On the Edge of Climate Catastrophe

On the Edge of Climate Catastrophe October 15, 2018

A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sobering news for the increasingly small minority of people who care about the long-term survival of the human race:

The report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.

…Absent aggressive action, many effects once expected only several decades in the future will arrive by 2040, and at the lower temperature, the report shows.

It was formerly believed that the worst consequences of climate change would become evident when the world warmed by 2 degrees Celsius, but the IPCC now predicts those effects will arrive sooner, at the 1.5-degree Celsius mark. At the present pace of carbon emissions, we’ll collide with that lower boundary as soon as 2040.

1.5° Celsius doesn’t sound like a lot, until you understand that raising the average temperature of the entire Earth by that amount means pumping an enormous amount of energy into the climate. As xkcd points out, you can define a 4.5°-Celsius difference as an “ice age unit”. 2 IAU above the modern average is the Cretaceous Thermal Maximum, a hothouse world where the continents are half drowned archipelago and half tropical swamp as far north as the Arctic Circle.

The level we’re headed for by century’s end is half an IAU above the modern average. If the new IPCC report is right, the world will start feeling the effects even before hitting that mark: an ice-free Arctic, extreme heat waves and severe droughts, shrinking crop yields, the extinction of all coral reefs, the disappearance of island nations, wars over dwindling resources, and the forced migrations of tens of millions of people to escape the inexorable rise of the sea. Cities like Miami are already doomed, whether we know it or not.

In addition, it said, the United States along with Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are home to 50 million people who will be exposed to the effects of increased coastal flooding by 2040, if [1.5° C] of warming occur.

At [2° C] of warming, the report predicts a “disproportionately rapid evacuation” of people from the tropics. “In some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant,” said Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and an author of the report. “You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and one million people, but not 10 million.”

Here’s a dark joke: if, like me, you’re outraged about the murder of atheists and freethinkers in Bangladesh, take heart. In 20 years, there won’t be a Bangladesh.

These changes aren’t going to come in the distant future, something we can leave up to our distant descendants to deal with. They’re going to arrive within the lifespan of hundreds of millions of people living today. In 2040, my son will be 24 and I’ll be 58. I certainly plan to be around at least that long.

To avert this future, the entire world economy would need to turn on a dime toward decarbonization. It would require a massive, coordinated global effort on a scale unlike anything in human history. Obviously, that isn’t going to happen. The U.S. has no prospect of acting any time soon; we’re completely in thrall to a toxic combination of religious denialism, industry-funded motivated reasoning, and good old-fashioned proud stupidity.

But it’s not only America that’s at fault, and even if the last election had gone differently, it might not have mattered (now that’s cold comfort indeed). The whole world is complicit, and even those nations that have taken steps to reduce their emissions are falling short of what’s needed:

The United States is not alone in failing to reduce emissions enough to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The report concluded that the greenhouse gas reduction pledges put forth under the Paris agreement will not be enough to avoid [2° C] of warming.

Of course, we can hope that the IPCC’s scientists are wrong – that warming won’t be as rapid as they predict, or that the consequences won’t be as bad. That would be a tremendous stroke of good luck. But the smart money never bets against scientific consensus. A better idea is to accept that this is going to happen, and start thinking about what we can do to mitigate the damage. We can’t prevent climate change anymore, but if we can reduce our carbon emissions at all, we can make it a little less bad than it otherwise would have been.

That’s why, whatever you think of Elon Musk’s well-publicized antics, I can’t bring myself to give up on rooting for him. We should all feel a tinge of hope that Tesla’s electric cars are breaking sales records. I can accept clownish behavior from a few billionaires as the price of killing the internal combustion engine and saving the world.

I also think we’ll have to have some kind of geoengineering to pull carbon back out of the air. The IPCC report suggests this as an option, although it’s not enthusiastic about it, and I can see why – it’s yet another excuse to kick the can down the road. But we’re past the point where we can afford to worry about that. We’ll have to do anything and everything just to avoid complete disaster.

The pessimism I feel when I read these dire predictions is constantly jousting with my optimism for the clean energy future. The transition is happening more rapidly than we realize, and still accelerating, but it may not be soon enough. The world is too big, has too much inertia to change course as quickly as we need to, and there’s too much accumulated damage already. This was the greatest test humanity has ever faced, and it looks more and more like we’re going to fail it.

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