Environment and Society in a Changing World

Climate Change Background


Climate Change Background

In Module 5, we watched a video by Hans Rosling about global development. Let’s begin our discussion of climate change by watching another Hans Rosling video (4:47) that covers similar ground.

Click for a transcript of "Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes - The Joy of Stats - BBC Four" video.

PRESENTER: Visualization is right at the heart of my own work too. I teach Global Health, and I know having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand. Now, I'm going to try something I've never done before, animating the data in real space, with a bit of technical assistance from the crew.

So here we go. First, an axis for health, life expectancy, from 25 years to 75 years. And down here, an axis for wealth, income per person, $400, $4,000, and $40,000. So down here is poor and sick, and up here is rich and healthy. Now, I'm going to show you the world 200 years ago, in 1810.

Here come all the countries, Europe brown, Asia red, Middle East green, Africa south of Sahara blue, and the Americas yellow. And the size of the country bubble show the size of the population. And in 1810, it was pretty crowded down there, wasn't it? All countries were sick and poor. Life expectancy were below 40 in all countries, and only the UK and the Netherlands were slightly better off, but not much. And now, I start the world.

The Industrial Revolution makes countries in Europe and elsewhere move away from the rest, but the colonized countries in Asia and Africa they are stuck down there. And eventually, the Western countries get healthier and healthier, and now we slow down to show the impact of the First World War and the Spanish Flu epidemic. What a catastrophe! And now, I speed up through the 1920s and the 1930s, and in spite of the Great Depression, Western countries forge on towards greater wealth and health. Japan and some others try to follow, but most countries stay down here.

Now, after the tragedies of the Second World War, we stop a bit to look at the world in 1948. 1948 was a great year. The war was over, Sweden topped the medal table at the Winter Olympics, and I was born. But the differences between the countries of the world was wider than ever. United States was in the front. Japan was catching up. Brazil was way behind. Iran was getting a little richer from oil, but still had short lives. And the Asian giants, China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, they were still poor and sick down here. But look what is about to happen.

Here we go again. In my lifetime, former colonies gained independence, and then finally, they started to get healthier and healthier and healthier. And in the 1970s, then countries in Asia and Latin America started to catch up with the Western countries. They became the emerging economies. Some in Africa follows. Some Africans were stuck in civil war, and others hit by HIV.

And now, we can see the world today in the most up-to-date statistics. Most people today live in the middle, but there are huge difference at the same time within the best of countries and the worst of countries. And there are also huge inequalities within countries. These bubbles show country averages, but I can split them. Take China, I can split it into provinces. There goes Shanghai. It has the same wealth and health as Italy today, and there is the poor inland province Guizhou. It is like Pakistan. And if I split it further, the rural parts are like Ghana in Africa.

And yet, despite the enormous disparities today, we have seen 200 years of remarkable progress. That huge historical gap between the West and the rest is now closing. We have become an entirely new converging world, and I see a clear trend into the future with aid to trade green technology and peace. It's fully possible that everyone can make it to the healthy, wealthy corner. Well, what you have seen in the last few minutes is a story of 200 countries, shown over 200 years and beyond. It involved plotting 120,000 numbers. Pretty neat, huh? 

Credit: BBC

Notice that incomes and life expectancies around the world started increasing about 200 years ago. The United States and Great Britain were among the first countries to experience increases. Other countries took more time, but, by now, there have been increases almost everywhere. Why is that? What happened 200 years ago that caused health and wealth to start improving?

The answer is the Industrial Revolution. As societies learned how to develop industrial processes to produce more for us, our health and wealth began improving. By now, industry is so deeply embedded in so many facets of our lives that it’s often difficult to imagine life without it. There are still plenty of people today who produce much of what they use – including food, clothing, and shelter – by hand, but these people are increasingly few. Suffice to say, they are also not the people who tend to find themselves taking online university courses.

Central to the Industrial Revolution and to contemporary industry is the use of fossil fuels: oil, coal, and natural gas. They are called “fossil” fuels because they are sources of energy that derive from living organisms that were alive a long time ago. Originally, the energy from fossil fuels came from the sun. Ancient plants and other organisms trapped the sun’s energy via photosynthesis. Some of that energy found its way into today’s fossil fuels and is released when we burn the fuels for our industry.

The use of fossil fuels is unsustainable because we are using fossil fuels much faster than they are regenerating. Fossil fuels regenerate on timescales of hundreds of millions of years, but we are burning them up in just a few centuries. We can’t keep using fossil fuels forever as we use them today. Eventually, something must change. Given how central fossil fuels are to our industry, and how deeply embedded industry is within our lives, the depletion of fossil fuel resources represents a major challenge for humanity.

But there is another challenge associated with our use of fossil fuels. These fuels contain more than just energy. They also contain certain matter that, when we burn the fuels, ends up in the atmosphere. Some of this matter is in the form of molecules known as greenhouse gases, for reasons we’ll explain shortly. Greenhouse gases are also released into the atmosphere when we chop down and burn trees and other living matter.

Humanity has burned so much fossil fuel since the Industrial Revolution that we have significantly changed the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The most important change is of carbon dioxide (CO2). 400 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere, meaning that 280 out of every one million molecules in the atmosphere was a CO2 molecule. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s enough to make a big impact on the planet. Today, mainly because of burning fossil fuels (and also because of deforestation and a few other activities), there are about 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. That’s already a fairly large change, and we’re burning more fossil fuels now than ever before. If we burn all of the fossil fuels available on Earth, there could be about 1700 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, though we don’t yet know exactly how much fossil fuel exists across the planet. This is a very major change from the pre-industrial atmosphere, and a frightening thought, given that researchers believe that just 350 ppm may be a planetary boundary.

The change in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is causing changes to the global climate system. These changes are already impacting natural and human systems worldwide. Much larger and more disruptive changes are projected as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the consequences of these climate changes are the sorts of things that are generally considered to be bad, whether one adopts an anthropocentric ethical view or an ecocentric ethical view.

Climate change is a difficult issue for several reasons. First, avoiding climate change involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is difficult because fossil fuels are so central to our industry and our lives. Second, the global climate system and its interconnections with human and ecological systems are very complicated. We know a lot about these systems, but some important uncertainty remains. Third, the massive scale of climate change makes it a very difficult collective action problem. It involves everyone across the entire planet, from now until many thousands of years into the future. Finally, the severity of climate change is so great that human civilization may not survive it. For these and other reasons, climate change is perhaps the single most important issue for our civilization today.