Will the 2018 heatwave reignite the climate change debate?

By Jean Pascal van Ypersele

While Europe was baking in this summer’s heatwave – a consequence of climate change that no-one talks about, but which should be on everyone’s mind – Belgian physicist and climatologist Jean-Pascal van Ypersele is not impressed by the efforts of politicians, not least the European ones.


Progressive Post: The Commission intends to ‘mainstream’ all of its policies to better combat climate change. Do you think this is a good idea?

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: It would be a wonderful idea. However, in the meantime, we should be asking ourselves where the policy of mainstreaming is in Mr Juncker’s plan. There is no such thing.

PP: Has Europe missed a golden opportunity?

J-PY: After the economic crisis in 2008, we tried to get things back to the way they were before. It never occurred to us to link the issues of the economic crisis to those of climate change and start again by taking advantage of extraordinar- ily powerful investment opportunities that could have driven things in a new direction.

PP: Could this be linked to Europe’s very isolated position internationally?

J-PY: This is especially related to the current lack of vision in Europe. Europe has done a lot for European climate policy, but now, China has woken up and has invested heavily in developing its renewable energy industry.

PP: So, this must be good news?

J-PY: Of course. It’s always better to have two
major players than just one. But Europe needs to be a lot more active than it has been since the Paris agreement.

PP: Another missed opportunity?

J-PY: I just wonder what stopped more things
from happening between 2015 and early 2018.

PP: What do you mean by that?

J-PY: I get the impression that since COP21 in
Paris, Europe seems to be satisfied with just the signing of the agreement. The agreement was indeed ratified extremely quickly and that in itself is already wonderful. But the document that was ratified by all the European countries that signed the Paris agreement lays out climate policies based on numbers from back in 2013-2014. It’s only recently, several years later, that we hear about an updating of the document’s objectives, notably the reduction of emissions (which is only one aspect of climate policy), so that these new objectives might finally be consistent with the agree- ment’s new objectives.

PP: You’re referring to the 2°C increase in temperatures?

J-PY: I’m referring to new objectives because they are, in fact, different objectives to that of keeping temperature rises below the 2°C mark, which came out of the Copenhagen agreement and was later confirmed in Cancun. The Paris agreement says “well below two degrees”, which is not the same thing as 2°C and makes 1.5°C a much clearer objective. However, the European Union is only now updating these commitments and its intentions, as those that were reflected in the NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) – the document that was introduced before the ratification of the Paris agreement – do not coincide with Paris’ new level of ambition.

PP: It’s a much more ambitious objective than the 2°C.

J-PY: Indeed, given the emissions produced in the past and all the greenhouse gases that were produced, remaining beneath the 1.5°C or even “well below 2 °C” would require a much more drastic reduction of emissions.

PP: How do you explain this passivity?

J-PY: Maybe it was down to the time needed for the Commission to pre- pare itself, for the Parliament to include the right points in the agenda, for the debates to take place and come to the fore. To be honest, I’m not familiar enough with the mechanics to know, even if I have noticed more move- ment lately, including in some European countries. What’s more, I know that the CO2 tax has remained the same ever since the World Summit in Rio in 1992, as taxation at a European level, requires unanimous support from all countries. If we could exempt a lot of the aspects of climate and energy policy from this restrictive rule, groups who wish to go further than others could aim for greater cooperation.

PP: The extremely well-argumented reports of the IPCC must surely be alarming enough to remind us that there’s no time to waste?

J-PY: I think that politicians, who I am critical of for their lack of aware- ness of the urgency of the situation (even if there are exceptions), are confronted by a number of other challenges on top of that of cli- mate change. If the reports of the IPCC haven’t been sufficiently heard or translated into actions at the necessary levels, it’s because they weren’t able to demonstrate with enough clarity the sense of urgency or the opportunities for action that are available to us. There has also been the work of undermining fossil fuel lobbies, which has succeeded in delaying awareness and many measures.

PP: Could the heatwave of this summer reignite the debate?

J-PY: I really hope so, as in all our climate projections, most of the negative consequences – which are already beginning to appear today – are yet to come. Unfortunately, many don’t consider the future implications and find it hard to believe anything other than what they see today.

PP: Even despite the very real fires?

J-PY: Indeed the fires we have seen in recent years in southern Europe, in Portugal, Spain and this year in Greece, are in large part caused by the drying up of the Mediterranean basin and region, something that forecasts have been predicting for the least twenty years. Of course, there have always been forest fires around the Mediterranean, but their intensity and their frequency are linked to global warming. To say that we, in Europe, cannot yet see the consequences of climate change, is to ignore your eyes and ears.

PP: But all of this evidence still seems to not be enough…

J-PY: This is probably down to the fact that the consequences of global warming remain most acutely felt by the most vulnerable populations, which are, more often than not, not in power and not in a position to take decisions. Take a heatwave, for instance: if you are rich, you have an air conditioning system at home, at your office or in your car, so it’s not something that you will really suffer from.

PP: Philosopher Michel Serres believes that most journalists, politicians, et. are, from a young age, exclusively trained in human sciences, sociology, psychology, law or administration, but what drives the modern world and makes it unique in a historical sense, are the so-called hard sciences. Do you think that this has an influence on the fight against global warming?

J-PY: Absolutely. What comes into play then is a certain ignorance, the inability to plan for the future coupled with a tendency to be preoccupied by the short-term, and the roles of certain retrograde, outdated sectors of the economy that do everything they can to stop change. Succumbing to inertia is always easier. Rather than investing in change, these players invest in lobbying so that nothing changes. In the United States alone, the coal, oil and gas sectors spend US$900 million every year to create confusion around both the problem of global warming itself and its solutions.

PP: How has the climate sceptics’ argument changed in the face of the almost unanimous consensus of the scientific community?

J-PY: Studies have shown that more than 97% of competent scientists agree that the biggest contributing factor to global warming in the last 60 years was humanity. It has, there- fore, become difficult even for the “creators of confusion” – I refuse to use the term “climate sceptic” as scepticism is the basis of scientific research, and I don’t see why we would let cli- mate sceptics monopolise scepticism! – to say that the climate isn’t changing. So now they turn their efforts to creating confusion around the solutions to climate change: “we’ll never be able to reduce emissions to zero”, “fossil fuels are essential to our lives”… despite having been discovered only 200 years ago! We also hear: “it would cost far too much!”. The arguments have changed over time.

Read the article in French