The inventiveness and will of the world's leaders and thinkers will be tested as never before as carbon emissions threaten to destroy the planet's delicate, life-sustaining weather systems. But, says Sir Eric Ash, there's hope - and an affordable solution.
One way out of the dilemma, precipitated mainly by burning fossil fuels like coal for energy, is to capture the CO2 before it gets into the atmosphere - and then bury it, said Ash in his Wolfson Memorial Lecture, titled The Climate Change Threat: Any room for optimism? A challenge to science and for diplomacy, which formed part of this year's Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture Series. Ash is a trustee of the Wolfson Foundation, which has supported many strategic projects at UCT and around the world.
"Carbon capture and storage is a technology that's had a long gestation, and is now gaining momentum in several parts of the world."
That's good news, Ash argued. With an important proviso: that the world pulls together under a banner larger than individual nations' needs, and that the youth roll up their sleeves to unpick the damage wrought by previous generations.
Moving beyond controversy
Why is climate change still so controversial, despite the evidence of shrinking Arctic ice, rising sea levels, and unprecedented weather-induced disasters?
It's still a distant threat, explained Ash; and "democracy is ill-matched to dealing with problems that lie in the future". And there are many sceptics with influence, "but little science". The media has also had great difficulty unpacking the complexities of climate change to the lay public.
"It's reminiscent of the times when the impact of smoking on health was debatable - and was debated - long after the sad truth had been clearly established."
Climate change is also exceptionally complicated, exceeding our experiential parameters.
Getting to grips with complexity
"What's lacking is an understanding of the mega-complexity of climate change science, which puts it in a class utterly remote from those we normally encounter– it's not an area in which common sense and much life experience is any guide as to how it works."
Ash has some direct experience of this complexity in the economic arena, having initiated a series of reports on energy policy, notably the use of economic instruments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, during his tenure as treasurer and vice-president of the Royal Society in the UK.
Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 5th Assessment Report, Ash pointed to unequivocal findings: the growing concentration of CO2 due to the combustion of fossil fuels; observed global warming in accord with analyses of past and current weather events; and the increase in floods in wet regions, more drought in dry ones, more exceptional heat waves, and increasingly destructive typhoons as temperatures rise.
"A rise of just 0.9Â°C, which is what the globe is experiencing, is disrupting life as we know it," he said. But mitigation is affordable - if the world's nations can accept that climate change is the single most important challenge to the planet's sustainability. Restricting emissions is our only hope.
What will it cost?
Economists like Nicolas Stern have already started tackling this "horrifically difficult question", estimating that mitigation will cost between one and two percent of the world GDP per annum.
"Of course, the arithmetic is the easy part. How to distribute the load between and within countries - that's the hard part! Progress so far has been unimpressive," Ash added.
"When it comes to paying the bills, to making appropriate sacrifices, how do you compare the claims of developing countries, who have put out far less CO2, against those of developed countries such as Europe and North America - and then factor in countries like China, who are currently generating more greenhouse gases than any other nation?"
If all else fails, there is one drastic measure that could stabilise greenhouse gas effects: geoengineering. In this scenario, aerosol clouds would be injected into the atmosphere to mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.
"I hope we don't have to go that way," Ash added.
Story by Helen Swingler. Picture by Raymond Botha.
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