Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing

A quarter century after the world decided to solve the problem of global warming in 1992, the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration of the Earth’s atmosphere has increased from 356 ppm to over 400 ppm and annual emissions have risen by 55%[1]. Simultaneously, temperatures have increased and biodiversity has decreased[2]. There are far fewer wild animals today than 25 years ago and humanity’s global footprint now stands at 1.6 Earths, moving the global overshoot day to August 8 in 2016[3]. Whatever politicians have been doing to prevent global warming and environmental destruction since 1992, it has not worked.

The reason for this failure is obvious. The graph below shows the global CO2 emissions and GDP since 1965[4].


It is impossible to deny the fact that the two curves are strongly correlated. Actually, the correlation coefficient turns out to be +0.976, where a value of +1 would denote perfect correlation. This should come as no surprise. To begin with, GDP measures economic activities, such as manufacturing, transportation, and travel, which all require energy. On the other hand, increasing wealth allows us to consume more and travel more. The causation works both ways: increasing energy demand leads to higher GDP and a higher GDP leads to an increase in energy demand. As long as 86% of our energy is provided by fossil fuel, we should expect a strong correlation between GDP and CO2-emissions, as is indeed the case.

Apparently, by promoting economic growth through trade agreements and deregulation, our politicians have actually been boosting global warming. There is, as Naomi Klein and others have pointed out, a fundamental conflict between our economic system and the laws of nature[5]. It is also clear that we can only change the economic system.

In order to limit global warming to below +2°C, as was decided in the Paris agreement in 2015, global emissions of CO2 would have to decrease by at least 5% annually[6]. Graphically, this looks like the green curve in the graph below.


It is simply delusional to believe that such a strong reduction is possible while maintaining economic growth as measured by GDP. It would require a correlation coefficient closer to -1 than +1, i.e. that people consume less as they get richer. Unfortunately, our political leaders do not understand this but are senselessly trying to boost economic growth.

The good news is that – contrary to common belief – the correlation between GDP and quality of life or prosperity is not very strong, at least not for rich countries. Again, the reason is easy to understand: once our basic material needs have been taken care of, more wealth does not necessarily lead to greater happiness. Having access to sufficient food is enormously important, having access to 10 times more food does not have any discernible benefits. This effect has been demonstrated in a large number of studies and the TED talk by Michael Green is a good place to start[7].


Currently, politicians all over the world are chasing their own tails. If GDP and CO2-emissions are almost perfectly correlated, one cannot increase one while decreasing the other. Unless we accept this simple truth, we will never be able to stop global warming.

Humanity is facing an unprecedented challenge. Resolving it will require courage, ingenuity, and determination. The first rule of innovation is not to prematurely exclude any possible solutions. By refusing even to discuss any ideas which could negatively impact the GDP, we limit ourselves to looking for purely technical solutions to a political and economic problem. Why are we prepared to sacrifice everything we love in order to increase an abstract number, invented and computed by economists, with no obvious connection to our well-being?

A simple solution would be to abolish the GDP altogether, as has recently been discussed by many leading economists[8]. It is redundant, being completely correlated to CO2 emissions, and it is not even useful, as it does not measure human prosperity or well-being. There is no contradiction between improving people’s lives and reducing greenhouse gases. The contradiction only appears when GDP is taken into account.

Another option is to ensure that the GDP actually measures the right thing, which is most easily achieved by putting a price tag on non-renewable resources. A global carbon tax would make it preferable to avoid using fossil, leading to massive investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It would also give people an incentive to travel less, eat less, and consume less, which would all be good for the planet. It would probably also be bad for the GDP, but who cares?

It is probably not too late to stop global warming. All we have to do is to get our priorities right and focus on effective solutions. You do not negotiate water rates when your house is on fire! Likewise, we should not be haggling over the cost of doing something we all know needs to be done. The economic cost of stopping global warming is not even a relevant parameter. What a liberating idea that is!

[1] Data on the CO2 emissions and concentrations from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center ( and from BP ( Data on GDP from the World Bank (

[2] See e.g. WWF Living Planet Report 2014 (


[4] The same sources as in [1].

[5] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (

[6] Many researchers quote a higher number, such as 6-8%

[7] See the TED talk by Michael Green or the web site of the Social Progress Imperative (


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Crystal Serenity

In this case, it would have been better if the predictions had been wrong.

Open Mind

In 1981 James Hansen and colleagues published research in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Science titled “Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide.” They discussed the result of basic physics, that carbon dioxide in the air inhibits Earth cooling off, thus heating the planet. They also reported the results of computer simulations of Earth’s climate in a world with ever-increasing CO2.


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Not your parents’ climate anymore

Many of you probably saw the temperature spiral created by Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading. Here, I have created my own plot to show the dramatic changes happening to the Earth’s climate. Starting from publicly available data provided by NASA, I have plotted the monthly temperature anomalies for a number of years: 1931, 1967, 2003, 2105, and 2106.Montly-Temperature-1931-today

My father was born in 1931 and worked with agriculture all his life. To him, it is obvious that the climate has changed dramatically during his lifetime. I was born in 1967 in a climate fairly similar to that of my father. In 2003, Europe witnessed a massive heat wave, killing up to 70’000 people. The hottest year on record was 2015 but it will soon be replaced by 2016. As Jimmy Kimmel put it: “We know that we have a problem when every year is the warmest year on record”.

In other words, the climate is changing, it is changing fast, and it is changing now. The problem is that humanity still depends on fossil fuels for 86% of its energy supply. Renewables only account for 2.2% (source BP Statistical Review of World Energy)


Despite all positive developments in the area of renewable energy, the rate of change is still far too slow. This is why a global fee or tax is necessary.


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Können wir die Klimaerwärmung stoppen

Die Lage ist hoffnungslos aber nicht ernst — Karl Kraus


Am 11. Mai werde ich auf Wunsch der Studenten einen öffentlichen Vortrag zum Thema Klimaerwärmung an der HSR in Rapperswil halten. Es würde mich freuen, wenn auch einige externe Gäste erscheinen würden. So wird die Diskussion für die Studenten viel interessanter.
Zeit: 11. Mai, 17:00
Ort: HSR Rapperswil
Anmeldungen bitte an:
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Doing what is required

It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.
— Sir
Winston Churchill

It is easy to get cynical when discussing climate change. The COP21-agreement in Paris was only a success when measured against the economic and political realities of the world today. Compared to what would be needed to save humanity, it fell far short. Even if countries live up to the commitments they made ahead of COP21 – and this is by no means guaranteed – the average temperature of the Earth will still grow by almost +3°C, which is not compatible with anything like a safe future for our children.

The problem is that even now – 24 years after the world agreed to solve the problem in Rio – we are still very far from having a realistic plan for dealing with the climate crisis. Of course, everybody know what needs to be done: we need to stop using fossil fuel as soon as possible. Unfortunately, even though everyone is talking about energy efficiency, fuel prices are lower than ever and energy companies still spend billions of dollars per year trying to find more fossil fuel, rather than investing in renewables.

Winston Churchill once said that “however beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results”. Everybody agrees that we are on the road to disaster. The US foreign secretary John Kerry has compared global warming to weapons of mass destruction, the World Economic Forum sees climate change as the biggest threat to humanity, and both the Pope and Henry Paulson, a former Wall Street insider and US Secretary for the Treasury, call for immediate action. When it comes to climate change, there are no political differences.

What are we waiting for? I believe that the climate crisis can be fixed easily without a lot of red tape and regulations. The simple plan to do so can be found here. If anyone has a better idea, please let me know. However, doing nothing is not an option anymore. Unless we get serious about stopping global warming, the future of our children looks very bleak indeed.

As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” I looking forward to the fight, but I could need some help.

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What is at stake?

If you want a good summary of what is at stake, this presentation of Johan Rockström sums it up quite nicely.

I have updated the GISEco plan to include an automatic global climate tax. From everything I have seen during the last year, this seems like to only realistic plan to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel fast enough.

I looking forward to your comments,
Henrik Nordborg

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Don’t look away now, the climate crisis needs you

The following articles in The Guardian are almost mandatory reading for anyone worried about climate change

Finally, the fossil fuel industry seems to be fighting a losing battle.

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