Blog #90: How do we Know?

October 13, 2022
Monika Weber-Fahr
Would it not be lovely to be able to say that all of these new environmentally minded laws, technologies and requirements are not necessary? That climate change may exist – but that it has nothing to do with how our societies and economies are organized? That the notion of man-made climate change was dreamt up by some crazy scientist. And therefore, that no one needs to change their behaviors? "Do you accept the scientific consensus that the man-made burning of fossil fuels is rapidly and dangerously warming the planet", a journalist asked the President of the World Bank, David Malpass, a few weeks ago at a public gathering in New York. And the head of the largest financier of climate change relevant investments in the developing world appeared flustered. He then proceeded to duck the question. “I am not a scientist” was his answer, insinuating that more or different insights were needed. Civil society organizations, political leaders and scientists were quick to correct him – both in the US and around the world. Within a day, Malpass corrected himself, telling journalists that he agrees climate change is caused by humans burning fossil fuels and that he is “not a denier”.


Foto: Screenshot of a website of the British Antarctic Survey. Climate scientists go all the way to Antarctica and Greenland to collect evidence about just how human behavior manifests itself in the atmosphere, building up green house gases that then cause and drive climatic changes. The evidence is right there! Yours truly got to see it herself when at Cambridge a few years ago. 

I was surprised when I read about all of this. Not because there are climate deniers – there will always be a few people having a hard time accepting new realities. But I paused when I saw that the chief of the World Bank would find it appropriate or behooving his role and organization to inject doubts into the public debate about something so fundamental to his own mandate. Already some 20 years ago, when I worked at the World Bank’s private sector arm, I had been invited to join a weeklong seminar in Cambridge/England, together with many other colleagues from across the organization. We participated in an exercise that eventually included some 80 percent of all VPs, directors and managers of the World Bank: A Cambridge Sustainability Seminar – comprised of a series of workshops that had us engage with scientists, business people, and practitioners and learn from their insights on climate change specifically and on environmentally sustainable pathways for firms and economies more generally. Latest since then, the World Bank as an organization knows Climate Change – and what to do about it. Indeed, many aspects of the education they offered to us were extraordinary. Not only in terms of content - but also in terms of evidence, including the evidence for climate change that came straight from the Arctic.
We did not travel to the Arctic ourselves. Politicians such as Merkel, Cameron and Trudeau had done so, to talk to scientists first hand and to bring attention to the melting ice up and down there. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to have my own personal arctic moment when I got to see – up, close and personal - the ice cores that the British Antarctic Survey teams had brought in straight from Antarctica. Why is this impressive evidence? In quoting the BAS: “Ice cores are cylinders of ice drilled out of an ice sheet or glacier. [...and] contain information about past temperature [as well as other environmental dimensions of our past since the ice encloses] small bubbles of air that contain a sample of the atmosphere”. These samples allow “to measure directly the past concentration of atmospheric gases, including the major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide”. So here I was, nearly 20 years ago, standing right in front of the irrefutable evidence of how much the share of CO2 and of other gases in the atmosphere had grown – and how this coincided with the increase in humans burning fossil fuels. Odd – is it not – that the head of an organization so deeply involved with climate change programs, having trained all its leadership on the ins and outs of climate science, would have difficulty confirming the evidence? I myself know how we know - ever since that visit in the labs - and that has helped a lot in steering my own engagement.

Foto: The exhibition Unseen Places here in Vienna, at the Hundertwasser Museum, includes extraordinary pictures of the work that Scientists do in the most remote parts of the Arctic.  All in service of us knowing and learning about Climate Change.

Why am I telling you about all of this today? Last weekend, here in Vienna, I saw the pictures of something that looked very much like the ice cores that had impressed me so much, back in Cambridge 17 years ago.  There is an Art Exhibition at the Hundertwasser Museum: Unseen Places is its title, and Gregor Sailer is the name of the Austria-born photographer who put it together. It is comprised of a series of stunning visuals of places far away and left alone, quite a few of them in the general vicinity of the arctic circle. As part of a project called the Polar Silk Road, Sailer went and took rarely seen shots of locations of human endeavors in sub-zero temperature. One of these locations is the lab of the East Greenland Ice-core Project (EastGRIP), a project that looks to retrieve an ice core by drilling through the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream. Now, it turns out that the location of drilling for these ice cores is rather different from the locations used by the Cambridge teams; the British Arctic Survey gets its ice cores in Antarctica – some 18,000 kilometers south from Greenland’s site of the EASTGRIP work, nearly the full distance between the Earth’s two poles.
The message of these pictures is the same as what I saw in Cambridge: The evidence is here, right in front of us, and scientists are constantly out there to confirm and re-confirm. Climate change is happening, and it is man-made, and these labs are (part of the evidence of) how we know. Just watching the extreme floods reported on over the past weeks - in Pakistan and in Florida - reminds me just how frequent such climatic extremes have become. We would do well to brace ourselves and advocate for the changes in our lives that are needed for climate change to slow down - because we know it’s there and how to shift its pace.
In the meantime: Do check out the Unseen Places exhibition at the Hundertwasser Museum; it is open until early February. Only a few of the exhibits are about the ice cores but I promise, you will walk away impressed: Impressed by the evidence such as these ice cores and by seeing so up-close-and-personal what researchers are prepared to do to get us the evidence we need. So that we know.
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