chief economist at the World Bank, offered a detailed list of the consequences of climate change: large swathes of land devastated by drought, flooded coastlines and the extinction of animal and plant species. But what makes Stern's predictions different is that he has added a price tag to many of the calamities associated with climate change, a bill he presented on Oct. 30.

In doing so, Stern, a macroeconomist, has translated the most pressing environmental problem of our age into the language of his profession: climate change, he says, is the "greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."

"No more excuses left"

Was it truly "The Day that Changed the Climate," as Britain's Independent newspaper wrote in a headline with two possible interpretations? Was that Monday truly a magical turning point in the greenhouse gas debate? And is the world community finally making the switch from talk to action?

The temperature of the Earth's surface is rocketing upwards.

The temperature of the Earth's surface is rocketing upwards.

At least environmental activists feel vindicated that business has finally understood what they have been preaching for years. "There are no more excuses left, no more smokescreens to hide behind," Charlie Kronick of the environmental organization Greenpeace said with a smirk. Even the pro-business Handelsblatt agreed, writing that it is no longer sufficient for corporate executives to install some "tiny windmill at corporate headquarters that barely suffices to power the lights in the executive bathrooms." And politicians have seized the opportunity to address the issue head-on. "This disaster is not set to happen in some science-fiction future," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, standing on the stage with Stern, called the 616-page report on the consequences of climate change "the most important document about the future" that he had read since becoming prime minister.

As is always the case when it comes to climate change, the report also had its critics. Stern deliberately used only the gloomiest of predictions in his report, says Dutch climate economist Richard Tol, who calls Stern's conclusions "alarmist and incompetent." But Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow praised Stern's report as being practical and for providing a blueprint to avoid the coming disaster. He was especially impressed by Stern's choice of words, which is devoid of the kind of morally charged doomsday rhetoric favored by the environmentalist community. Instead, Stern soberly presents a cost-benefit analysis, which concludes that an investment of only 1 percent of world economic output would suffice to avert the direst consequences of global warming.

This is Stern's good news. He sees investment in protecting the climate as a giant subsidy program that could stimulate the economy to flourish on a new, greener note. "The transistion to a low-emissions global economy will open many new opportunities across a wide range of industries and services," Stern writes enthusiastically. He adds that "markets for low carbon energy products are likely to be worth at least $500 billion per year by 2050, and perhaps much more."

Political wind from the UK

Tony Blair, thrilled by this healthy dose of pragmatism, promptly placed perhaps the liveliest advocate of climate protection at the economist's side, former US Vice President Al Gore. Together, Blair hopes, the two men will be able to convince the United States, the world's largest producer of CO2, to cooperate.

A sharp political wind is blowing from the British Isles, a wind felt by German Chancellor Angela Merkel when she met with Blair in London on Friday. With Germany set to assume the revolving European Union presidency and host the G-8 summit in 2007, Blair wants Merkel to make sure that climate change is at the top of the agenda -- a concept that Merkel agreed with. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for Germany, a pioneer when it comes to environmental protection, if the British were to proclaim themselves the guardians of the planet's climate. "We are not playing at the same level," German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL.

The environmental rhetoric, of course, is not new. But rhetoric is just that. So far, there has been no noticeable reduction in CO2 output. The global economy -- and affluence -- is growing too rapidly, which has translated into ever-rising rates of greenhouse gas emissions -- a jump of 2.4 percent just since 2000. The biggest culprit is the radical increase in the number of vehicles on the world's roads -- a jump of 23.9 percent since 1990, Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said on Monday.

The global consequences of global warming.

The global consequences of global warming.

Such are the realities being addressed by the some 6,000 delegates in Nairobi, Kenya this week and next for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The debate will revolve around two main issues: What can be done now to prevent temperatures on earth from rising another 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit)?

And how should mankind prepare for the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) rise in temperatures that is now considered inevitable?Such scenarios are based on the conclusions of decades of research on changes in the earth's atmosphere and climate. "The data have largely confirmed the hypotheses we have developed in the last 20 years," says Hans von Storch, a preeminent German climate modeler who is widely seen as a voice of reason in the often hot-headed global climate change community. Storch's thoughts will also be reflected in the tenor of the fourth assessment report to be issued in February by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the details of which are currently being negotiated by several hundred scientists, who expect the report to serve as a small reflection of consensus among their views.

Disturbing trend upwards

More than a century ago, Swedish Nobel Prize winner Svanta Arrhenius already speculated that carbon dioxide heats the atmosphere. He hypothesized that if mankind were to double the CO2 content in the atmosphere, this would lead to a temperature increase of four to six degrees Celsius (7.2-10.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Far from troubled by his conclusions, Arrhenius wrote that he looked forward to an end to cold Nordic winters.

The first scientist to sound the alarm was an American professor named Roger Revelle. In the 1950s, Revelle began regularly climbing Mauna Loa, a 4,170-meter (13,681-foot) volcano on Hawaii. From the summit, he would release weather balloons equipped with instruments to measure atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The jagged curve reflecting his readings revealed a disturbing upward trend.

Revelle quickly understood what this meant. In hearings before the US Congress, he warned that something dramatic was happening on the planet that had never happened before. At the same time Stephen Schneider, a respected US climatologist, speculated that the earth could be on the verge of a new ice age. But neither scientist was taken truly seriously.

The debate did not reemerge until the 1980s, this time at the instigation of the nuclear lobby, which recognized the threat of global warming as an excellent argument in favor of low-emission nuclear energy technology. Climate research was evolving into a billion-dollar discipline at about the same time. Scientists used increasingly powerful computers to simulate the atmosphere, ice cores from Greenland and the Antarctic to reconstruct the history of the world's climate and buoys and balloons to trace global air and water currents. All of this research produced the myriad of mosaic pieces that, when put together, form the disastrous picture dominating the current debate over climate change.

The smugness with which the predictors of climate change painted the coming disaster in increasingly gloomy colors certainly provoked resistance. But their strongest critics are fast becoming a vanishing minority.


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