February 28, 2011


2010 Talk Show: Seeking a Better Future, Rather Than Despair -- Part 1

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.101 (January 2011)

On December 31, 2010, an interesting talk show took place in Tokyo and this issue of the JFS newsletter includes some excerpts from the first part of the talk.

2010 Talk Show: Seeking a Better Future, Rather Than Despair

Reiji Yamada, comic artist of "Coconuts Period," "Zetsubo ni Kiku Kusuri (Medicine for Despair)," etc.
Seita Emori, chief of the Climate Risk Assessment Research Section at the Center for Global Environmental Research of the National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES)
Yu Tanaka, executive director of the Mirai Bank (a non-profit organization; "Mirai" means future)
Junko Edahiro, environmental journalist and chief executive of Japan for Sustainability

YAMADA: Global warming issues were one of the hottest topics around 2007, when Edahiro-san translated Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth" into Japanese and the global warming projection using the unique "Earth Simulator" supercomputer in which Emori-san was involved attracted a lot of attention. But since then, more people have become skeptical about global warming issues. They say, "Eco, or going green, is egotistic," or "If Japan is the only country pursuing a high emissions reduction target, it won't have any effect," or "Global warming is not really happening." In fact, it's cold today, isn't it?

Note: Seita Emori was a member of the joint research team that conducted global warming experiments aimed at predicting conditions in the year 2100 by using the Earth Simulator. The research team released their results in September, 2004. In 2006, a TV program related to the predictions by the Earth Simulator was broadcast and a book, written and edited by Emori, was published later.

EMORI: It sure is. One of the reasons Japan is now experiencing an unusually cold winter is the La Nina phenomenon. I expect you may have heard of the El Nino and La Nina phenomena. These have always occurred occasionally and have nothing to do with global warming. Global warming refers to the increase in average global temperature. Since the average temperature gradually rises, we don't feel any change over a year or two. But when we look back at the trend over ten or twenty years, we can see that the Earth is indeed getting warmer. Along with this rising temperature trend over the course of several decades, we can also see colder or warmer years in a shorter time perspective. It's cold this winter because we just happen to be in a short-term cold spell. However, the global mean temperature in 2010 was the second highest [since 1891, according to a preliminary report issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency on December 21, 2010].

YAMADA: Summer this year (2010) was really hot here in Japan. Also in the United States and Europe, people died of heat stroke during heat waves.

EMORI: That's right. We had a terribly hot summer this year compared to normal. On a long-term basis, the world is surely getting warmer. If we consider only the global land surface mean temperature, the figure for 2010 was the highest on record [since 1880]. So, we need to look at the average over a long period of time. There is no contradiction between "Japan is having a cold winter this year" and "The Earth is getting warmer."

YAMADA: Then, how about the stunning decline in Arctic sea ice?

EMORI: The ice caps in the Arctic grow in winter and shrink in summer. The point is how much smaller the extent of sea ice is during a normal summer or winter. Arctic sea ice usually reaches a minimum in September. Though the year of 2007 saw an unprecedented rate of decline, figures for the extent of Arctic sea ice slightly increased again in 2008 and 2009. Therefore, some people say, "We don't have to worry about the Arctic ice caps melting, after all." But, what is alarming to me is that the sea ice has been remaining much smaller during winter.

TANAKA: In the Arctic Ocean, newly formed ice melts more quickly than old ice. Since 2007, however, the ice covering the North Pole has been primarily new ice.

EMORI: That's true. Older, thicker ice is declining, while newer, thinner ice is increasing. We tend to forget about ice density when we focus only on the extent of Arctic sea ice.

YAMADA: I heard that most of the ice in Greenland has melted.

TANAKA: Greenland is an area where the Inuit people live. They hunt seals for food. They can only capture seals on the ice, because seals can swim very fast in water. But, as the area covered by ice has been shrinking, they have difficulty hunting seals and some people even starved to death.

YAMADA: I have seen many images of rotating wind turbines on television in recent years. The overall emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) seem to have been offset greatly by active wind turbines. Is it true?

EMORI: CO2 emissions from developed countries have been decreasing, but this is because their economies have slowed down.

YAMADA: Thanks to the recession! What about total global emissions?

EMORI: They are not decreasing at all. On the contrary, CO2 emissions from developing countries are increasing. China, for example, is said to be working aggressively to rapidly introduce natural energy (or renewable energy) sources and energy-saving technologies on a national scale, but China's overall emissions are increasing because of the large amount of emissions resulting from high economic growth. One other concern is the growing level of methane concentrations in the atmosphere. Methane emissions stopped increasing for a while after growing for many years. No one knows why they stopped, though. And methane emissions have become active again over the last couple of years. It is difficult even for experts to determine what has caused these increases, whether permafrost has started to emit methane, whether it is coming from the Arctic Ocean, or from some other source, or even if there has been a change in the process of curbing methane emissions.

EDAHIRO: Many people assume that temperatures will rise in an orderly, linear upward trend, but once permafrost starts to melt, global warming will spike because the greenhouse effect of methane is 21 times stronger than that of CO2, which could cause permafrost to melt even more, accelerating global warming. Once this process starts, it is possible that the world environment could deteriorate in a matter of seconds. This is why many people are worried that we will be too late if we keep on saying "We will start taking action after we confirm the data," or "We need to verify a continuing temperature rise first."

EMORI: The process of methane emissions from permafrost has not been figured out yet, so its data is not included in the simulation forecasting the future environment. No one knows how much impact methane would have if its data were included in the simulation.

EDAHIRO: In the last few years, the proportion of people who are concerned about global warming or think something has to be done about it is decreasing in developed countries. Surveys show these kinds of results for Japan. On the other hand, some surveys show that people in developing countries are more conscious of environmental crises are more likely to say "Global warming is a major issue and we have to do whatever we can do" than are people in developed countries.

Edahiro-san mentioned the idea of feedback mechanisms in which something undesirable causes something else undesirable, and this reminds me of forest issues. The speed at which a forest can migrate is extremely slow, because they can only move as fast as a seed can fall and grow into a tree - say 50 years - and so on. The speed of global warming is much faster. If global warming progresses, forests will have to migrate north in order to survive, but unfortunately they are not fast enough. This is why you see more and more dead trees around nowadays; not just pines, but oaks as well.

EDAHIRO: The relationship between "Nature" and "Global Warming" is a two-way street. One consideration, as Tanaka-san points out, is that plants cannot migrate northward quickly enough by themselves. Global warming causes other types of adverse impacts on biodiversity and nature, for example, it messes up the timing of hatching birds and emerging insects, with the result that birds have difficulty finding food. On the contrary, when ecosystems become more vulnerable and oak and beech forests start withering, such dying forests can no longer absorb carbon dioxide, which in turn helps accelerate global warming. Some scientists say, "Forests function as carbon sinks now, but once the temperature rises two to three degrees Celsius, forests will become carbon emitters." This may be why we often hear that we have to curb the temperature rise by at least two degrees.

EMORI: I'd like to note here that the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has never said that "we must minimize the temperature rise to at least two degrees compared to the global average." This two-degree rise is not an absolute value. Whether or not we are going to be scared about a two-degree rise depends on how we perceive it. Even if we can predict scientifically the certainty and extent of the catastrophic outcomes we'll be experiencing, this is still a matter how we perceive it. When I explain this to people, I often say "Please consider it as another type of risk." For example, even if though there is a certain risk of having a traffic accident, we still drive because it is more convenient, right? We cannot bring such a risk down to zero. It's the same thing. Some people feel concerned about temperature rise caused by global warming, taking it seriously that something disastrous "might" happen once the temperature rises over a certain number of degrees, while other people feel that "Well, it's still OK." On the premise that people perceive the reality of this risk differently, we have to gain consensus.

TANAKA: If the temperature rises little by little in a linear fashion, we could still be all right with a two degree increase. but if that triggers an exponential worsening, as Edahiro-san mentioned, an increase of just two degrees might already signify a hopeless situation.

EMORI: But it is still a "maybe." This could happen after we are all dead, you know.

TANAKA: That won't make much difference.

EDAHIRO: This is difficult because the issue will continue to effect future generations. Taking Emori-san's analogy about driving a car, for example, we ourselves are the ones who run the risk of having a traffic accident. But in the case of global warming, the current generation can enjoy the advantages of a lifestyle based on affluent fossil fuels, but the adverse risks of using fossil fuels are most likely to impact future generations. So, we should give younger people more of a say and empower them to act more directly on the future direction of society, as they are the ones who will be living in 2050 and bear the future risks of political decisions being made now. Time frame is the key here, as is also the case for Japan's financial problems. We all realize that we'll have to reduce the deficit as much as possible. But when someone says, let's reduce the amount of our own retirement benefits, then we say, "Let's think about that later."

TANAKA: The issue of raising university tuition seems to be much the same as well. When the university announces a tuition increase applicable to newly enrolled students, the current students feel, "So what? It doesn't matter to me."

YAMADA: We need to pass a law that awards half of the seats in the legislature to elementary school kids (laugh). They are the ones more likely to suffer in the future. I understand the position of scientists who can only say "something may have happened because of global warming." That's how scientists should be. That's why I believe that the rest of us need to shout "disastrous damage caused by global warming could happen here!"

(To be continued in Part 2.)