Climate

The Really Awful Truth About Climate Change

CREDIT:

Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a scene from the movie "The Awful Truth." (AP Photo)

So Vox ran a story Friday, “The awful truth about climate change no one wants to admit” by former Grist columnist Dave Roberts. While I’m a longtime fan of Roberts, the piece is filled with inaccurate and misleading statements, historical revisionism, and a fatally flawed premise.

The premise comes from an equally flawed commentary in Nature, “Policy: Climate advisers must maintain integrity” in which German analyst Oliver Geden argues that climate scientists (and others) have been “spreading false optimism,” about our chances of stabilizing below 2°C total global warming. Geden’s piece has drawn significant criticism from scientists on BuzzFeed, ClimateWire, and here, as Roberts notes.

But Roberts asserts, “the heated reactions elicited by Geden’s piece do show that he’s on to something.” Dave, Dave, Dave, if heated reactions proved someone is “on to something,” then I guess Fox News is fair and balanced after all….

So what is “The awful truth about climate change no one wants to admit”? Roberts asserts that no one wants to admit “The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit.”

No. And by “no” I mean that, setting aside the vagueness of the word “miracles,” lots of people have been saying in recent years that humanity faces some awful shit if we don’t don’t adopt super-aggressive action ASAP. But they have not been saying it’s scientifically hopeless or requires religious miracles — since that isn’t true, though it seems to be what Geden and Roberts want them to be saying.

No, the really awful truth about climate change is that while climate scientists, the International Energy Agency, and many others have been increasingly blunt about how dire our situation is — and what needs to be done ASAP to avoid catastrophe — much of the so-called intelligentsia keep ignoring them.

The most recent example comes in a report out earlier this month from 70 leading climate experts (click here). The parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka the world’s leading nations) set up a “structured expert dialogue” from 2013 to 2015 to review the adequacy of the 2°C target. Early this month, the experts reported back. Thoughtfully, they simplified their key conclusions into 10 core messages. Among them:

  • Message 1: “Parties to the Convention agreed on an upper limit for global warming of 2°C, and science has provided a wealth of information to support the use of that goal.” Incorporating concerns about ocean acidification and sea level rise, “only reinforces the basic finding emerging from the analysis of the temperature limit, namely that we need to take urgent and strong action to reduce GHG emissions” (emphasis in original).
  • Message 2 (again, original emphasis): “Limiting global warming to below 2°C necessitates a radical transition (deep decarbonization now and going forward), not merely a fine tuning of current trends.”
  • Yeah, scientists just love to spread false optimism.

  • Message 4: “Significant climate impacts are already occurring at the current level of global warming” (which is about 0.85°C) and so additional “warming will only increase the risk of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts. Therefore, the ‘guardrail’ concept, which implies a warming limit that guarantees full protection from dangerous anthropogenic interference, no longer works.
  • Message 5: “The 2°C limit should be seen as a defence line … that needs to be stringently defended, while less warming would be preferable.”
  • Message 6 (from the 2014 IPCC mitigation report): “Limiting global warming to below 2 °C is still feasible and will bring about many co-benefits, but poses substantial technological, economic and institutional challenges.”

I reviewed all the mitigation literature in my January post, “It’s Not Too Late To Stop Climate Change, And It’ll Be Super-Cheap.”

Again, no one is saying it would be easy, but it is straightforward, and the literature couldn’t be clearer on how low-cost it is. Geden asserts, “The climate policy mantra — that time is running out for 2 °C but we can still make it if we act now — is a scientific nonsense.” Even Roberts points out, “No. It may be a nonsense, but it’s not a scientific nonsense. No branch of science, certainly not climatology, can tell us what the humans of 2050 are capable of.”

Almost. Thank goodness these pundits weren’t around when we had to do something really difficult, like suffer millions of casualties and remake our entire economy almost overnight to win World War II.

It may well be true that policymakers are unlikely to do what is scientifically, technologically, and economically possible (and morally necessary). But what precisely would Geden have climate scientists tell policymakers — “You folks can’t stop unimaginable catastrophe because you’re simply too greedy and myopic so we’re not even going to tell you how you could do it?” In fact, Geden never tells us what he thinks the advice should be nor what target he would recommend to policymakers (which makes his piece mostly a time-waster).

Note: Geden conflates climate scientists with climate advisers, so he can make it sound like climate scientists are overly optimistic about our ability to hit the 2C target. Even today, most climate scientists didn’t consider themselves experts on energy technology or economic analysis or policy — their job in the IPCC was to tell policymakers what the science says will happen if we act and if we don’t. The job of economists, energy experts, and their ilk has been to tell policymakers what different scenarios entail and how much they would cost, which turns out to be virtually nothing in the 2C case.

Again, that doesn’t mean 2C is easy to do or that we will do it — just that if we ever got off of our asses the way the Greatest Generation did, it would require us to invest only a smidgen of our wealth to make the transition, and we’d be paid back again and again in productivity gains and health gains and energy security gains. And of course there’s that whole not destroying a livable climate thing.

The reality of the transition is no longer theoretical. Last fall, China pledged to “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030.” That “will require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar, and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

Over the next 15 years, the Chinese will build enough clean electricity to power America. So how exactly is it “nonsense” to think the U.S., EU, or even India could not do the same over, say, twice as much time? Answer: It isn’t.

Here’s Message 8 from the world’s leading climate experts: “The world is not on track to achieve the long-term global goal, but successful mitigation policies are known and must be scaled up urgently.

Such Polyannas, these climate experts.

Roberts writes of Geden’s piece, “Politicians, he says, want good news. They want to hear that it is still possible to limit temperature to 2°C. Even more, they want to hear that they can do so while avoiding aggressive emission cuts in the near-term — say, until they’re out of office.”

This is no doubt true of many politicians, yet last year the entire EU pledged to cut total emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, which is pretty aggressive. And last month, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) issued an executive order setting the same goal for California.

But it’s where Roberts (and Geden) leap next that bears scrutiny:

Climate scientists, Geden says, feel pressure to provide the good news. They’re worried that if they don’t, if they come off as “alarmist” or hectoring, they will simply be ignored, boxed out of the debate. And so they construct models showing that it is possible to hit the 2°C target. The message is always, “We’re running out of time; we’ve only got five or 10 years to turn things around, but we can do it if we put our minds to it.”

That was the message in 1990, in 2000, in 2010. How can we still have five or 10 years left? The answer, Geden says, is that scientists are baking increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models.

No, no, and not quite. This is a complete revision of history.

Climate scientists were not saying in 1990, “we’ve only got five or 10 years to turn things around.” Read the IPCC’s Overview of its 1990 First Assessment Report here. Warning: It’s a yawner.

But that’s no surprise since the UNFCCC wasn’t even negotiated and ratified until 1992. That treaty’s goal was to set up an international process to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic [human-caused] interference with the climate system.” The UNFCCC did not define what that level was at the time. It wouldn’t officially pick 2°C for almost two decades!

And so climate scientists were not saying in 2000, “we’ve only got five or 10 years to turn things around.” Read the IPCC’s entire 2001 Third Assessment Report here. Another yawner.

There are, however, two specific and synergistic reasons why scientists became increasingly concerned during the 2000s.

First, in that decade, Chinese emissions soared, taking us off of more moderate pathways that scientists had been anticipating. You can see that in a chart Roberts posts.

Historical emissions

Historical emissions have of late been tracking RCP8.5, catastrophic 4°C warming. But until 2000, emissions were tracking scenarios of much less warming

CREDIT: Global Carbon Project

Second, at the very end of the 2000s, the world community finally settled on 2°C as the threshold for dangerous warming, which meant CO2 levels in the air needed to be stabilized below 450 parts per million. That consensus, as many people have explained, solidified with the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment Report.

That’s why, for instance, in 2004, when Princeton Professors published a landmark paper in Science, “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies,” they wrote: “Proposals to limit atmospheric CO2 to a concentration that would prevent most damaging climate change have focused on a goal of 500 +/- 50 parts per million (ppm).”

So it was only around late 2007 that people paying very close attention, like climate scientists, could see that 1) emissions were veering onto a worse case scenario track 2) just as a scientific and political consensus was forming around the need to set the bar at 2°C, which was now starting to look like a best-case scenario.

That’s why in 2010, a previously reticent Lonnie Thompson explained why previously reticent climatologists had begun speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” It’s why, when I launched Climate Progress nine years ago, I created a category called “uncharacteristically blunt scientists.”

But again, it wasn’t actually until December 2010 that the parties to the UNFCCC officially adopted 2°C as the upper limit.

Besides climate scientists, many other climate advisers were becoming increasingly blunt, such as the International Energy Agency, which warned in 2009 “The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.”

Their 2011 World Energy Outlook [WEO] release should have ended once and for all the notion that climate advisors were pulling their punches. The U.K. Guardian’s (misleading) headline captured the urgency: “World headed for irreversible climate change in five years, IEA warns … If fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed, the world will ‘lose for ever’ the chance to avoid dangerous climate change.”

Half right. Yes, rapid change is needed. But the IEA did not say the climate change would be irreversible in five years. They wrote:

If internationally co-ordinated action is not taken by 2017, we project that all permissible emissions in the 450 Scenario would come from the infrastructure then existing, so that all new infrastructure from then until 2035 would need to be zero-carbon, unless emitting infrastructure is retired before the end of its economic lifetime to make headroom for new investment. This would theoretically be possible at very high cost, but is probably not practicable politically.

Yes, shutting down existing fossil fuel infrastructure is much more costly than not building it in the first place. It is politically difficult (see U.S. coal plants), but it also happens all the time (see U.S. and China coal plants).

Everything about the 450 (or lower) scenario is politically difficult as I (and many others) have been saying for years. In one 2008 post, “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 1,” I answered the headline question, “Not today — not even close.”

People can use the political difficulty of averting catastrophe as a reason to express hopelessness if they think that is productive, but don’t try to pin this on climate scientists or climate advisors.

There’s an old saying “it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” that is based on a Chinese proverb, “Don’t curse the darkness – light a candle.”

But it turns out there is a third option. You can curse the candle lighters, maybe because you have your eyes closed. And that’s the really awful truth.