Arguably one of the most significant figures of the last two centuries was in Dublin last night, where he presented a lecture in TCD, organised by the Royal Irish Academy. The man in question is Prof Paul Crutzen, the brilliant Dutch scientist and 1995 Nobel laureate in Chemistry for his work on stratospheric ozone depletion. This work was critical in the detection of the massive Antarctic ozone ‘hole’ in the early 1980s, and the subsequent international agreements to rapidly phase out the use of ozone-depleting CFCs.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to state that without Crutzen’s pioneering theoretical chemistry, it is entirely possible that ozone depletion would by now have extended unchecked, leaving large parts of the planet exposed to deadly solar UV radiation, and drastically redrawing the map of the habitable world.
Stratospheric ozone depletion was an early warning shot that human actions had the very real capability of having profound global consequences. Crutzen was also a leader in the development of the ‘nuclear winter’ theory that posited that a significant nuclear exchange would lead to a sharp drop in temperatures and a prolonged ‘global dimming’ as a result of huge amounts of smoke and aerosols ejected into the atmosphere. This would lead to widespread crop failures and global famine. Crutzen’s work pretty much put the kibosh on Reagan era neocon dreams of SDI and a ‘winnable’ nuclear war.
As if ozone depletion and nuclear winter weren’t enough for his CV, Crutzen also first introduced the term ‘Anthropocene’ (Era of Man) back in 2000. As a scientist, he recognised the ever-increasing human impacts spreading from the local and regional to global scales, and posited that man, for better or worse, is now the chief arbiter of planetary climate for the forseeable future.
He opened his presentation with a picture taken some 76 years ago of himself as a baby. Things, he pointed out, can change dramatically in the course of one short human life. He listed off the escalating tally of human impacts: in just three centuries, human population has increased ten-fold; worldwide, there are some 20 billion farm animals, including 1.4 billion cattle – a potent new source of the powerful GHG, methane.
Industrial output has increased 40-fold, our energy usage has shot up 16-fold, the amount of fish we catch is up 40-fold, water use, 9-fold, and so on. Perhaps his most compelling slide of the presentation was entitled ‘The Great Acceleration’; it was sub-divided into 12 sections, from population growth to fossil fuel usage, river damming, GDP, FDI and more besides. In the case of phosphates, their extraction rates for fertilisers has been prodigious, but only four countries are significant producers, and all global phosphate production is expected to peak by 2020. Its depletion, Crutzen pointed out, “is not being discussed, maybe because it’s such an awful future”.
The nub of Crutzen’s talk was around global warming and climate change. Climate stabilisation, he pointed out, would require greater than a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions globally, as well as a 70-80% reduction in NO. Yet, instead of reducing, or even stabilising, CO2 emissions are increasing at the breakneck rate of 2ppm per annum (Ireland’s dip in GHG emissions in 2009, due to the recession, is unlikely to put much of a dent in this figure).
Arresting global warming will take a wide range of sustained actions, from sharp reductions in GHG emissions, to dramatic improvements in energy efficiency, the greater use of both nuclear and renewables. And even if world leaders were now to finally act in concert, this belt-and-braces approach, he recognises, may still be inadequate, given just how far this crisis has been allowed to fester without remediation.
In an essay published in the journal ‘Climatic Change’ in 2006, he argued that an “escape route” is needed if global warming begins to run out of control. Crutzen proposed a method of artificially cooling the global climate by releasing particles of sulphur in the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight and heat back into space.
This might sound crazy or reckless, but such is Crutzen’s reputation in atmospheric research that the proposal has been taken seriously, even though he knows only too well that it will do nothing whatever to address the damaging effects of rising CO2 levels, principally in ocean acidification. Drastic circumstances demand drastic remedies. “I wrote that paper in despair”, he told last night’s meeting. “When you see what has to be done to stabilise emissions, you get very upset”.
Any discussions around geo-engineering must not, he underlined “affect our resolve to reduce CO2 emissions. That must remain the number one priority, but unfortunately it’s not happening”. He concluded, as he began, with an image of a baby, but this time from another generation entirely. “My grandson will experience what we are doing (failing to contain GHG emissions) most vividly”, he said, with a note of anger in his voice for perhaps the first time in the evening.
Others who describe themselves as ‘experts’ may conclude that “the impact of climate change is relatively small… (and) will take us into uncharted territory, but so do many other things…”, or indeed, that air pollution is a bigger problem globally than climate change, or that we can afford to delay dramatic emissions reductions for decades (and any other number of ecological red herrings). However, when you sit and listen to a Nobel laureate and one of the most distinguished scientists of the last century laying it on the line so plainly, the dense haze of pseudo-scientific sophistry clears and the plain, unvarnished facts come into plain view.
And so we all must choose between believing in complacency and comforting lies or accepting some deeply painful truths. The very truths that, once grasped and truly internalised, may yet set us free.