Some believe that we, due to rising temperatures as a result of our emissions, might be close to a tipping point and will experience irreversible changes for the worse. One of those is Nic Balthazar. He made the claim as a guest in the current affairs show “De 7de dag” (the 7th day) of last Sunday. He was invited there to comment on the COP 24 climate conference in Catowice. Nic Balthazar, a Belgian film director and a TV/radio personality, is also a co-founder of “Klimaatzaak” (an organization that filed legal action to force the federal and regional governments to improve their climate policies). The latter position is why he was invited.
He had mixed feelings about the conference. On the one hand, he was glad that some agreement was made, considering how many countries were present and all had to come to a consensus. On the other hand he was disappointed (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):
On the other hand, it is the again incomprehensible that they didn’t want to listen to what all the scientists say today.
“All” the scientists? He is doing even worse than Bernie Sanders, who made a slightly less far-fetching statement and was (rightfully) criticized for it. But I think I can understand where the claim comes from (maybe more about this in some later post).
Back to the story: he continued (translated from Dutch):
And it is however not so hard to understand what the IPCC report said in October.
Now that is interesting. The IPCC indeed published a report in October.
Then came the most interesting part in which he showed what exactly he understood from that latest IPCC report.
I will give it a try to explain that 1.5 degree. We are now at a 1 degree warming. They [the scientists of the IPCC report] say that you get this at 1.5 degree.
He now puts his coffee mug on the edge of the table, half of it still on the table:
This is his explanation (translated from Dutch):
Then you are somewhere at a tipping point, after which actually everything we see happening in the climate will be irrevocably unrecoverable. So now we have, between that 1 degree warming and that 1.5 degree -where we will go anyway- still a small margin to choose which future we want. Then, if we don’t do that -and right now we’re not doing that and that is also not addressed in Katowice- then this will happen.
He then pushes his mug over the edge of the table …
… while explaining (translated from Dutch):
Then we are over the edge and we can’t go back. You can’t really continue to negotiate with the Earth.
Okay, the guy is a film director, he surely knows how to dramatize things.
It surely is a clear explanation, but is it also true?
He seems to be rather certain that there is a tipping point at 1.5 degrees warming and that we therefor can choose our future (if we stay below 1.5 we will be somewhat okay, over 1.5 degrees disasters will happen). I very much doubt that the IPCC would claim that there is a sharp tipping point at a 1.5 °C temperature increase. In the IPCC reports, uncertainties are added and this is what I miss in the absolute certainty claimed by Nic Balthazar.
It is very easy to check tough, so I first went to the press release and couldn’t find any mention of a tipping point. This is the closest that I could find (my emphasis):
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
There is more nuance in the Summary for Policy makers (my emphasis):
Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present, but lower than at 2°C (high confidence). These risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options (high confidence).
And I have no doubt that even more nuances are being described in the underlying report.
The risk of a treat is not the same as the treat itself. When I for example go to work in the morning, then I risk being hit by a car. How high that risk is depends on many things, like how early I leave, how busy the traffic is, the state of the road, the weather and so on. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I WILL get hit by a car, even when the risk is high.
The claim of the report is that the risk of irreversible or long-lasting changes is elevated when we go to a 1.5 °C temperature increase and is even more elevated when we go to a 2 °C increase.
What the report doesn’t say is that there is a tipping point at 1.5 °C, as demonstrated by Nic Balthazar. More, it doesn’t even focus on the risk of irreversible changes. It might also well be a risk for long-lasting changes. Between an indisputable tipping point at 1.5 °C (as claimed by Nic Balthazar) and the risk of changes at 1.5 °C warming (as claimed in the IPCC report) is a huge range of uncertainties that he seems to have missed…