A decade, maybe a little more, is all the time we have left for acting to keep global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial era, U.N. scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced Monday. That’s 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the dawn of the industrial age, global warming has boosted temperatures 1.0-1.2 degrees Celsius.
The good news from the scientists is that the 1.5-degree goal may still be attainable. That’s unlike what most scientists thought when the 2015 Paris climate agreement included 1.5 degrees as an “aspirational” goal. Their view was that it was only realistic to shoot for 2 degrees (3.6 degrees F).
The bad news is we’re nowhere near either of those goals and the consequences of not acting soon are grim. As we have heard from scientists more than once previously, those consequences are happening more immediately than previously thought, according to the draft IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.
To stay at or below the 1.5-degree goal, the scientists made clear in the conclusions that not only must swift action be undertaken, as in right now, it must also go deep and involve all sectors, not just energy, but agriculture, and transportation. The urgency cannot be over stressed. Climate hawks were saying this years before the Paris talks.
Currently, despite all the pledges made in Paris and the encouraging pace of renewable energy installations, the world is on a course for a 3-degree Celsius warming above the pre-industrial level. That’s 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit. And “catastrophic” doesn’t capture how bad this would be.
The report, the work of 100 scientists who reviewed more than 6,000 peer-reviewed papers on climate change, sets forth four scenarios using different means for keeping to the 1.5-degree goal. All require cutting the planet’s current 40 billion tons a year of carbon emissions by a billion tons a year no later than 2030. In all those scenarios, the world needs to have stopped or nearly stopped burning coal by 2050.
There’s a bit more time to act if we are willing to accept an increase over the pre-industrial era of 2 degrees. But even a 1.5-degree rise would have major impacts—some of which we are already seeing. An extra 0.5 degree may not seem like much, but scientists found the impacts at 2 degrees to be substantially more:
For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm (4 inches) lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2°C.
“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II.
It must always be remembered that climate scientists, and particularly the IPCC, have been very conservative in their assessments. Some see that as wise, others think the caution has been overdone. Added to that caution is the fact that by the time these reports come out, new data have made some of the assessments obsolete. The new data often show some impacts from anthropogenic climate change are happening faster than expected.
When it comes to climate change, the science deniers—the plutocrats, politicians, propagandists, and fossil-fuel proprietors who have lied for decades about the impact of greenhouse gas emissions—have been the main target of criticism by green pundits and environmental advocates. Understandably so since, for decades, the deniers did such a bang-up job of convincing many Americans that climate change isn’t happening, that it is a hoax, that it is just a way for scientists to get government grants, that only God can change the climate, and that environmentalists are like watermelons, green on the outside but red on the inside—that is to say, secret communists.
As for politicians, we’ve got a denier squatting in the Oval Office. The vice president and at least a dozen of the other 19 people who are next in line of presidential succession are also deniers. And more than half the members of the Senate and the House are deniers. Some of them are ignoramuses and some of them are bought-and-paid for marionettes, tools of the fossil fuel industry.
But deniers aren’t the only obstacle blockading serious action. So are the delayers. And delay is just another form of denial.
These delayers include a bunch of politicians and corporate leaders, who say they accept the global warming verdict of the vast majority of climate scientists but drag their feet when it comes to supporting actual policies—not to mention initiating policies—that address climate change in an aggressive way. While all kinds of excuses are given for why we should tip-toe slowly in dealing with climate policies, their willingness to delay suggests these people don’t really believe the scientists. Or maybe they do, but they’re worried it will cost them their jobs if they back policies pushing for rapid changes in how we heat and cool ourselves, how we produce our food, how we transport everything, and how we make electricity. What should get them fired is if they don’t support such policies.
The delayers don’t always succeed. Bold leaders in a few states, dozens of cities, and some corporations are setting high renewable energy goals for themselves. California is shooting for 100 percent renewables by 2045, as is Hawai’i.
The IPPC report makes clear that delay is an unreasonable option. The large difference between impacts from a rise of 1.5 versus 2 degrees (3.6 degrees F) surprised some of the scientists. But even holding at only a 1.5-degree increase will require major, some would say draconian, cuts in greenhouse emissions. The longer the wait, the more draconian the response will have to be to meet that goal.
The report states there “is no documented historic precedent” for the “rapid and far-reaching” transition required if we’re to keep to 1.5 degrees.
Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis at The Washington Post write:
“It’s like a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen. We have to put out the fire,” said Erik Solheim, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program. He added that the need to either stop emissions entirely by 2050 or find some way to remove as much carbon dioxide from the air as humans put there “means net zero must be the new global mantra.”
The radical transformation also would mean that, in a world projected to have more than 2 billion additional people by 2050, large swaths of land currently used to produce food would instead have to be converted to growing trees that store carbon and crops designated for energy use. The latter would be used as part of a currently nonexistent program to get power from trees or plants and then bury the resulting carbon dioxide emissions in the ground, leading to a net subtraction of the gas from the air — bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.
Among the differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees, hundreds of millions more people would experience food and water scarcity, poverty would be exacerbated, more extreme weather, particularly very hot days, would occur and cause more heat-related deaths and more wildfires. Ocean acidity would wipe out almost all the coral reefs, and the insect population would be much more reduced through loss of habitat, a problem for pollinating crops, the reports says:
Of 105,000 species studied,9 6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1.5°C, compared with 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C (medium confidence).
The report, which was requested as part of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, was presented at the conclusion of a meeting in South Korea of delegates from the 195 signatories of the agreement. In its final form, it will be included in the discussions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poland in December.
Some other key points from the report:
• During the 2006-2015 decade, 20-40 percent of the world’s population lives in regions that have experienced at least one season of warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial era.
• If all human-caused emissions were immediately cut to zero, scientists have high confidence that the amount of warming beyond the current level would not be more than 0.5 degrees over the next 20 to 30 years and medium confidence that it would be likely less than 0.5 degrees for the next hundred years.
• The report notes that equity is a crucial consideration given that some mitigation approaches may have a disproportionate impact on the poor and vulnerable who have already felt disproportionate impacts from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and the stirrings of climate change. Mitigation efforts should always be conducted keeping in mind sustainability, eradicating poverty, and inter-generational equity.
• ”Negative emissions” operations that remove carbon emissions are necessary to meet the 1.5 degree goal, the scientists say. The problem: While technology is available to do some of this, it’s yet to be done on a large scale and it’s not clear that it can be scaled up enough or quickly enough. And it could have hugely negative and long-lasting side-effects.
Jonathan Watts at The Guardian writes:
Bob Ward, of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change, said the final document was “incredibly conservative” because it did not mention the likely rise in climate-driven refugees or the danger of tipping points that could push the world on to an irreversible path of extreme warming. […]
“I hope this can change the world,” said Jiang Kejun of China’s semi-governmental Energy Research Institute, who is one of the authors. “Two years ago, even I didn’t believe 1.5C was possible but when I look at the options I have confidence it can be done. I want to use this report to do something big in China.”
The science is clear. Scientists believe the 1.5-degree goal is technically attainable. The question is whether we have the political will to make it happen.
Delay is denial.