On December 30, the Boston Globe posted my opinion piece entitled “The Paris deal is not enough, and time is running out.” There are a number of reasons why various writers have observed that there may be glimmers of hope for the climate notwithstanding President-elect Trump’s position that climate change is a Chinese-perpetrated hoax. For example, there are already more solar industry jobs than coal-mining jobs in the United States, and the grim future for coal generation is due far less to environmental regulation than to the relatively low cost of natural gas.
Unfortunately, while the glimmers are real, they provide a seriously incomplete picture.
No responsible person disputes that to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change we need to keep the increase in global average temperatures by the end of the century “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, the opinion piece observes:
Even if the Obama administration’s policies — like the Paris Agreement, the Clean Power Plan, and strict automobile and appliance standards — were fully implemented, we would be nowhere close to that target. According to the UN Environment Program, even if the carbon reduction pledges made in Paris are honored, the world is heading toward a likely temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees this century.
The Globe piece discusses the concept of a “carbon budget,” developed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, the world’s foremost scientific expert body on climate change. The carbon budget is the amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted into the atmosphere without causing the earth’s average temperature increase to exceed the target of 1.5 degrees (i.e., “well below” 2 degrees) or 2 degrees by the end of the century.
The IPCC concludes:
[I]f the current rate of emissions continues, there is a 66 percent chance that the carbon budget for keeping the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees will be used up sometime in 2021. In other words, even if we stopped all emissions five years from now, we’d still have only two chances out of three to hit a 1.5-degree target. (If we loosen the target to 2 degrees, we have 20 to 30 years left to eliminate all emissions in order to have a 66 percent chance of success.)
This is not an academic exercise. In light of the sea level rise attributable to climate change that the IPCC and others predict if the world stays on its current emissions path, by 2070 Kolkata could have 14 million people at risk; Mumbai, 11 million; Guangzhou, China, 10 million; Dhaka, Bangladesh, 11 million; and Ho Chi Minh City, 9 million. In other words, the refugee crisis the world is experiencing now is a pale forecast of things to come. And that’s not to mention severe heat waves, global food insecurity, and the salinization of freshwater aquifers.
The Globe piece also notes:
If we were to use all the fossil fuels extracted so far and those that could be extracted in the future with today’s technologies (but not necessarily at current prices), leading scientists and economists have estimated that the rise in temperature would be an unimaginable 8.8 degrees Celsius.
There may be just time to step back from the precipice. But as the piece notes, a more apt metaphor is: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
Here’s the link to my December 30 opinion piece: