Speaking to an Iowa audience about the threat of climate change last week, Democratic presidential contender Beto O’Rourke said, “we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis.”
Associated Press fact checkers described his remarks as “faux facts” in an analysis published over the weekend, saying he “misrepresented the science on global warming” from last year’s report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But O’Rourke is right, and the AP is wrong.
Last October, the IPCC warned that the world must make sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 to keep temperatures from rising above 2°C (3.6°F) to have any plausible chance of averting catastrophic climate change. Environmentalists, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), quickly seized on this time frame as a means of calling for urgent climate action.
Renewed emphasis on the 2030 time frame has sparked debate, with some arguing the statements made by Ocasio-Cortez and now O’Rouke are exaggerated. But experts say it’s no overstatement.
As Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, told ThinkProgress via email, “I judge Beto’s quote as accurate.”
As Mann previously explained to ThinkProgress, “There is no scenario for stabilizing warming below 2°C that doesn’t require rapid reductions in carbon emissions over the next decade.”
The 2°C threshold has long been widely accepted by scientists and the nations of the world as a point beyond which climate impacts rapidly become catastrophic; it’s the target nations agreed to stay “well below” in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
What’s more, as an IPCC special report released last year makes clear, 1.5ºC (or 2.7°F) should be viewed as a key threshold for dangerous climate change that humanity should do everything possible to avoid. The higher temperatures get, the more extreme the impacts.
“Beto O’Rourke correctly interprets last year’s IPCC 1.5 degree report when he said that we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis,” Andrew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive, told ThinkProgress. The U.S. think tank was responsible for generating some of the scenarios for the IPCC report.
“The report found that the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30-50 percent by 2030 — I’d call that incredibly bold,” Jones said.
And that is precisely why the report led to headlines at the time like, “We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe, warns UN” by The Guardian, and “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say” from the Washington Post.
O’Rourke and Ocasio-Cortez aren’t the only politicians talking about this time frame. On Sunday, another Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful, Pete Buttigieg (D-IN), was asked on Fox News about the Green New Deal’s call to decarbonize the economy by 2030. “The bottom line is scientifically, the right year to do that was yesterday. We have got to do this. This time table isn’t being set in Congress, it’s being set by reality, it’s being set by science,” Buttigieg replied.
But since progressive politicians keep getting attacked for accurately portraying the science, let’s take a deeper dive into this issue.
Fact checking is all about examining the specific words people use. The AP said it was fact checking this statement made by O’Rourke in Keokuk, Iowa, last week: “This is our final chance. The scientists are absolutely unanimous on this. That we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis.”
The AP critique starts out by stating, “THE FACTS: There is no scientific consensus, much less unanimity, that the planet only has 12 years to fix the problem.”
But O’Rourke did not say, “the planet only has 12 years to fix the problem.” What he said was, “we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis” — and for that claim there is a very robust consensus.
In fact, one of the scientists the AP spoke to made this very point: the 12-year time frame is a “robust number for trying to cut emissions.”
Cornell University climate scientist Natalie M. Mahowald told the AP that a 12-year time frame is a “robust number for trying to cut emissions” and to keep the increase in warming under current levels.
What was Mahowald’s concern? The AP writes, “But she said sketching out unduly dire consequences is not ‘helpful to solving the problem.'” Again, that’s not what O’Rourke did or said.
The AP quotes another scientist explaining that the IPCC “did not say we have 12 years left to save the world.” But that’s not what O’Rourke said either.
What O’Rourke asserted was, “we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis” — and, as climate experts Mann and Jones explain, that is what the science says.
As to the point that there is “no scientific consensus” behind the claim that bold action to address climate change is needed within the next 12 years, there actually is a strong consensus because that’s how the IPCC process works. The panel of scientists come up with a consensus “Summary for Policymakers” based on a review of the peer-reviewed literature.
The summary is usually something relatively cautious and understated since each IPCC report must be approved unanimously (or virtually unanimously), line by line, by every government in the world; this includes Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States under the Trump administration. So it’s hardly inappropriate for a policymaker like O’Rourke to use the word “unanimous” to describe the findings.
In fact, the IPCC report released in October makes the strongest case so far that going beyond 1.5ºC warming is much, much more dangerous than we realized just a few years ago. It shows that as the planet warms from 1.5°C to 2°C, the risks grow rapidly for some very dangerous tipping points, including the irreversible collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet (which by itself would ultimately raise sea levels 20 feet).
For instance, the report notes that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C is projected to prevent the thawing” of as much as 1 million square miles of permafrost. And that matters because the northern permafrost contains twice as much carbon as the atmosphere does today.
This means we face the very real possibility of a snowballing catastrophe — where, say, efforts to keep warming to 2°C end up thawing a huge area of permafrost, which results in carbon emissions that take us far past that threshold.
So a rational and moral society would endeavor to stay as far away as possible from 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C — which is precisely what the world’s nations unanimously committed to in the Paris climate agreement. The accord requires a series of increasingly deeper emissions reductions aimed at keeping total warming “to well below 2°C [3.6°F] above preindustrial levels.”
Not only that, but the Paris climate deal further committed the world “to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C [2.7°F] above preindustrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”
And the 2018 IPCC report makes clear that limiting warming to 1.5°C requires very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions — “a 40-50 percent reduction from 2010 levels” — by 2030.
Even holding warming below 2°C requires deep cuts. In order to limit global warming to below 2°C, CO2 emissions must “decline by about 25 percent by 2030 in most pathways” compared to 2010 emissions, the report states, “and reach net zero around 2070.”
So reexamining O’Rourke’s central claim — “we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis” — we see that this is a factually accurate statement. It is one that reflects an overwhelming scientific consensus as well as unanimity among the world’s major governments.