We Do Not Have Climate Change Under Control. A Sense of Urgency is Needed!
Understanding where we stand today with climate change, the path we’re currently on, and why 2°C matters in the first place.
Before diving in, you should know that I, personally, am optimistic about our ability to overcome climate change. Once people not just know, but truly understand what the effects of climate change entail, I believe they will want to take action. With the right mix of awareness and inspiration, I believe people around the world will come together and rise to this challenge.
So, please keep in mind that I don’t say any of this to scare you – but also know that this is not the inspirational bit (if you want that, definitely sign up for the sustainability newsletter).
I am about to give it to you straight because that’s the first step. We must understand and confront the reality of the situation we find ourselves in before we can fix it.
We do not have climate change under control. A sense of urgency is needed!
I’m sure some may think that talking about climate change with such urgency is “overblown” or “alarmist”. My response to that is: if you accept all the facts and think the path we’re on is just fine, then let’s chat. I’d honestly love to be convinced that’s the case and see the scientific literature on it. The reality is, the changes we are witnessing are largely in line with what scientists have been telling us for decades and it points to a dire situation. If anything, scientists have actually underestimated climate change in their projections over and over again – possibly because of such “alarmist” accusations. As newer and better climate modeling comes out, we continually see that the situation is worse than we thought.
We all have to deal with the impacts of climate change. What good does sugar-coating it do?
Under the Paris climate accord every country in the world except the US has agreed to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.” 2°C (3.6°F) is the widely agreed upon limit of warming because it’s a straightforward target and seen as the threshold where the impacts from climate change are escalated from “dangerous” to humanity to “catastrophic”. The main things to know about the Paris agreement are:
- The world united, nations recognized climate change as a common threat, and ambitious goals were set – amazing! (I may or may not have shed a tear when I first heard the news)
- Countries submitted pledges to reduce their emissions. They are expected to increase these pledges every 5 years. Measuring progress and reporting their emissions are legally binding commitments. – love it.
- Achieving the set targets is non-binding with no penalties regarding how they actually do – alright, not ideal.
- The initial pledges made to reduce emissions are nowhere near enough to limit warming to the goal of 2°C (shown in the chart below) – wait, what?!? I thought they were going to get this figured out?
See our current emissions path, trajectory under Paris, and what is needed to keep warming under 2°C (NY Times infographic)
Although it’s a much-needed step in the right direction, when you look into the Paris climate accord you see that it’s just that. A first step (albeit a good, necessary one). You can see in the infographic above that there is a huge gap between the pledges made under Paris and what is needed to stay under 2°C. World leaders came together, agreed climate change is an enormous, global issue and then did as much as they could with all parties agreeing.
As the lead negotiator for the US, Todd Stern puts it, “Paris found the sweet spot between what was necessary and what was possible.”
The fact that we have a global agreement is fantastic and there are some great things about it, but it’s just one of the many things we need to do as a society to fight this invisible, common enemy of GHGs. Alone, the agreement is not enough. Although world leaders are finally going in the right direction, they don’t have this under control. Our leaders have known about climate change for several decades and have floundered in their collective response to fight climate change. They can’t fix it on their own and we are in a race against time. Regular people like you and me have to step up.
So, yes, we’re not even close to staying under 2°C warming right now compared to pre-industrial temperatures, but why is 2°C so important in the first place? Do you really notice a big difference between a 59°F and a 62.6°F day (15°C and 17°C)? Let’s be honest. 2°C just sounds trivial…like, super wimpy. What’s the big deal?
Unfortunately, when we hear that the Earth is warming by 2°C, our intuitive understanding of the magnitude and consequences of such a change is inaccurate – we dramatically underestimate the true severity, and thus implications, of such a temperature change. Rather than thinking about what that wimpy 2°C change in weather feels like, a better way to think about it is how you feel when your body temperature increases by 2°C (3.6°F). Looking at it this way, 2°C turns us into a bunch of wimps. We are bedridden with a fever, fighting off an illness when our temperature goes up by 2°C. Humans are physiologically stable at 37°C or 98.6°F, and if the heat is turned up just a tad (to 39°C or 102.2°F for example), we’re out of commission. We feel like crap. That slight change in temperature has an outsized impact on us.
The difference between our fevers and Earth’s: our fevers help us get better by killing off invaders and we typically feel better in a day or so. The Earth, on the other hand, will have its fever for hundreds or thousands of years. It will render large swaths of the planet uninhabitable as Earth’s ecosystems deal with the additional heat and extreme weather. A lot of life (that includes people), will die as a result of the domino effect of the changes set in motion. Although a 2°C limit is the globally agreed upon goal to avoid societal catastrophe, we are on track to blow right by it. The situation is not pretty.
In 2016 the planet was 1.1°C (2°F) hotter than it was in the late 1800’s. This is directly in step with humanity’s rising GHG emissions (see below).
Even if we eliminated greenhouse gas emissions immediately, it’s been estimated the global average temperature would increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) no matter what because there is a lag time for the earth to heat up. You know how it takes a little time for water to heat up to a boil when you’re cooking? Well, it’s the same for Earth because it’s mostly water, but instead of taking minutes to warm up, it likely takes between 10 and 40 years. So warming from our most recent decade(s) hasn’t even hit us yet.
Conservatively assuming this warming brings us to 1.5°C, that leaves us with 0.5°C of warming left before we hit the 2°C limit. According to some studies we only have a 5% chance of staying under 2°C. Most, if not all, of the climate models out there that do show a path to staying under 2°C, do so by including negative emissions technologies that are unproven and require an unrealistic amount of land. I’m not saying it’s impossible or that something else won’t come along because, well, who knows? But would it be wise to depend on these unproven or non-existent technologies given what’s at stake?
Rather than banking on a new technology to come along and save the day, it would be far more prudent to start doing what we can right now to reduce emissions. We have the technology to do it and it is now economical. As you can see in the previous charts, our emissions have not even peaked yet. Some do think we are close, but for now, the fact remains that our emissions continue to go up each year when we desperately need to be reducing them as quickly as possible.
As it stands today, we’re currently on track for 2°C to 4.9°C (3.6°F to 8.8°F) of warming above pre-industrial times by 2100. The median temperature of the forecast is 3.2°C (5.8°F).
Again, this may not sound like too big of a deal initially, but it would be absolutely devastating for civilization. Remember the fever analogy? How would you feel with a fever that high? There’s a decent chance you would be in the hospital and you’re actually approaching fatal levels on the high end of that range.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says unabated climate change would have “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” The world bank said, “there’s no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible…the projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur.”
Let that sink in for a second. We are not in control and seriously need to get on top of it. There is simply too much at stake.
In part 4 of this series, we take a look at the effects climate change will have on people and society. You’ll see why it is the biggest threat humanity faces today.
Climate Change: The 5 Things You Need to Know series:
- Climate Change is Happening NOW
- We Do Not Have Climate Change Under Control. A Sense of Urgency is Needed!
- Climate Change is the Biggest Threat Humanity Faces Today. It Unquestionably Affects PEOPLE.
- Climate Change Will Affect YOU
- We are the Cause, and Therefore, We Must be the Solution to Climate Change
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