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The Earth can be saved for humanity: How a little-discu...

Our Burning Planet


The Earth can be saved for humanity: How a little-discussed revision of climate science could help avert calamity

We can reduce global temperatures faster than we once thought — if we act now. One of the biggest obstacles to avoiding global climate breakdown is that so many people think there’s nothing we can do about it.

Some people point out that record-breaking heatwaves, fires and storms are already devastating communities and economies throughout the world. And they’ve long been told that temperatures will keep rising for decades to come, no matter how many solar panels replace oil derricks or how many meat-eaters go vegetarian. No wonder they think we’re doomed.

Read: Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial 

But climate science actually doesn’t say this. 

To the contrary, the best climate science you’ve probably never heard of suggests that humanity can still limit the damage to a fraction of the worst projections if — and, we admit, this is a big if — governments, businesses and all of us take strong action starting now.

For many years, the scientific rule of thumb was that a sizeable amount of temperature rise was locked into the Earth’s climate system. Scientists believed — and told policymakers and journalists, who in turn told the public — that even if humanity hypothetically halted all heat-trapping emissions overnight, carbon dioxide’s long lifetime in the atmosphere, combined with the sluggish thermal properties of the oceans, would nevertheless keep global temperatures rising for 30 to 40 more years. Since shifting to a zero-carbon global economy would take at least a decade or two, temperatures were bound to keep rising for at least another half-century.

But guided by subsequent research, scientists dramatically revised that lag time estimate down to as little as three to five years. That is an enormous difference that carries paradigm-shifting and broadly hopeful implications for how people, especially young people, think and feel about the climate emergency and how societies can respond to it.

This revised science means that if humanity slashes emissions to zero, global temperatures will stop rising almost immediately. To be clear, this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Global temperatures will not fall if emissions go to zero, so the planet’s ice will keep melting and sea levels will keep rising. But global temperatures will stop their relentless climb, buying humanity time to devise ways to deal with such unavoidable impacts. 

In short, we are not irrevocably doomed — or at least we don’t have to be, if we take bold, rapid action.

The science we’re referencing was included — but buried — in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report, issued in August. Indeed, it was first featured in the IPCC’s landmark 2018 report, “Global warming of 1.5°C”. 

That report’s key finding — that global emissions must fall by 45% by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate disruption — generated headlines declaring that we had “12 years to save the planet”. 

That 12-year timeline, and the related concept of a “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon that can be burnt while still limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels — were both rooted in this revised science. Meanwhile, the public and policy worlds have largely neglected the revised science that enabled these very estimates.

Nonscientists can reasonably ask: What made scientists change their minds? Why should we believe their new estimate of a three-to-five-year lag time if their previous estimate of 30 to 40 years is now known to be incorrect? And does this mean the world still must cut emissions in half by 2030 to avoid climate catastrophe?

The short answer to the last question is, yes. Remember, temperatures only stop rising once global emissions fall to zero. Currently, emissions are not falling. Instead, humanity continues to pump approximately 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere. 

The longer it takes to cut those 36 billion tons to zero, the more temperature rise humanity eventually will face. And as the IPCC’s 2018 report made hauntingly clear, pushing temperatures above 1.5°C would cause unspeakable amounts of human suffering, economic loss and social breakdown — and perhaps trigger genuinely irreversible impacts.

Scientists changed their minds about how much warming is locked in because additional research gave them a much better understanding of how the climate system works. 

Their initial 30-to-40-year estimates were based on relatively simple computer models that treated the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a “control knob” that determines temperature levels. The long lag in the warming impact is due to the oceans, which continue to warm long after the control knob is turned up. More recent climate models account for the more dynamic nature of carbon emissions. 

Yes, CO2 pushes temperatures higher, but carbon “sinks”, including forests and in particular the oceans, absorb almost half of the CO2 that is emitted, causing atmospheric CO2 levels to drop, offsetting the delayed warming effect.

Knowing that 30 more years of rising temperatures are not necessarily locked in can be a game-changer for how people, governments and businesses respond to the climate crisis. 

Understanding that we can still save our civilisation if we take strong, fast action can banish the psychological despair that paralyses people and instead motivate them to get involved. Lifestyle changes can help, but that involvement must also include political engagement. 

Slashing emissions in half by 2030 demands the fastest possible transition from today’s fossil-fuelled economies in favour of wind, solar and other non-carbon alternatives. That can happen only if governments enact dramatically different policies. If citizens understand that things aren’t hopeless, they can better push elected officials to make such changes.

As important as minimising temperature rise is to the United States — where last year’s record wildfires in California and the Pacific Northwest illustrated just how deadly climate change can be — it matters most in the highly climate-vulnerable communities throughout the Global South. 

Countless people in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Madagascar, Africa’s Sahel nations, Brazil, Honduras and other low-income countries have already been suffering from climate disasters for decades because their communities tend to be more exposed to climate impacts and have less financial capacity to protect themselves. For millions of people in such countries, limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C is not a scientific abstraction.

The IPCC’s next report, due for release on 28 February, will address how societies can adapt to the temperature rise now under way, and the fires, storms and rising seas it unleashes. 

If we want a livable future for today’s young people, temperature rise must be kept as close as possible to 1.5°C. The best climate science most people have never heard of says that goal remains within reach. The question is whether enough of us will act on that knowledge in time. DM/OBP

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

Mark Hertsgaard is the executive director of Covering Climate Now.

Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre on Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Michael E Mann is a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University and author of The New Climate War.


Absa OBP

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All Comments 5

  • I don’t know, the last time CO2 levels were this high, it was 3 degrees hotter than pre industrial times. How does that work for where we are today?

    Also the notion that we can cut our emissions to zero in any meaningful time frame is just a pipe dream. Everyone is going to stop driving their cars tomorrow? Didn’t think so, and not in 5 or ten years either.

    Personally, I can’t see how we make it. It might be theoretically possible to live on mars too, but there’s no way we are going to pull that off either

  • There is one thing that the “scientists” have deliberately omitted. Population growth.

    THINK. If people have fewer children (as many as they can afford) there will be fewer fires (plus fewer cars, power stations etc etc). That would reduce the growth of carbon emissions.

    • How would you propose to limit population growth in any meaningful way? Global population growth is coming from the developing world while the developed world’s populations are shrinking so there are considerable political issues that would need to be dealt with none of which have anything to do with burning stuff. It has also been shown that declining populations bring great economic and societal problems at least as daunting as those caused by gradual global warming.

      • Well we could start off by reducing population growth and there is no real proof that this would really cause issues if done correctly ..there is no question that it’s a combination of reducing of consumption of wealthy nations AND dealing with extreme population growth (no matter what countries are the main cause) that is needed to make a big difference in slowing down climate change. The politics or maybe we should call it a taboo) of overpopulation might be problematic, but high investment in education, freely available birth control, questioning certain cultures and creating proper incentives could help alot, and there is no reason not to at least try.

        Denying developing countries access to cheap energy that can easily be stored and transported will hit the poorest countries hardest in growth, more so than slowing down their population growth..history has shown access to reliable cheap energy is one of the biggest drivers to a strong economy and the stability for the population that goes with it.
        As long as we are not willing to actively deal with some hot potatoes issues like overpopulation as uncomfortable as they may seem, reaching our climate goals will be very difficult.

    • There is only one effective way of limiting population growth: increasing wealth.

      Increased societal wealth means better child care and a reduction in infant mortality. If there is a good chance all your kids will survive, you don’t need the risk and cost of having so many.

      Increased personal wealth means one no longer has to have so many children to look after one in old age.

      This is the fundamental reason that populations are declining in richer countries but still increasing in very poor countries. You’d be surprised how many “developing” countries have reduced population growth rates compared to 30 years ago, and in many cases have even started reducing.

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