Every year I teach an undergraduate class on climate change. In some depressing respects this should be one of my easiest lectures. For the past few years I would have just needed to change the date on the slide which says the current year is the warmest that humans have ever recorded. But this year was different. This year the class fell on a Thursday, one day after Donald Trump was confirmed as the next US president.
I had to begin by explaining how someone who has said that global warming is a hoax and who wants to rip up the climate change agreement achieved last year in Paris, was now the leader of the most powerful nation of Earth. A nation that while no longer the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide – that goes to China – is still the most influential on the international stage.
I had initially prepared some remarks for the beginning of the lecture to the effect that politics is complex and that not everything President-elect Donald Trump said when he was plain Mr Trump may have been entirely truthful. So when I came to consider how he would actually administer the country, I thought he may well row back on some of that rhetoric.
But then I learned that Trump had tipped Myron Ebell to head up the Environmental Protection Agency transition team. The EPA is the most important federal agency with regards to climate change and other pollutant controls. Ebell has been described as a “top climate sceptic”. “Denier” would be a better description, however, so profoundly at odds are his beliefs and statements with our understanding of how humans are affecting the climate.
So while my plan was to address these issues in the light of the latest round of climate change negations at COP22 in Marrakech and then get back to business I spectacularly failed. I largely lost the lesson plan and at times was at risk of losing my composure.
I began by trying to explain to my students the debt that was being accumulated to them – the costs older generations are passing to them as a consequence of their unwillingness to reduce carbon emissions. There are positive indicators that global emissions are levelling off – the fabled decoupling of growth from emissions. But we need large and sustained reductions right now and for the rest of the century if we are going to avoid the dangers that lurk around 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels.
Trump’s election threatens to extinguish any hope of keeping warming below that level. But I had to tell my students that there is the risk that this lets others off the hook. Very few climate scientists would argue that capping warming at 2°C was likely under current scenarios. The 1.5°C aspiration that was a surprise outcome from Paris is even more implausible. In fact, almost all strategies to achieve either involve “negative emissions” technologies – ways in which excess amounts of carbon dioxide will be sucked out of the atmosphere.
While there are promising pilot projects that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and safely store this underground, these operate at nowhere near the required scale. And every year we delay making radical reductions in emissions, means even more reliance on them. This an example of the intergenerational debt that is being handed to my students. Climate change is going to be their problem. If they don’t find solutions to it, it is they who will suffer.
Every year of my students’ lives, they have been told that climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. And every birthday they have celebrated, the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere was higher than it was the year before. Every birthday another confirmation that all talk about combating climate change is yet more hot air. The election of Trump will be a particularly large candle on their next cake, but it will join many others. It’s becoming increasingly harder to imagine how anyone would be able to blow them all out.
It’s no exaggeration to say I spend most of my working day thinking about human’s impact on the Earth and what that could mean for our children, grandchildren and those that will come after. And I also spare a thought for some of the millions of species that we share the Earth’s biosphere with. And I’m usually optimistic despite the sometimes very negative research I read.
But Thursday got the better of me. On Thursday I felt like an utter fraud. Or perhaps an open mouthed spectator of some awful spectacle. A spectacle that if I were to search my wallet, I, along with many of my generation, would find a paid ticket for.