An article from University of Oslo

Karen O'Brien (Photo: UiO)
Karen O'Brien (Photo: UiO)

Ten percent of us can stop climate change

If only ten percent of us are able to change our mentality and lifestyle, we can stop climate change. So says Professor Karen O'Brien, who helped write the new UN report.

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University of Oslo

The University of Oslo is Norway's leading institution of research and higher education.

The world experiences more extreme rainfall, dangerous floods and strong hurricanes, warns the new UN report on climate, but most refuse to listen. "Everybody" knows that this really is important, but the message is too tough.

Political leaders have achieved little. It is acknowledged that the Kyoto Agreement had few real consequences for climate change, and most people had little faith in the Summit in Durban in early December.

Yet Karen O'Brien, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, has not given up. And she contributed to the latest UN report, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), launched in Oslo this week.

Hard and soft power

"I am a strong opponent of those who argue that we have reached a point where human-induced climate change is so great that we cannot do anything anymore, that we have reached a point of no return. I am convinced that we can all do something," says O'Brien, who is the main author of one of the chapters in the UN report.

"We must adapt ourselves to the idea that we can influence the climate" says Karen O'Brien (Photo: Colourbox)
"We must adapt ourselves to the idea that we can influence the climate" says Karen O'Brien (Photo: Colourbox)

"But we cannot just wait for the 'leaders' to do something. The first change must take place inside our own heads - we must adapt ourselves to the idea that we can influence the climate. So we must push for change in our communities and our country, as well as in our own culture, and in our own thinking. In a few years we will laugh at this consumer society we have now, where we compete over how many shoes and bags we have in the closet, where we travel all around the world on vacation. I do not think change comes from above, from climate agreements where governments commit to international agreements that opened loopholes for the sale of quotas. It is at best a minimum solution," says O'Brien.

The insurance industry will force change through

O'Brien has more confidence in the economic forces that affect development. She believes that many large companies see the writing on the wall and will adopt greener technologies. The large insurance companies that insure and lend money to the rest of the insurance industry are meticulously following the findings of climate research. Among the most eager readers of the IPCC document are the giants Munich Re and Swiss Re.

"Insurance companies can stop the aviation and shipping industries, indeed whole transport systems, and all other kinds of industry. You can’t put an oil tanker to sea without insurance. And insurance companies are concerned. They do not want to be financially responsible for climate change as it will cost very much to clean up," says O'Brien.

Three scenarios

The UN report is based on research from hundreds of researchers. But it lacks concrete figures. Nowhere is it written that the climate is going to be x degrees warmer after y years.

This is a disadvantage since countries want hard reliable facts they can take to the table, and it is also a disadvantage since the general public may get the impression that climate change is not so dangerous or that "scientists disagree". But, the professor explains, this uncertainty is a necessity for scientific reasons.

The UN report has divided the globe into 26 zones, each of which is subdivided into smaller regions. In each region, there is uncertainty. How the climate changes in each area depends on trade policy, politics within countries, population growth, economic growth, how green the economy is, economical differences in countries and communities, and how the community is able to adapt in practical terms.

According to O'Brien scientists cannot say that a specific area, in India for example, will suffer a flood that is of a certain size, in a certain number of years, and that the consequences will be such and such. It depends on natural fluctuations, human impact and many factors that cannot be foreseen – from specific quantities of greenhouse gases to how local people adapt their behaviour.

"For example, do people in vulnerable areas live on the banks of rivers? How do they build their houses? Do they have an agriculture that erodes the soil? We have used three models for each region, where we have supposed three types of community development at the micro and macro level. But even with the model where we have assumed the most environmental initiatives, we foresee a warmer climate," explains the professor.

"Much of the vulnerability has been created by human activity. Large floods or landslides that kill thousands are not necessarily events that happen by themselves, but are partly created by society. When a million people live in appalling conditions in makeshift sheds on a hillside, with no access to sanitation or drainage, it is no coincidence when disaster strikes. It is the result of a policy, a social system," she says.

The consequences for Norwegian salmon and strawberries

O'Brien is mildly frustrated by how little impact serious climate research has on the public debate in Norway - not least in light of the Euro crisis.

"It seems that many people in Norway believe that a warmer climate would be beneficial for Norwegian agriculture, for example. But we know that only small changes in temperature can have major impacts on biodiversity in Norwegian forests and in the ocean," she says. 

Changes in rainfall can affect agriculture.

"We can perhaps get a reaction from Norwegian national sentiment if we can tell Norwegians that something they have a close and emotional relationship to may not last forever. That the delicious Norwegian strawberries are in danger, or that Norwegian cows will not produce enough milk. Or that salmon may stop spawning in Norwegian fjords," asserts O'Brien.

She thinks that strawberries might be in danger:

"It is possible, especially if we get too much rain at the wrong time in the summer. We do not know everything we need to know about how climate change affects the local climate. It will have an affect."

Green values

Explaining consequences of climate change can be difficult, the researcher admits. 

"This is because no one takes responsibility for ensuring that people are informed and that they continue to learn about the world once they are adults. It is hard to influence people's basic values and how they view the world, but I do not think it is impossible, and we must not give up."

"Among my children's generation green values are taken for granted, but among those my age or older we need to work harder. Not everyone will change, but perhaps ten to eleven percent in a society can be enough. They will take responsibility in leading the way and thus change their societies from within," says O'Brien.

In Europe, she points to Germany as a country where citizens have got the politicians to see the gravity of the situation, while in her old homeland the US, California stands out with its investment in sustainable energy.

Researchers agree

If anything, the UN panel is criticised for being too cautious in it projections, according to O'Brien. There are researchers who believe the risk of cyclones is much larger than the panel suggests even in their worst case scenarios. Some other researchers warn of even higher temperatures and warn that sea levels could rise by up to two meters - which will mean that many of the world's ports will be partially under water.

"Five years ago we talked about the Earth's average temperature rising by two to three degrees. Some researchers are now talking about a rise of six to seven degrees," says O'Brien.

She admits that there is an ongoing superficial debate with so-called "climate skeptics", but the few scientists who disagree with the IPCC are peripherial in there respective research milieu. Those who work on climate change are concerned with recent "systems-thinking"; that is, they see many systems - meteorological, biological, political, economic, etc. - in context. How changes here and now can affect changes in another place or another time. For example, how changes in temperature affect pests and pollen spreaders and what consequences this has for agriculture.

Norway's responsibility

In O’Brien’s opinion Norway’s role is crucial, even though it is a small country and in spite of an economy based on oil.

" Norway should take the lead. We have the finances to do it. If Norway cannot achieve its goals, it has no moral right to tell the South that they must achieve their climate goals," says O'Brien.

"Oil is a non-renewable resource that we use for fuel. We should have used it for purposes for which we have no alternative. It is no less valuable if it is used for better purposes in the future, when we will have established a green energy system. Those who do not realize that energy production in the world will change to green energy have lost. China understands this. It is in the Chinese five-year plan, and they are now buying green technology companies," concludes O'Brien.

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Read the article in Norwegian at forskning.no

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