Date: 29 May 2019
Thomas Sterner, Professor of Environmental Economics, Dept of Economics, University of Gothenburg
The Guardian recently decided to change house style and start using terms like Climate Crisis instead of climate change. Also students are taking their lead from Greta Thunberg and asking universities to declare “climate emergency”. Is this a correct description of reality?
When grappling with this question and searching for an answer one is perhaps struck by the fact that we lack not only words but perhaps even mental preparedness for this category of complex, slow, large scale events with very much inertia. The scientific discourse is carried out in terms of integrated assessment models where different damage functions are discounted at various discount rates. If we do not change our ways fast we will set in motion a chain of events that changes the climate and the probability distribution for future events that include hurricantes, sea-level rise, droughts, droughts, wildfires and many other changes that in turn will trigger the migration and modification of entire ecosystems.
The consequences for humankind are largely unknown and depend on our own reactions – that is on global politics which in turn is hard to predict. This is not the kind of emergency we are mentally prepared for through evoloution. It is not like the attack of a pack of wolves or the advent of a storm. It is slow and probabilistic and one of its scary features is the existence of tipping points and enormous inertia so that if we do nothing now we might find ourselves in a trap in thirty years.
It is no doubt a crisis by many sensible definitions but it is also good to recognize its speficities.
I will try to disentangle some of these concepts and start to answer the questions concerning the type and character of this crisis.
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