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Irina Rogozhina, Expert in Climatology, Physical Geography and Glaciology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology

“The more we increase the global Earth’s temperature, the more severe will be the consequences of such increase on us and the environment around us.”

  • The Russian expert, who talked exclusively with Página V, is currently leading five international scientific projects on climate changes in the past and the present, and also on the impacts of global pollution introduced by the human race.

Irina Rogozhina is one of the scientists who know the most about climate change in the world. Currently she is Professor of Physical Geography, Climatology and Glaciology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the most important in the Nordic country.

“My projects span large periods of time, going back to greenhouse worlds of the dinosaurs and beyond, and counterpose these remote past periods with the present and future that the Earth is experiencing.”

One of her projects, the REACT Project (REsistance to ACTion, www.react-project.com), goes beyond natural science to explain and visualize to people what irreversible damage they are causing to their planet right now, what dreadful impacts this will have on their lives in the upcoming decades, not centuries, and how slim our chances are to solve the problem, if we don’t unite in an attempt to solve it right now.

This resonates, she added, with the call of the United Nations to start acting on climate change in 2020, “otherwise it might be too late to save the environment that we need to survive. As a scientist and a university teacher, I deal with a lot of skepticism from students and the general public with regards to climate change. As a former climate change denier, I am convinced that the denial is the result of ignorance, not knowing the facts and not being able to project the consequences.”

Your presentation at the EGU General Assembly in April 2019 had the following headline: “Transforming the world’s perception of rapid global climate change: A 12-year deadline posed here and now” Why? Are there any alternatives to overcome this problem? Is it too late? Please expand on your statement and arguments.

At the end of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a special report on the devastating consequences of the human-made global temperature rise of 2°C during the 21st century, predicted to occur within merely two to three decades. While a 2°C temperature increase does not seem like a big deal, in reality it is as much as halfway between freezing conditions of the last ice age and today’s warm climate. 

In response to this report, the United Nations (UN) have set a deadline of 12 years to limit the disastrous consequences of climate change for people and all natural systems that sustain us. This deadline urges countries around the world to unite and reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and by 100% towards the middle of the 21st century. 

The UN request is enormous in terms of expected global collaboration and indefinitely costly – the transition to a zero-emission society within this short period of time will require over 6 trillion dollars of investment into infrastructure per annum between now and 2030.

If we don’t meet the UN’s deadline, the predicted consequences are devastating but may not mark the end of the human era. Whether we are facing the global struggle and potentially the end of the humanity or not, however, depends on how well we can make such future predictions, the point I am addressing in this interview.

What is your analysis of climate change and how could you illustrate that this phenomenon is here to stay?

Throughout the Earth’s history, greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane have regulated how warm or cold the climate has been. The major function of greenhouse gases is to absorb the heat emanated by the Earth’s surface and captivate it within the atmosphere. A large portion of this heat is then sent back to the Earth’s surface, instead of being lost to the outer space.

The greenhouse gases thus act as a blanket covering and warming the Earth or as a greenhouse keeping the heat within. The more greenhouse gases there are, the warmer is the Earth’s climate. Without greenhouse gases the Earth’s surface would have a temperature of about -20ºC instead of +15ºC and would be frozen and inhabitable for humans.

Naturally greenhouse gases are present in the atmosphere in very small amounts, and some of them, for example carbon dioxide, have a very long residence time: Once they enter the atmosphere, they will stay there for 50 to 200 years or longer.

So is climate change human-made…?

Today’s human-made climate change is driven by enormous amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas), and these gases accumulate over time, not to leave the atmosphere for decades and centuries. 

Thus, even if we stop burning fossil fuels now, the warming will continue due to greenhouse gases that have already been released into the atmosphere.

In addition, more than 90% of the excess heat trapped by these gases has been absorbed by the deep oceans, which will take decades to cool back to their normal, even if we manage to decrease greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Finally, many irreversible processes have been already activated to further promote the climate warming. Examples of such processes are the ongoing melting of permanently frozen ground (permafrost) containing vast amounts of methane and carbon dioxide in Siberia and Canada and loss of the Arctic sea ice leading to less solar energy reflected back to space and more – absorbed by oceans, again leading to an additional warming of the Earth surface. 

We have entered a vicious circle, which is hard to exit. The more we increase the global Earth’s temperature, the more severe will be the consequences of such increase on us and the environment around us.

The UN recognizes a possible global warming of up to 6 degrees by 2100 in its climate models. According to your opinion… Could humanity survive or adapt to an increase of 6°C during the 21st century?

It is unlikely that the humanity will be able to adapt to a change so drastic and rapid. When we evaluate the chances of the humanity to adapt, we should not simply think of whether humans can survive higher temperatures, decline in freshwater availability as well as increasingly frequent weather extremes and natural disasters. 

These expressions of climate change are likely within the human adaptation limits (including new technologies). However, a completely other aspect of climate change is the adaptation of other species that we need for survival: Phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) and plants that generate oxygen and allow us to breathe, insects that pollinate plants and allow for their reproduction, species that enter food chains of other species including humans. 

We are now observing massive die-off and migration of species: Many native trees and animals are going extinct, fish are migrating with the speed of up to 200 km per decade towards the poles, and land species are also moving closer to the poles and to higher elevations (mountains) where it is colder. They feel the change, and they are on the move.

And how did they adapt to temperature increases in the past?

Even though there were periods in the past when life on Earth strived under much warmer conditions than today, the well-being of most living creatures and their ability to adapt to a global climate change depends directly on the pace at which climate warms or cools.

Multiple examples of inability to adapt to a rapid climate change can be found in the history: One of them is the Permian mass extinction, when rapid changes in the Earth’s temperature comparable with the changes projected into the 21st century resulted in a suffocation and die-off of 96% of marine life and 75% of animals on land due to a quick drop in the oxygen levels. 

The historical examples such as the end of the last ice age and the Permian extinction event show that life strives and adapts under slowly changing conditions, and fails to adapt to rapid changes, which we are facing now and will be increasingly experiencing over the next decades.

What are the imminent risks we are facing today?

While everyone is now talking about intensifying weather extremes, natural disasters and rising sea levels, the most dangerous aspect of climate change may be left unnoticed. 

Based on historical examples and existing projections, we are now facing the largest unknown: New technologies may help some humans (possibly a small portion only) to survive the expressions of climate system instability and mass extinction of other life forms on Earth, but can we really survive without oxygen? What happened during the Permian mass extinction when nearly all life on Earth suffocated without oxygen and ceased to exist?

Phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) in the ocean generates about 50% of the Earth’s oxygen, but the adaptation limits of phytoplankton are largely unknown. If we lose even half of it, the oxygen levels will drop by 25%. Oceans are currently most affected by the climate change, since they absorb more than 90% of the excess heat triggered by rising greenhouse gas concentrations and get increasingly acid due to increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide.

Is the ocean behaving differently today?

Ocean’s chemistry is changing due to climate change, combined with enormous amounts of synthetic garbage dropped into the ocean and chemicals from agriculture transported by rivers, affecting all marine species, including phytoplankton.

In addition to the ongoing losses of forests due to wildfires, clearance for industries and agriculture as well as decline in pollinating species, this could possibly result in as much as a 50% drop in oxygen levels. Are our technologies good enough to supply the entire planet with oxygen or should we start purchasing oxygen masks just in case?

The imminent risk that we are facing is the lack of predictive skills and long-term vision. Our science progress has made it very far during the last century and yet not far enough to see the whole range of irreversible consequences the climate change and pollution can have on us as a species.

Is climate change only the result of human activities?

Historical records have clearly linked increases in greenhouse gas concentrations to the switch from hand production methods to machinery and factories following the industrial revolution (~1820).

Since then, and especially during the last three decades, the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere have increased by 150 and 300%, respectively, and continue rising from year to year. The recorded increases are closely following the scientific estimates of human-induced greenhouse gas production. 

The levels of greenhouse gases are now significantly above what the Earth has experienced during the last 2.8 million years and if we follow the current trends, we will exceed the gas concentrations of the dinosaur era (65-100 million years ago) by the end of the 21st century.

Is there more historical data?

Since the global climate change is happening at a historically unprecedented rate, we do not have any close analogs in the past, from which we can learn. 

However, the physical laws are guiding us towards the understanding that the climate system is pushed too rapidly out of equilibrium, and this is why natural disasters and losses of species (animals, insects, trees) are on the rise and will be increasing exponentially through the upcoming decades. 

We should also keep in mind that the future projections of global temperature rise do not account for releases of vast amounts of methane and carbon dioxide from melting permafrost and possibly from gas hydrates in the ocean floor – thus, even the most dramatic future projections may be too optimistic.

How should climate change be effectively mitigated? What is the planet’s capacity to react?

The first solution to this global problem is to finally force the acceptance by all nations that the climate change poses an existential threat for humanity. Politicians do not have the specialized education to understand the science behind the climate change and the entire range of its possible consequences, including phenomena, which are already observed.

The technologies we have today can enable a fast and smooth transition to a low-emission society worldwide but for this to happen all governments must work together, and the rich should pull the poor, which in the current world seems rather like a utopia.

The second solution is to promote governmental efforts through individual actions of people globally. Many people are ready to act – we see it through climate strikes happening worldwide – and they have already achieved significant results: Visibility of the problem and urge for a global action are now among the most important agendas. 

Sadly, many of these people are not aware that their own individual consumption and daily choices account for 72% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Internet resources are full of misconceptions and confusion, often stating that what people do does not matter, making readers skeptical and their direct involvement very difficult. Yet, it is their personal choice how often they catch a flight, how often they drive a car, how poorly insulated their houses are and how they heat them as well as how much meat they eat. Unlimited personal choices result in an uncontrollable source of greenhouse gas emissions and are supporting global industries in putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, while producing petrol for the planes and cars and maintaining herds of cows and sheep to feed 8 billion people.

What are the tools available to the scientific community to raise awareness?

To achieve the transition in people’s lifestyles, governments need to invest in proper climate change education at schools, universities and through mass media. 

Working together with artists, scientists can provide materials for such education, but government should assist with its implementation on a country scale. To start acting, people need an understanding of the urgency (existential threat) and clear instructions for what they should do (at the pace they can process). 

Changes should be introduced gradually and should be backed up by consumption policies and new infrastructures introduced by governments. For example, to limit the use of private cars, cities should at least provide decent and affordable public transportation, which is not the case in many places in the world, including Chile.

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