A storm of hype or a wind of hope? Russian climate expert comments on climate change


Expert Pitch

Newswise — MOSCOW (MIPT) — Climate scientist Alexander Rodin from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology is available to comment on the global warming, the greenhouse effect, carbon capture and sequestration, and even the climates of Mars and other planets. He discussed the issue of climate change and its impact on the economy and society now and earlier in history with an MIPT Press Office correspondent.

Q: Is the climate really changing?

A: Yes, the changes are real. Researchers are observing what’s happening and registering actual changes. That said, the climate has always changed, it is not fixed once and for all. Strictly speaking, the climate is an extremely complex dynamic nonlinear system with numerous degrees of freedom. In general, systems of this kind tend not to have just one point of equilibrium. So it stands to reason that the climate should be changing.

Q: Does human activity play a role in this?

A: Sure, and industrialization has made this role more prominent. This is hardly surprising: The humanity has greatly reshaped its environment. Looking down from a plane window or from space, it becomes evident that the planet’s landscapes have been transformed by humans. The composition of the air, water, and living species have truly changed. There is no use denying it.

Q: What are the changes if we confine ourselves to climate?

A: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has sharply increased over the past two centuries. Every year our lab registers a higher level of CO2 than the previous year. Since the mid-19th century, its concentration has grown from about 260 to 400 parts per million. This increase is dramatic. In fact, there are fairly accurate methods for gauging the atmospheric levels of CO2 in the distant past, and apparently, there was no comparable carbon dioxide spike in the entire time period that is accessible to research.

All the carbon that’s in the climate system is here to stay, including the green biomass, the upper ocean layer, and so on. It does not leave the system. No matter how many trees we plant and how much carbon our forests capture, sooner or later each tree dies and either decays or burns, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. So in the grand scheme of things, planting more trees will not remove the carbon from the climate system. Actually, volcanoes feed some extra carbon into the atmosphere, but that’s about 100 times less than the man-made emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Human activity is undoubtedly the dominant channel through which fossil carbon from the Earth’s interior enters the climate system. As for the channels for sinking carbon back into the ground, there aren’t many. I’ll name two of them. First, there’s the formation of peat in mires and the subsequent coal deposition. Second, there’s coral reef growth, the deposition of carbonates. These processes are natural but very slow, and the area of swamplands is shrinking, since they are very actively transformed into agricultural lands. 

The carbon content in the climate system is growing. However, we are still a long, long way off from the levels that would be dangerous for humans or other living organisms. There were periods in the ancient history of the Earth when carbon content exceeded the present levels by a factor of 1,000 or more. Granted, the climate used to be entirely different back then.

Q: What about the greenhouse effect?

A: Well, it’s there, no doubt, but it is fairly moderate. I mean, even if the CO2 concentration doubles, the global average temperature will only slightly rise. The actual mechanisms shaping the energy balance of the planet are far more complex than those that can be described in terms of the greenhouse effect. Admittedly, we have witnessed an increase in the global average temperature in the past century, but it merely amounts to about 1 degree Celsius, maybe a bit less. But it is real, and it is attributable to the higher levels of CO2. However, in my opinion, this is not what we should fear, or what could have a major catastrophic impact.

Q: What are the things we should fear?

A: The real danger is that in some places, radical changes of regional climates are underway. By the time these rapid changes occur, the biosystem and the local agriculture might have adapted to a certain climate. The changes then cause a disaster, both economically and socially. Human history knows many cases like this, with no greenhouse gases involved at all. We know about the disaster that befell the Khazar Khaganate when the delta of Volga ran dry. We know about the disaster in North Africa, which came millennia before when a one-time flourishing oasis turned into what’s now known as the Sahara desert. There are other examples, but what makes them alike is the invariable social disasters that follow: major wars, bloodshed. And there is nothing to insure us against this happening again, possibly in the near future.

So it stands to reason that climate change in certain regions, especially the densely populated ones, is a legitimate cause for alarm. In such matters, the ability to make accurate forecasts is essential. We are now fairly close to doing this.

Moreover, I am quite confident that at some point, we’ll not only be able to predict but even to control regional climate change. This technology, which now sounds like science fiction, will become a major global industry, and I envision that Russia might become a grand player in it.

Q: What are the forecasts so far?

A: It has been predicted that within a century, we could expect major changes in the climate of South Europe, which could become similar to that of the Sahara desert. By implication, Italian vineyards would no longer be a thing in the foreseeable future. The refugees flooding South Europe today might then be redirected to North Europe or some other comfortable region. In general, we should watch Europe and the Middle East first and foremost, since the social tensions run high there. Similar processes might happen in the Americas, too. Dramatic changes are occurring right now in the Arctic region, which may result in both positive and negative consequences.

Q: What is your personal stance on climate change mitigation?

A: There is no doubt we should treat the environment with care and responsibility. This applies to everything we did not create, including the climate. That said, I am very skeptical about the alarmist tendencies and the call to stop all industrial production, prevent emission, and go back to the Stone Age. Moreover, I believe that this agenda is furthered by certain powerful and influential financial groups with interests of their own, which have nothing whatsoever to do with caring about the wellbeing of humanity. So these things should be treated in a sound and reasonable way.

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Alexander Rodin heads the Applied Infrared Spectroscopy Lab at MIPT. He can be reached at alexander.rodin@phystech.edu or by contacting Varvara Bogomolova or Nicolas Posunko at the MIPT Press Office.

The MIPT website has more news about the research done at the Institute.


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