Climate change

By Susana Barbosa, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Robotics and Autonomous Systems (CRAS) and the Centre for Information Systems and Computer Graphics (CSIG)

During the present month, in which the 26th annual United Nations Summit on Climate called “COP26” (Conference of Parties) took place, the topic of climate was once again in the news, social networks and the minds of many – and varied – “stakeholders”. Unsurprisingly, the outcome of the conference was bland, and it seemed that the task of conciliating all interests and concerns was somehow impossible. Even though my scientific work focuses a lot on climate, I must confess that my interest in climate policy issues is quite limited, but I can’t resist providing my take on this matter…  

For those who are familiar with my scientific work, my reluctance towards climate militancy may seem unexpected… after all, I have spent the last 20 years studying the planet, carrying out field campaigns to monitor geophysical parameters, developing methods to extract information from climate data, studying sea level rise and space-earth interactions… and I have no doubts about the relevance and urgency of climate-related issues for the survival – not of the planet (we know that Earth already resisted – and will keep resisting – many cataclysms), but the survival of humanity and civilisation as we know it. And even setting aside the issue of climate change, the current unsustainable use of resources should be a matter of great concern by itself, namely the increasing decline in water reserves, soil capacity, or air quality.  

While not ignoring these concerns, I advocate the separation between science and politics, science and religion, science, and activism. This doesn’t mean that I think politics aren’t important, or that I don’t have deep spiritual interests, or that I don’t find activism commendable and necessary. I simply believe that we must avoid mixing things up, so that science is able to maintain its effectiveness. It’s impossible to claim that science isn’t liable to cultural influences, since it is (and I dare say, will always be) developed by humans rather than machines. But science has a culture of its own, an ethos that demands a dispassionate, impartial and unbiased position as much as possible, which is difficult to reconcile with a “stakeholder” perspective.  

At INESC TEC, I’m currently working on several projects focused on improving the knowledge of climate and the Earth system. In the traceRadon project, funded by EURAMET (European Association of National Metrology Institutes) we are exploring ways to improve airborne radon gas measurements – for instance, to refine atmospheric transport modelling. Within the scope of the NEWSAT project, by the MIT-Portugal programme, we are developing technology that enables the study of the ionosphere, and a better understanding of the role played by this interface in both the Earth and space’s climates. Concerning the SAIL project, funded by the Environmental Fund, we collected atmospheric and oceanographic data aboard the School Ship Sagres to better understand the marine boundary layer, which plays a key role in climate, as well as the changes in the electrical properties of the atmosphere associated with climate change.  

In the European project TiPES (Tipping Points in the Earth System) we try to apply artificial intelligence methods to identify sudden climate transitions in past records. Climate data from the far past (approximately 60.000 years ago until the present day) can be found in the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, and in stalagmites, for instance. The time series of climate indicators obtained from these records show that there have been several sudden transitions in the past – i.e., temperature changes of approximately 15 degrees in the blink of an eye (some decades). And these changes took place in the absence of any human influence! There are several theories, but essentially, it is believed that there is an imbalance in the main subsystems of the Earth system (ocean, ice, atmosphere), leading to a domino effect, which makes the system move faster and faster towards a new state. If these climate shifts are well documented in the past, without any anthropogenic effects, it is easy to understand that by adding the human influence, the potential for further imbalance in the Earth system is massive!  

Using an analogy between the planet and a living being, there are more sensitiveorgans” that should not be disturbed, in order to maintain stability; in the case of our planet, some of the most obvious – which, if disturbed, can take the global system to another radically different state – include the Arctic ice, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and the Amazon forest. The thresholds for these systems may have already been crossed , i.e., even if by magic, all emissions stopped, leading to a more stable climate, the systems would probably be on their inexorable path of imbalance towards another state. And the same applies to temperatures or the sea level, for example – the effects will definitely be felt for generations to come, even if global warming suddenly stopped.  

Since climate change is a global issue that affects everything and everyone, the approach must necessarily be diverse and inclusive. Climate science, and the in-depth knowledge of the Earth’s system and its interactions, are crucial. But they’re not the answer by themselves. Humanity must be able to make decisions based on scientific evidence, but above all, on human values and an attitude that favours the common good – of all, and not just of the most influential countries. 

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