John Schellnhuber’s Third Industrial Revolution, a New Approach to Addressing the Hazards of Global Warming

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One of the topical lectures offered at this year’s annual meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), wrapping today in San Francisco, sees John Schellnhuber expanding on his 12 global warming tipping points (Mother Jones Nov/Dec 2006).

Schellnhuber’s impeccable credentials (founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, James Martin Fellow at Oxford University, Chief Government Adviser on climate for the German G8 and European Union twin presidency in 2007) underscore his brilliant and impassioned message: we need a Third Industrial Revolution to achieve a sustainable future on planet Earth.

“We’ve lost almost a decade in my field debating the climate change models,” he says. There’s no time to waste. He describes the “2-degree guardrail” (3.6 degrees F). If we can keep global warming at or below 2 degrees C, we may prevent the 12 tipping points from tipping. Whereas even minute increases above 2-degree C are likely to initiate cascades of catastrophe impossible to reverse.

The only way to hold to the 2-degree line is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Currently the world is still accelerating its production of greenhouse emissions. You do the math.

“Eternity,” says Schellnhuber, “lasts a very long time, especially towards the end.”

He shows an animation of the 12 tipping points tipping each other one after another and then swirling around in a vortex of chaos. “I can stop it,” he says, “but only in virtual reality.”

To stop it in reality, he argues we must induce innovation. “People think innovation is manna from heaven and will simply happen,” he says. Not true—though we know what’s encouraged it in the past. “World War II was the biggest inducer of innovation on this planet,” he says, and an example of how we need to pour our collective resources into a new war, a new fight for our survival.

Nicholas Stern’s report to the British government said that the only way to hold the 2-degree C line is to induce innovation. Meanwhile, says Schellnhuber, the past two decades have seen a dramatic decline in research and development in energy, exactly the reverse of what’s needed.

We need to reinvent the way we live on the land and in cities, Schellnhuber says—including breaking the urbanization mold. Our cities have been built to maximize automobile traffic. But urban life as we know it is not sustainable: it’s nonadaptive to global warming, as well as being a major contributor to global warming.

As for security, Schellnhuber refers to a global analysis of a future where the tipping points have already tipped. The results are wars, civil wars, and an overall “climate of violence.”

As for the solution, “it’s the portfolio, stupid.” We need to mix it up with all the renewables—hydrothermal, wind, solar, biofuels—with solar being our best bet since it’s evenly distributed across the spectrum of rich and poor nations, thereby minimizing the tendency to horde with all its geopolitical consequences. The European Union is already talking about linking a renewable energy grid across the continent.

Schellnhuber’s PowerPoint presentation and lecture should be required listening for all presidents, prime ministers, members of congresses and parliaments, CEOs, CFOs, state legislatures, middle and high school students, parents and prospective parents.

On the average-joe level, why not include its message in driver’s ed? We’re taught the dangers of drunk driving and other forms of recklessness. Why not the hazards of our own fossil-fuel consumption? It’s arguably more dangerous to more of us that we’ll never meet than any other activity we engage in. Why not start the Third Industrial Revolution with a question on the driving exam: “What’s the single biggest thing you can do behind the wheel to save the lives of your children and grandchildren not even in the car?”

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