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We Can Still Do A Lot To Slow Climate Change. But Will We?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Hello, science crew. We’ve assembled to discuss the end of the world as we know it. I don’t say that to be melodramatic — the world is changing, and a new report out this week suggests just how drastic the changes will become if the world doesn’t kick its carbon addiction. The report, from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, states that between 2030 and 2052, we’re on pace to warm the atmosphere by 1.5 degrees Celsius.1 At that point — a point at which plenty of people reading this will still be alive — 14 percent of the world population will live through “severe heat waves” at least once every five years, animals and plants will experience mass disruptions to their ecosystems, and humans will incur major health and nutrition consequences.

All of that gets worse if we warm the atmosphere by 2 degrees rather than 1.5 degrees. (The New York Times has a nice visual explainer of this.) As of now, we’ll hit 2 degrees eventually — it’s just a matter of when.

I’d like to have a cheerier intro, but that’s what we’re here to talk about: a disaster that we’ve known is coming, but that we haven’t prevented from happening.

Let’s start off with this question — Anna, Christie and Maggie. If you were given the keys to the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System’s Wireless Emergency Alerts — aka, what caused all our phones to light up with a text last week — to blast out one thing from the report, what would it be?

christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead writer for science): Leave that carbon in the ground!

cwick: Christie, you have more characters than that at your disposal if you want!

maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): Haha

christie: OK, how about: “Look out!! There’s an asteroid barreling toward us. To stop it, we must quit burning fossil fuels.” I mean, the impact will be something akin to that, except it happens incrementally instead of instantaneously, which is part of the reason it’s hard to grasp.

anna (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, senior reporter): The U.S. needs to kick its carbon habit. Climate change is here and happening. And it’s happening faster than we had hoped. (Let’s get a little hope in there, eh?)

maggiekb: And what about this for mine: Little increases in global average temperature have big implications, in terms of actual outcomes.

christie: Good point, Maggie. And remember that those numbers are Celsius, which are smaller than Farenheit. We have already warmed the planet by 1 degree, and we’re seeing lots of consequences.

anna: Yeah, a lot of the focus of this particular report was on highlighting the difference between an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius and an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

maggiekb: The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius doesn’t sound like much if you’re thinking about the difference between half a degree on a sunny day. But it’s a big enough difference at global climate scales that scientists are publishing big reports trying to emphasize that we have the ability to avoid that half-degree’s worth of impacts.

christie: CarbonBrief has a nice chart that outlines some of the differences.

cwick: This new report seems focused on two main things: 1) The world warming 1.5 degrees is worse than we thought and 2) That means we should all be ready for devastation being part of our lives within the next few decades.

anna: I think that second point, Chad, is particularly interesting. There’s a lot of work in this report to focus on keeping warming at 1.5 degrees and what that would take. But between the lines, there’s also a pretty stark statement that a lot of change is going to happen.

maggiekb: It reminded me of a book that, while a bit older at this point, does a really good job of explaining why these little incremental differences in global average temperature matter: Mark Lynas’s “Six Degrees.”

cwick: And, of course, there are more options here than just 1.5 degrees and 2.0 degrees. The science suggests that every incremental increase has an effect on many organisms and natural phenomena.

christie: At this point, we’ll have to pull out all the stops to stay below 2 degrees.

It’s crucial here to point out that there are economists working on this problem. Science can show us what will happen at different greenhouse gas emission scenarios, but it’s the policy experts and stakeholders who have to decide what we’re going to do about it. There are going to be tradeoffs, and that requires value judgments.

maggiekb: And, as to those value judgments, well some of that is summed up pretty well in the work of the two economists who just won the Nobel prize for economics. Their workand this report — both sort of line up to suggest that getting any of this accomplished (the technological growth, the coordinated global changes) will have to involve some kind of top-down structure. Even if that’s just in the form of funding research and setting taxes on carbon. And that is … to say the least … not an optimistic outlook politically for the U.S. right now.

So it’s probably no surprise that, while we signed onto the “summary for policymakers,” the U.S. State Department also issued a statement basically disavowing any support or agreement with the report and reiterating that we’re withdrawing from the Paris accord.

anna: One thing that is striking to me is that the report and the takeaway seem to focus on mitigation, preventing the increase — which … makes sense. But the report also basically says we can’t mitigate without technologies that don’t exist, or without doing things like hurting our food supply. Which made me wish for more focus on adaptation.

cwick: Can we take a step back and make clear what we mean by mitigation versus adaptation?

Anna, are you saying that there’s some argument that we should let the climate go and start to build around the reality of climate change more than try to stop it?

anna: Right. I am certainly not making that argument in those black-and-white terms. It’s not mitigation (preventing global warming) versus adaptation (planning for global warming). We definitely need a mix of both. But it was really striking to me that this report calls for more — more coordination, more reductions in carbon emissions — and politically, we’re having so much trouble even achieving what was agreed upon at the Paris climate talks.

christie: Good point, Anna. And the ugly truth is that the Paris agreement, which President Trump has snubbed, was only a start, and an aspirational one at that. It essentially relies on technology that doesn’t exist to meet the targets.

anna: The report has an interesting section that says most studies could not come up with models that were able to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius that did not include international coordination. At the same time the U.S. president has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, the Australian prime minister has said that he thinks the country can meet its obligations without any policy changes, and Brazil may soon elect as president someone who has suggested that he might withdraw the country from the treaty.

maggiekb: I guess what I’m trying to say by bringing up the federal response and the values stuff is that I’m not feeling super optimistic about the mitigation possibilities. When I’m talking about mitigation, I basically mean the “keeping the carbon in the ground” part. Or some combination of that and sequestration of carbon through various as-yet-unproven technologies. Adaptation, in this sense, means how do we deal with the impacts of climate change after we’ve failed to do those other preventative measures.

Like preventing a heart attack vs. rushing the ER.

christie: Anna, I think part of the reason there is so much focus here on mitigation, versus adaptation, is that we are getting to the last minute. It’s very important to recognize that this is not set in stone yet. We can still do something. So if the report were to just say, “well, we’re screwed, and let’s just focus on adaptation,” … well, that’s a real slap in the face to people in island nations and many developing countries who have never enjoyed the riches of fossil fuels and are already getting hit with the damage.

I think we should acknowledge how desperate it is to be looking at ways to suck carbon from the atmosphere. It’s like trying to cram all night for a final you never studied for. Except you’re starting the morning of the exam.

cwick: This kind of procrastination mentality speaks to our predicament, right? Because, yes, world leaders have fallen down on the job, but it’s also the public as a whole that hasn’t exerted much pressure on them. Climate dystopias are a part of blockbuster movies, books, video games, you name it — and yet we haven’t felt much urgency in our real lives. Is there anything in this report that suggests it will change any time soon?

If anything, that the effects will be felt most strongly by the poor makes me think it will take global leaders even LONGER to react. At least directly. The way that the refugee crisis has roiled Europe suggests that global events have a long reach, whether we connect consequences to their catalysts or not.

anna: I think there’s plenty of history to back up that fear.

maggiekb: Yeah. That’s the concern I have. The impacts — as this report makes clear — will disproportionately going to fall on the global poor. But the global rich, while we won’t be unaffected, won’t be necessarily living in a Mad Max dystopian hellscape, either. It’s really, really easy for us to basically be history’s assholes here

We talk about how we’ll explain this to our grandchildren. But we’re really, at a certain level, talking about how we’ll explain this to somebody else’s grandchildren. Our grandchildren will continue to be the frog in the slowly warming pot, while those other people’s grandkids die.

christie: Chad, the U.S. military has certainly given thought to the potential implications of global warming. It’s almost certain to be a cause of global strife. In 2014, the Defense Department published a climate change adaptation roadmap. The department’s position: “The impacts of climate change may increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including Defense Support to Civil Authorities (DSCA), while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”

anna: Indeed, there’s also lots of academic work looking at how climate change can exacerbate conflict.

cwick: Since we aren’t going to solve the issues raised by the IPCC report in a chat (though, what a great story that would be if we did), let’s end by trying to suss out what our readers are supposed to do with the new information in this report. We’ve talked a lot about government-scale solutions. For those who care about this stuff, should they abandon the energy they were spending recycling and biking and lobby politicians instead?

christie: I think the Onion nailed that: “Climate Experts Say Only Hope For Saving Planet Lies With People Who Save Napkins From Takeout Order.” In other words, yeah, people should do things like recycle and drive less (better yet, stop flying). But we can’t get where we need to go without large-scale, top-down solutions. The current system can’t meet it.

anna: Right — bending political will is an important step for anything here.

christie: The scale of the problem can only be met with a total overhaul of our energy and economic systems. We can see that as a threat or an opportunity. There are lots of business opportunities here.

cwick: Let the record note that a full three minutes have lapsed since the last message, showing just how giant and puzzling of a question this is!

christie: There’s another great Onion piece that contains some important truths:

“MYTH: There is nothing mankind can do to prevent climate change. FACT: There is nothing mankind will do to prevent climate change”

anna: Cold truths. Warm climate.

christie: We can do this. The question is: Will we? And so far the answer is a resounding no.

maggiekb: Let’s all go get drunk. I mean. Uh. Let’s all recycle and some shit.

cwick: Text that to the whole country.

maggiekb: I think the big question for me coming out of this, all joking aside, is how we make this seem possible again. (If it ever did seem possible.) This needs a heavy dose of the politics of optimism. The magic of feeling like things can be done.

christie: Maggie, there has been so much optimism at so many points in the history of this. At the 1997 Kyoto climate summit, we stood at the brink of really doing something. And then politics intervened.

maggiekb: So maybe the focus, if we want to mitigate climate change impacts, should be on that: Making the mountain look smaller. Making the sea look like you can hold it back. Because we’re not going to do what this report suggests with the mindset that I currently have about all this. Which is, again, “Welp, let’s all go get drunk.”

christie: 🍸

Footnotes

  1. Compared with pre-industrial temperatures.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester reports on public health, food and culture for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is a senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Chadwick Matlin is a senior editor at FiveThirtyEight.

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