According to the U.N. report, the only way to avoid this disaster would require “rapid and far-reaching” changes in the capitalist system that is the substructure of civilization, East and West. What must be changed, it says, are energy systems, land use, urban design, transportation, and building design — at a minimum. Changed so they contribute no greenhouse gases to the atmosphere — and can you imagine a world where transportation, for example, doesn’t pollute the air and we get along without cars, airplanes and cargo ships?
Though “energy systems” looks like a mild phrase, it actually implies the end of coal, gas and oil in the near future, the very fuels upon which industrial capitalism is based. There is no way that so-called “renewable” sources (which of course are not renewable because solar panels, windmills and batteries have finite lives and must be replaced) could ever replace those carbon-based fuels.
No wonder that most scientists — and anybody else who knows how politics works — say that this sort of wholesale economic change will not come about. There’s not a political system of any stripe anywhere in the world that is prepared to, or even knows how to, transform a society out of our modern way of life. That’s why one scientist has said in response to the U.N. report that it is nothing more than an academic exercise in “what would happen if a frog had wings.”
A decade ago, the “father of global warming”—the first scientist to sound the alarm on climate change in the 1980s to the US Congress—announced that we were too late: the planet had already hit the danger zone.
In a landmark paper, James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, along with seven other leading climate scientists, described how a global average temperature above 1°Celsius (C)—involving a level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere of around 450 parts per million (ppm)—would lead to “practically irreversible ice sheet and species loss.” But, they added, new data showed that even 1°C was too hot.
At the time the paper was issued in 2008, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were around 385 ppm. This is “already in the dangerous zone,” explained Hansen and his colleagues, noting that most climate models excluded self-reinforcing amplifying feedbacks which would be triggered at this level—things like “ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and GHG [greenhouse gas] release from soils, tundra, or ocean sediments.”
Such feedbacks constitute tipping points which, once triggered, can lead to irreversible or even runaway climate change processes.
According to Hansen and his co-authors, these feedbacks “may begin to come into play on time scales as short as centuries or less.” The only viable solution to guarantee a safe climate, they wrote, is to reduce the level of greenhouse gases to around 350 ppm, if not lower.
Today, we are well in breach of the 1°C upper limit. And we have breached this limit at a much lower level of atmospheric CO2 than Hansen thought would be necessary to warm this much—as of May 2018, the monthly average atmospheric CO2 had reached 410ppm (the August measurement puts it at 409ppm.) This is the highest level of CO2 the earth has seen in 800,000 years.
The IPCC says that this would just be the beginning: we are currently on track to hit 3-4°C by end of century, which would lead to a largely unlivable planet.
They STILL haven’t dropped the other shoe. The “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C” contains terrifying forecasts about what will happen when we reach an average global temperature 1.5 degrees C higher than the pre-industrial average. (We are now at +1C.) But it still shies away from talking about the feedbacks, the refugees and mass death.
The report is a bracing dose of realism in many ways. It effectively says we can’t afford to go anywhere near +2C. It talks bluntly about the need to end all fossil fuel use, reforest vast tracts of marginal land, and cut down on meat-eating. It even admits that we will probably have to resort to geoengineering — “solar radiation management,” in the jargon.
So far, so good. At least it’s being honest about the problem — but only up to a point. “Not in front of the children” is still the rule for governments when it comes to talking about the mass movements of refugees and the civil and international wars that will erupt when the warming cuts into the food supply. And they still don’t want to talk openly about the feedbacks.
The governments take climate change very seriously these days, but they worry that too much frankness about the cost in lives of going past 1.5C will create irresistible pressure on them to take radical action now. In the ensuing struggle between the scientists and the politicians, the executive summary always gets toned down.
What got removed from the summary this time was any mention of “significant population displacement concentrated in the tropics” at +2C (i.e. mass migrations away from stricken regions, smashing up against borders elsewhere that are slammed shut against the refugees, the real reason for Trump's wall).
Even worse, “tipping points” are barely mentioned in the report. These are the dreaded feedbacks — loss of Arctic sea ice, melting of the permafrost, carbon dioxide and methane release from the oceans — that would trigger unstoppable, runaway warming.
They are called “feedbacks” because they are self-reinforcing processes that are unleashed by the warming we have already caused, and which we cannot shut off even if we end all of our own emissions.
If you don’t go into the feedbacks, then you can’t talk about runaway warming, and going to 4, 5 or 6 degrees C higher average global temperature, and hundreds of millions or billions of deaths. And if you don’t acknowledge that, then you will not treat this as the emergency it really is.
Just two years ago, amid global fanfare, the Paris climate accords were signed — initiating what seemed, for a brief moment, like the beginning of a planet-saving movement. But almost immediately, the international goal it established of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius began to seem, to many of the world’s most vulnerable, dramatically inadequate; the Marshall Islands’ representative gave it a blunter name, calling two degrees of warming “genocide.”
The alarming new report you may have read about this week from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which examines just how much better 1.5 degrees of warming would be than 2 — echoes the charge. “Amplifies” may be the better term. Hundreds of millions of lives are at stake, the report declares, should the world warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Nearly all coral reefs would die out, wildfires and heat waves would sweep across the planet annually, and the interplay between drought and flooding and temperature would mean that the world’s food supply would become dramatically less secure. Avoiding that scale of suffering, the report says, requires such a thorough transformation of the world’s economy, agriculture, and culture that “there is no documented historical precedent.”
If you are alarmed by those sentences, you should be — they are horrifying. But it is, actually, worse than that — considerably worse. That is because the new report’s worst-case scenario is, actually, a best case. In fact, it is a beyond-best-case scenario. What has been called a genocidal level of warming is already our inevitable future. The question is how much worse than that it will get.
Barring the arrival of dramatic new carbon-sucking technologies, which are so far from scalability at present that they are best described as fantasies of industrial absolution, it will not be possible to keep warming below two degrees Celsius — the level the new report describes as a climate catastrophe. As a planet, we are coursing along a trajectory that brings us north of four degrees. The IPCC is right that two degrees marks a world of climate catastrophe.
But the real meaning of the report is not “climate change is much worse than you think,” because anyone who knows the state of the research will find nothing surprising in it. The real meaning is, “you now have permission to freak out.”
At two degrees, the melting of ice sheets will pass a tipping point of collapse, flooding dozens of the world’s major cities. Four hundred million more people will suffer from water scarcity, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer. It will be worse in the planet’s equatorial band. In India, where many cities now numbering in the many millions would become unliveably hot, there would be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long and exposing, in total, 93 times more people. This is two degrees — practically speaking, our absolute best-case climate scenario.
At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. The average drought in Central America would last 19 months and in the Caribbean 21 months. In northern Africa, the figure is 60 months — five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple in the United States. Beyond the sea-level rise, which will already be swallowing cities from Miami Beach to Jakarta, damages just from river flooding will grow 30-fold in Bangladesh, 20-fold in India, and as much as 60-fold in the U.K. This is three degrees — better than we’d do if all the nations of the world honored their Paris commitments, which none of them are. Practically speaking, barring those dramatic tech deus ex machinas, this seems to me about as positive a realistic outcome as it is rational to expect.
Key dangers largely left out of the IPCC special report on 1.5C of warming are raising alarm among some scientists who fear we may have underestimated the impacts of humans on the Earth’s climate.
The IPCC report sets out the world’s current knowledge of the impacts of 1.5C of warming and clearly shows the dangers of breaching such a limit.
Tipping points merit only a few mentions in the IPCC report. Durwood Zaelke, founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said: “The IPCC report fails to focus on the weakest link in the climate chain: the self-reinforcing feedbacks which, if allowed to continue, will accelerate warming and risk cascading climate tipping points and runaway warming.”