Canadians may abhor the rising price of gasoline, but Thomas Stocker suggests the planet might be better off if it soared to “three to four” times its current level.
“This is scandalous, I know,” said Stocker, adding sky-high gasoline could help slow the climate change which world leaders have declared one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Much higher pump prices would help people realize there are “much smarter ways to go from point A to point B” than climbing into “three tonnes of steel and rubber” that spew greenhouse gases, said Stocker, who was in British Columbia last week to discuss the insidious effect humans are having on the global atmosphere.
The Swiss climatologist is a key player with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He and the IPCC say there is no question the climate is changing because of the huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases wafting into the atmosphere through the burning of oil, gas and other fossil fuels.
The atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level is the highest it has been in 800,000 years, Stocker said — temperatures are climbing, sea levels are rising and heat waves are becoming more common and more dire in many countries.
Stocker stressed that decisions made today — how much and what type of energy is used in transportation, homes, buildings and factories — will help shape what the future brings since emissions released today will contribute to changes felt decades from now.
“It’s not like we wait to 2049 and say ‘Oh, we’d like to have less climate change in 2050,’” he said in an interview.
He compared the situation to slamming on the brakes to avoid a car crash. “You don’t wait until you’re half a metre from the wall.”
And if society won’t cut emissions, he asks “are we ready to pay the cost of adaption?” he asks, citing the prospect of seeing some Pacific island states sink beneath rising oceans.
To avoid the worst impacts scientists say warming must be kept to a 2 C increase in the average global temperature by 2100, which would mean about 6 C warming in the Canada’s north. That, they say, can only be achieved by slashing emissions over the next 10 to 20 years.
Stocker said there are still unknowns in our understanding of how climate works, but the ominous projections are “not crystal ball readings” but are based on facts and well-established scientific laws.
The details are spelled out in data, studies and computerized climate models that are under review by more than 1,000 researchers from around the world for the next round of IPCC reports due out in 2013 and 2014.
Stocker co-chairs the IPCC working group of 250 scientists exploring the scientific aspects of climate change. Other groups are looking at the impacts of climate change and ways of mitigating the damage.
The IPCC’s last report in 2007 stated “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” — a “fact” that Stocker said has not been challenged despite the IPCC recent troubles.
The panel, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, became embroiled in a furor over a glaring mistake — its last report incorrectly stated that the Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035.
There was also controversy in 2009 over leaked emails from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. that indicated leading climate scientists, who work on the IPCC, had tried to stifle critics. The IPCC has since committed to being more transparent and improving communications and has new protocols for addressing errors in its reports.
Stocker said the next round of reports will elaborate on everything from the role aerosols play in the climate system to the fate of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which could drown low-lying regions around the world if they melt.
There is speculation that climate change is already causing more extreme weather, but Stocker said there is still no proof that the number of tornadoes — like the ones which have been tearing across the U.S. this spring — is increasing. “But we can say with confidence that it fits the picture,” he said.
Scientists have been calling for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for 20 years, but global emissions continue to rise along with use of fossil fuels like the bitumen product rendered from Alberta’s oilsands.
Stocker said he sees little chance of success in “quick-fix” geoengineering schemes, like putting solar reflectors in space or pumping sulphur into the atmosphere to “play volcano” and cool the planet.
He said the only real solution is to cut emissions, and it makes much more sense to start now than wait to 2020.
He said Canadians, like Americans, could make a significant dent in their emissions by reducing per capita energy use, which is among the highest on the planet. There is great potential for reducing energy use in homes through the use of better insulation, more efficient windows and appliances, he said.
And a big price hike at the gas pump, said Stocker, would make people and governments get much more serious about switching to more efficient ways of getting around.