What I learned about climate change from Dr James Dyke

Dr James Dyke gave such a pragmatic and powerful account of the Earth’s state of play, climate change and problematic solutions in our podcast conversation, I wanted to share his wisdom in this blog.

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How James became interested in climate change

James was doing his dream job, looking for life elsewhere in the universe, at an amazing institute.  However, the climate and ecological emergency were too important to ignore, so he refocussed his research direction, providing a valuable contribution to science in this area.

The Anthropocene from a future perspective

Humans have had such a profound and wide-ranging impact on the Earth systems, that a new geological epoch has resulted – namely the Anthropocene.  In 5 to 10 million years when our human species no longer exists, strange concentrations of rare earth minerals, radioactive isotopes, ice cores or sediments at the bottom of deep oceans, will evidence our civilisation, the sudden disappearance of a vast amount of biodiversity and rapid climate change.

Earth system changes

Climate does change, but the key point is that we humans are driving the rate of change faster than it has done for millions of years, if not tens of millions of years.  To give some context to time, the planet is about 4.6 billion years old and the advent of farming occurred 10,000 years ago.  The serious impacts by humans on the way the Earth systems work, upon which we rely, have resulted from the last few centuries to perhaps a few thousand years.  As if this isn’t enough, we are also negatively affecting biodiversity, the land, and the oceans. 

What is causing climate change?

About 60-70,000 years ago, humans migrated out of Africa to other continents and human numbers were determined by the number of animals there were to hunt and how many fruits and berries could be gathered, i.e. the carrying capacity.  This low impact, sustainable living can be seen in indigenous populations.  Here, there is a notion that an ecosystem has rights and values in itself; it’s not just a resource for humans to appropriate.  People are in balance with the system, whereby they are a part of that system and the system is part of them.

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The advent of farming and civilisation led to an increase in the amount of food and energy produced per unit of land, by growing specific crops and killing everything else, seen as pests, that might eat them. The structure of civilisation was hierarchal, whereby lots of people produced a surplus, but the supply was controlled by a fewer elite.  This continued for about 300 years ago until the discovery that tremendous amounts of energy could be extracted from fossil fuels.  This led to exponential growth in consumption and consequently waste, such as exhaust fumes from vehicles and power stations, plastic and all manner of stuff going to landfill.  The Earth has natural regulatory processes to cope with pollution, but in a few centuries, we have swamped the Earth, jeopardising the longevity of the human species.

Can we simply stop burning fossil fuels?

Sadly no, James gives the analogy of a plane trying to change the fuel system while flying at 30,000 feet.  If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, our global, industrialised civilisation would collapse and billions of people would die.  Fossil fuels are intimately entwined within the food system, through nitrogen fertiliser, machinery, transport, refrigeration, and electricity is needed in pretty much every country.  Although renewables such as solar, wind, and tidal, along with possibly some nuclear can play their part, they cannot replace fossil fuels overnight.

Renewable energy sources

There is a lot to be optimistic about through innovation in renewables, such as solar and wind (onshore and offshore).  Initially in the UK, help was given by feed-in tariffs and government support; consequently, it is now cheaper to generate electricity from solar than oil and gas.  However, despite these sources of energy rising exponentially, they haven’t replaced fossil fuels, because economic growth is also growing exponentially; about 3% global GDP growth each year. 

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Climate action delay

The first International Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992.  Here, more than 100 heads of state assembled and signed the Convention on Climate Change and Convention on Biological Diversity.  Sadly though, action taken since then has been frustratingly limited; during this period more carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere compared to the previous 2-3 hundred years.  In 2015, The Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties at COP 21, to limit global warming to below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C, and achieve a climate-neutral world by 2050.  However, at current emission rates, we may have as little as 5 years left to achieve the latter, with no more burning of fossil fuels. 

Modelling and technological solutions 

Integrated assessment models are used in assessing climate change mitigation policies.  The classic business as usual scenario, where fossil fuels continue to be burned, will lead to 5°C plus of warming by the end of the century and the collapse of civilisation.  No feedback loops are built into the models, so impacts on the economy from warming are not included.

Negative emission technologies, such as carbon capture from the air and storing it underground, are routinely included in the models.  These technologies are still very much in the ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we could do that’ category, and carry serious risks.  They are included to extend the carbon budget, lessening the pressure to decarbonise now (see more on ‘mitigation deterrence’ in this article). 

What can we do?

We can share our concerns with others.  Every time a politician, organisation or company talks about a net zero goal, we can ask them ‘what are you doing right now, what is going to be different tomorrow, next week, next month, next year?’  We can all do things as individuals, but we can part of a collective too.  Apparently, it was Arthur Ashe, the tennis player that said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”  Seems like a good maxim to live by.

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