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Global Climate Change


{Nature_and_Environment.7.537}: Jay Hoffman {resist} Tue, 07 Jan 2020 17:54:09 CST (112 lines)

The sad truth about our boldest climate target
Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C is almost certainly not going
to happen.

How 1.5 degrees C became the “last chance”

The new target adopted in Paris reflected a growing conviction among
scientists and activists that 2 degrees C, the target that had served
as a kind of default for years, was in no way “safe.” Climate change
at that level would in fact be extremely dangerous. Thus the addition
of “efforts” to hit 1.5 degrees C.

But it wasn’t until last year that the world really got a clear sense
of how much worse 2 degreesC (3.6 degreesF) would be than 1.5 degrees
C (2.7 degreesF), after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) released a special report on the subject. Its findings were
grim. Even 1.5 degreesC is likely to entail “high multiple
interrelated climate risks” for “some vulnerable regions, including
small islands and Least Developed Countries.”

All of those impacts become much worse at 2 degrees C. (The World
Resources Institute has a handy chart; see also this graphic from
Carbon Brief.) Severe heat events will become 2.6 times worse, plant
and vertebrate species loss 2 times worse, insect species loss 3 times
worse, and decline in marine fisheries 2 times worse. Rather than 70
to 90 percent of coral reefs dying, 99 percent will die. Many
vulnerable and low-lying areas will become uninhabitable and refugee
flows will radically increase. And so on. At 2 degrees C, climate
change will be devastating for large swathes of the globe.

In short, there is no “safe” level of global warming. Climate change
is not something bad that might happen, it’s something bad that’s
happening. Global average temperatures have risen about 1.3 degrees C
from pre-industrial levels and California and Australia are already

Still, each additional increment of heat, each fraction of a degree,
will make things worse. Specifically, 2 degrees C will be much worse
than 1.5 degreesC. And 2.5 degreesC will be much worse than 2
degreesC. And so on as it gets hotter.

We’re still traveling headlong in the wrong direction, with centuries
of momentum at our backs.

Just focusing on the US, there’s a more than 50/50 chance that
President Donald Trump will be reelected in 2020, in which case we are
all, and I can’t stress this enough, doomed. Even if Dems take the
presidency and both houses of Congress, serious federal action will
have to contend with the filibuster, then the midterm backlash, then
the next election, and more broadly, the increasingly conservative
federal courts and Supreme Court, the electoral college, the flood of
money in politics, and the overrepresentation of rural states in the

We’ve waited too long. Practically speaking, we are heading past 1.5
degrees C as we speak and probably past 2 degrees C as well. This is
not a “fact” in the same way climate science deals in facts —
collective human behavior is not nearly so easy to predict as
biophysical cycles — but nothing we know about human history,
sociology, or politics suggests that vast, screeching changes in
collective direction are likely.

The story of climate change is already a tragedy. It’s sad. Really
sad. People are suffering, species are dying off, entire ecosystems
are being lost, and it’s inevitably going to get worse. We are in the
midst of making the earth a simpler, cruder, less hospitable place,
not only for ourselves but for all the kaleidoscopic varieties of life
that evolved here in a relatively stable climate. The most complex and
most idiosyncratic forms of life are most at risk; the mosquitoes and
jellyfish will prosper.

That is simply the background condition of our existence as a species
now, even if we rally to avoid the worst outcomes.

I know from conversations over the years that many people see that
tragedy, and feel it, but given the perpetually heightened partisan
tensions around climate change, they are leery to give it voice. They
worry that it will lend fuel to the forces of denial and delay, that
they are morally obliged to provide cheer.

The idea that hope lives or dies on the chances of hitting 1.5 degrees
C is poisonous in the long-term. Framing the choice as “a miracle or
extinction” just sets everyone up for massive disappointment, since
neither is likely to unfold any time soon.

As climate scientist Kate Marvel put it, “Climate change isn’t a cliff
we fall off, but a slope we slide down.” Every bit makes it worse. No
matter how far down the slope we go, there’s never reason to give up
fighting. We can always hope to arrest our slide.

Here in the US, we need to think about how to help Californians
dealing with wildfires, Midwestern farmers dealing with floods, and
coastal homeowners dealing with a looming insurance crisis.

All those problems are going to get worse. We need to grapple with
that squarely, because the real threat is that these escalating
impacts overwhelm our ability, not just to mitigate GHGs, but to even
care or react to disasters when they happen elsewhere. Right now, much
of Australia is on fire — half a billion animals have likely died
since September — and it is barely breaking the news cycle in the US.
As author David Wallace-Wells wrote in a recent piece, the world
already seems to be heading toward a “system of disinterest defined
instead by ever smaller circles of empathy.”

That shrinking of empathy is arguably the greatest danger facing the
human species, the biggest barrier to the collective action necessary
to save ourselves. I can’t help but think that the first step in
defending and expanding that empathy is reckoning squarely with how
much damage we’ve already done and are likely to do, working through
the guilt and grief, and resolving to minimize the suffering to come.

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