I want to talk about the challenge of human-induced climate change. Why do we care? Why are you going to spend a semester reading treaties? Reading about technologies of low carbon energy systems? Studying all of the barriers that have come up to an effective negotiation? What is the problem?
A good place to start in understanding this problem is with the concept of planetary boundaries. Because in a way the climate change problem is part of a more general problem.
The general problem, I often say, is the problem of living in a crowded and productive world. Here we are. 7.2 billion people. That’s a lot of human beings. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution a little over two centuries ago, we’ve had roughly an eightfold growth of the human population. But per person we’re also using a lot of resources and per person the world is now so productive that average output for each of those 7.2 billion people is about 12 thousand dollars US measured. So we have 7.2 billion people. We have about 12 thousand dollars per person of output. That’s about a ninety trillion-dollar world economy. That’s the level of annual production. Well that is pressing hard on the planet. We’ve reached the point where in this crowded world, this juggernaut of a world economy, using so many primary resources, using so much land, so much water, burning so much fossil fuel – that is the coal, oil, and gas that power so much of the world economy – that we are now pressing against physical boundaries of Earth.
The systems that keep life, sustain, that enable us to grow food, ensure we have safe water for our daily survival. The ecologists have realized that we’re in a unique situation. Never before has a single species, and that would be us human beings, pressed so hard against the physical boundaries of the world. They’ve given it it a title – “Planetary Boundaries,” shown by this well-known graphic in the scientific community. It’s like a clock. Indeed the clock is ticking. If you go around the circles of this clock, starting at 12 noon, high noon, is climate change and then at roughly 1 o’clock is ocean acidification. The fact that human beings are making the oceans – the vast oceans – more acidic. We’re doing that as a species.
The next round, between two and three o’clock, is ozone depletion, a phenomenon that many of you will be familiar with, that some of our industrial chemicals are threatening the ozone layer in the stratosphere and if we destroy the ozone that could lead to calamitous health affects on all living species including us. And as you go around the circle you see one after another of these planetary boundaries: pollution coming from nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, taking groundwater faster than it can be recharged, destroying the habitat of other species leading to massive loss of biodiversity.
Well, of all of these planetary boundaries that are being threatened and trespassed climate change is perhaps the most pervasive of all because if we fundamentally change the Earth’s climate, as humanity is on a course to do, we threaten every other part of the biosphere, about the web of life on the planet itself. Now we’ve already had a huge effect. This is a graph which shows, year by year, the changing temperature in the month of May. I take this because, as I speak to you now, May 2014 was the most recent month of data available worldwide to look into climate temperature and what’s shown here is the temperature on average in the month of May 2014 compared to an average May temperature for the years 1981 to 2010.
The areas in red, the months in red, signify the fact that the May in those years was warmer than the average of 1981 to 2010. What you can see is we are on a steady, not quite steady because it bounces year to year, but we are on upward path that is absolutely unmistakable. And if you look closely, May of 2014 is the highest point on that entire graph. May of 2014 was the warmest month of May in measurement history of the planet Earth. Oops. That’s a problem. We are on a path of global warming, but that’s not all there is to human-induced climate change. We’re changing all aspects of the climate. The patterns of rainfall, precipitation, and evaporation of water. The nature of storms and other ancillary effects. Well, I travel around the world I as part of my work as director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network and as a special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. I can tell you from personal experience just in this year of 2014, just about every place that I have been, and that is a couple of dozen countries during 2014 so far, there’s an ecological crisis. There’s climate change that is already bearing down on the well-being of societies.
Even the physical survival of people. Take an example of the chronic droughts and heat waves that have hit the Thar desert of Pakistan. A country that has a considerable portion of the country in very dry almost desert-like conditions when the rainfall fails when the heat rises, you can have a calamitous famine, drought, lack of access to life saving water. Consider a different circumstance high up in the Himalayan mountains of that wondrous Kingdom of Bhutan, where communities live near glaciers in the Himalayan mountains and those glaciers are retreating.
They’re melting. They’re forming so-called glacier lakes, and those lakes have threatened or on occasion burst out of their banks and flooded villages below, killing many people. This is a sight of workers high up in the Himalayas trying to relieve the pressures of these glacial lakes that are coming from the retreating melting glaciers. Or floods. We now kow from climate change – we’ll be discussing it – that because of the warming of the planet and the more intense convection that occurs alongside a warmer planet, that rainfall events are more intense; there’s more likelihood of flooding; and indeed we’re seeing disastrous floods in many places in the world. This is just one of many many floods that have been experienced, often one in a century or worse floods. This one shown here in Sri Lanka. But the flip side is that many dry parts of the world are getting drier and that is also to be expected from human-induced climate change. In country after country that I visited in 2014, I’ve come into circumstances of intense drought.
When I was visiting Sao Paulo, Brazil, in the spring of 2014, the water reservoirs with deeply depleted. Here is an engineer inspecting what’s supposed to be a water reservoir but you can see that it is a completely dry because of the failure of the rains this year. If you look to halfway around the world, we see drought and attendant forest fires in the island of Sumatra in the country of Indonesia. If you look in my own hometown back to the floods and extreme storms, we had a superstorm that were still trying to recover from. We called it Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Sandy. It slammed the east coast of the United States. It led to tens of billions of dollars of property loss. Here is a sight of New York’s police cars floating down Tenth Street in lower Manhattan. Just a shocking visitation to a city which prides itself on on being in the cutting edge but found that it was very very hard to overcome such a natural devastation. And what you see here is a shock that also still reverberates. Typhoon Haiyan, which swept over the Philippines, is, on some measurements, the most powerful land falling tropical cyclone – that means a typhoon or hurricane – in recorded history. And of course there was vast, tragic loss of life in the Philippines, massive property destruction, and it will take years and years and years to overcome this. But these are the kinds of devastations that are coming with increasing frequency.
They are being felt all over the world. They remind us that human-induced climate change is a global phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that is immediately within our sights. It is a phenomenon that is being experienced in different ways in different parts of the world but in all parts of the world. As the governments of the United Nations deliberate on how to overcome this challenge, and I had the chance to meet with the ambassadors in the General Assembly of the United Nations, I see across the chamber, in every country in the world, a realization of the dangers that Earth faces and determination to do something about it. And that of course is what brings us all together in this course. What shall we do? Let’s understand the science. Let’s understand the options and let’s head towards a successful global agreement.