The climate emergency is ‘all hands on deck’

21 July 2023

Climate scientist and philosopher Arthur Petersen did not have to think twice when asked to write a report on long-term climate knowledge. This topic is close to his heart, so he accepted the request by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). His report ‘Long-term climate knowledge (Dutch) also discusses the Climate Research Initiative KIN.

“The core of the story is the question of how we deal with uncertainty. We know very little: we have ingenious models, but if you adjust just one slider, you get a much larger or smaller warming of the earth for a given CO2 emission path. This has everything to do with the fact that we still don’t understand so much about clouds, oceans, and the atmosphere. In science and in the corresponding scenarios, that bandwidth is considered, creating uncertainty in policy,” Petersen says. “And then we’re only talking about the uncertainty surrounding a natural scientific aspect. The big question, of course, is how society will change? How will technology change? That’s where KIN can play a major role.”

Some people believe that technology will be the solution.

“The difficulty is not in coming up with the necessary technologies. We can already remove CO2 from the atmosphere. However, it’s not just a technical issue: where is the space that we can use for this purpose, space that can also be used for nature or food production. And what about possible risks associated with those technical solutions that we don’t know about yet?”

Isn’t there a risk that we are not doing enough for CO2 reduction, because there is too much reliance on technical remedies?

“That is a real risk, while the message from science is clear: it is both – we really need to reduce and capture and store CO2. It is important to make it clear that the climate change causes a real all-hands-on-deck situation. That’s why it’s so important to involve society in the issue. At the same time, KIN must ensure that the technical aspect is not neglected. Because as mentioned, scientific research is also an essential part of the solution.”

Okay, so it’s a complicated process. Doesn’t emphasizing uncertainty become paralyzing?

“I often get this question. We saw in the COVID-19 period that this is not necessarily the case. Drastic measures were taken despite all uncertainties. The same goes for the financial crisis. Ultimately, it’s a political issue of priorities. Ironically, climate change still feels like a too-far-from-my-bed show, even though we can clearly see that it’s not. Even in our own country, think of the flooding in Limburg in 2021. At the same time, people are becoming afraid as they sense little perspective, while in my opinion there is enormous potential. We can also see uncertainty as an opportunity with various possibilities. This crisis offers us an opportunity to seriously consider what things mean in your own life. And how you look at the world. How do you, for example, look at justice?”

Climate justice is the first lens through which KIN looks at climate challenges.

“Exactly. Climate change has the greatest impact on people who did not cause that change. Moreover we are inclined to tell them how to deal with those changes. Think, for example, of disappearing coral reefs. The rich West is the biggest culprit of this development and then we go on to say that there is a technology that can make the coral grow back. That’s a new form of colonialism. Many people hardly realize that these kinds of tragic processes have a huge impact on a local culture. That is one of the big issues that I will be studying in the coming years. I am setting up a new course at University College London. I am aiming for an approach to problems under the heading of ‘post-normal science’.”

What does this mean?

“It assumes great uncertainties, and that different people have different values. That means you can never find the answer from one scientific sub-discipline. You must find ways to bridge science and society, and that’s exactly what the KIN wants to do, too. We need to be much more open to dialogue and discussion. This post-normal science is like a shell around regular science, which obviously remains indispensable. It’s definitely not a replacement, but there needs to be more coherence between science, policy, and society. That starts with bringing those parties together. I think it’s beneficial that KIN exists. It doesn’t replace anything, but rather serves as an additional option. We should all be open to embracing it.”

Do you have any final advice for the KIN?

“We can’t sit back, so we have to experiment, try things out even if that may sometimes lead failure. It is my hope that KIN embraces this mindset. The task is enormous, the uncertainty is great. To deal with that, you have to keep moving and taking action.”