With COP21 in Paris quickly approaching, Sustainable Prosperity welcomed Professor Anders Levermann from the Physics Institute of Potsdam University to speak on “The Role of Science in Shaping the Future of Climate Policy”. A climate expert, Levermann chairs Sustainable Solutions at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, was lead author of the Sea Level Change chapter of IPCC, and edits Earth System Dynamics.

Climate change, Levermann suggests, will shape future life and business — whether we like it or not. The reality is that greenhouse gas concentrations have increased over the last 150 years, causing an upward trend in global temperatures. 2015 will be the warmest year yet, and the international community’s 2 degrees centigrade target is likely to be surpassed if we do not immediately begin to lower worldwide emissions.

Luckily, governments are acting, even though it may seem they are doing so slowly. In Europe, the conversation has moved away from the scientific basis for climate change policy and toward looking at possible solutions. It is estimated that it will cost US$10-20 trillion over the next 10-20 years to transform our entire energy system into renewables. Then again, the 2008 US bailout cost US$1 trillion, and each year meteorologically induced damages cost approximately US$1 trillion excluding climate change. Mitigation might be extremely expensive, but as it will cost the same or more to address impacts in the long run, most industrialized countries are beginning to consider it the more sensible policy.

Levermann discussed two major types of climate impacts: large and unpredictable. Scientists and policy-makers hope they will only be large. The rise in temperature has already caused coral bleaching, thawing of permafrost and Arctic sea ice, rising sea-levels, and destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Most of the scientific community agrees that we can expect at least 1m of sea level rise this century. For every additional degree, the seas will rise 2-3m, putting coastal communities at risk of food and work disruptions, as well as much more frequent flooding and possible displacement. Thus far, North Americans have been shielded from the absolute worst, with the exceptions of historic hurricanes and droughts. However, Europe and Russia have dealt with crushing heatwaves and fires, and Pakistan has experienced unprecedented monsoon rainfalls and flooding. In future, Manhattan may begin to flood every 2-4 years instead of every 100, and many of our UNESCO sites will be swept away entirely.

Changes are inevitable and will be difficult to adapt to, however, most are predictable based on our scientific understanding. If we do nothing to change our behaviours, there are far worse events that could happen. Some examples of potential “tipping” points include the cooling of the North Atlantic Current which would cause far colder temperatures in the northern hemisphere and much warmer temperatures in the south, and the unlikely but possible loss of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would cause catastrophic sea level rise. The challenge we face is to keep the changes from becoming unpredictable.

Looking forward to Paris, industrialized countries are beginning to adopt policies that will prepare us for the shifts required to overhaul the entire system. No-one can accurately predict the future, but starting in 2016, we may be living in a very different world. Unfortunately, this shift won’t happen fast enough to prevent warming, but it could be just in time to make a difference.