If you look at the media landscape today, you could hardly be blamed for not recognizing that there is an existential crisis looming.
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— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) May 16, 2017
But there is: If humanity doesn’t get its act together in the next three years, we will almost certainly face catastrophic sea-level rise, drought, famine, and widespread displacement — the most disastrous effects of climate change.
That is the consensus of a growing body of scientific literature and the point of a new commentary in Nature magazine from renowned climate experts including Christina Figueres, former U.N. climate chief. The comment, titled “Three years to safeguard our climate,” is not designed to terrify, but it might, despite its focus on opportunity.
“We stand at the doorway of being able to bend the emissions curve downwards by 2020, as science demands, in protection of the UN sustainable development goals, and in particular the eradication of extreme poverty,” Figueres and her colleagues write. “This monumental challenge coincides with an unprecedented openness to self-challenge on the part of sub-national governments inside the U.S., governments at all levels outside the U.S., and of the private sector in general. The opportunity given to us over the next three years is unique in history.”
If we miss this opportunity, we will blunder into something truly unique in history — the end of the liveable climate as we have known it over the past millennia — or we will be forced into the nearly impossible and economically crippling task of zeroing out all global emissions in a very short period of time.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is celebrating Energy Week by rolling out a number of new initiatives to extract more fossil fuel out of the ground and increase employment in that sector. (Forget that more people work in solar energy than coal mining. Forget how hard employment will be with grounded airplanes and submerged cities.)
The United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter — and the largest historically — but it is being led by a full on climate denier. And by the time Trump’s term is over, it could be too late.
“The year 2020 is crucially important for another reason, one that has more to do with physics than politics,” the experts write. “When it comes to climate, timing is everything… should emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, or even remain level, the temperature goals set in Paris become almost unattainable.”
The goals from the 2015 Paris climate agreement were not randomly selected. Preventing a 2°C (3.6°F) temperature increase was selected specifically to avoid “the most catastrophic” effects of climate change. Already, humans have caused nearly 1°C of global warming — halfway there. The comment’s authors note:
After roughly 1°C of global warming driven by human activity, ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are already losing mass at an increasing rate. Summer sea ice is disappearing in the Arctic and coral reefs are dying from heat stress — entire ecosystems are starting to collapse. The social impacts of climate change from intensified heatwaves, droughts and sea-level rise are inexorable and affect the poorest and weakest first.
The thrust of the three-year argument is that there is an certain amount of carbon the atmosphere can contain while keeping temperatures stable. The more quickly we stop emitting them, the longer we have to reduce emissions to zero. The later we wait, the less time we have.
“At the current emission rate of 41 Gt [gigatonnes] of CO2 per year, the lower limit of this range would be crossed in 4 years, and the midpoint of 600 Gt of CO2 would be passed in 15 years. If the current rate of annual emissions stays at this level, we would have to drop them almost immediately to zero once we exhaust the budget. Such a ‘jump to distress’ is in no one’s interest. A more gradual descent would allow the global economy time to adapt smoothly,” the authors write.
Of course, there is always the chance that it’s already too late to stop tihngs like catastrophic sea-level rise. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported on how the Earth’s carbon sinks — areas like the oceans and forests which absorb disproportionately large amounts of carbon, slowing warming — are starting to falter. As emissions have apparently flattened (with the caveat that it is difficult to estimate with any certainty the total global emissions), the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is increasing faster than ever.
So why aren’t more people concerned about this issue?
News media is driven in large part — especially now that specific readership can be tracked — by consumption. And, frankly, people don’t really love reading about climate change. Climate change is a slow-moving story. Sure, there are heat waves. And ice shelf collapse. And ever-higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But these stories lack the personal drama of, say, an egregious presidential tweet or even the relatively broad point about 22 million people losing access to health care. (Can you call your senator to stop climate change?)
This distancing means that when a climate story does grab people’s attention, it is even more important to be accurate about it. There, the media largely fails. Take the New York Times. It’s recent, reported story about carbon sinks was scientific, and scary. But the paper of record also recently hired columnist Bret Stephens, who quibbles about what, if anything, needs to be done to address climate change, and willfully obscures scientific findings.
Thursday morning, climatologist Michael Mann seized on a line in a piece by The Hill in a story about Stephens, who has recently also been hired as contributor to the left-leaning cable news channel MSNBC.
— Michael E. Mann (@MichaelEMann) June 29, 2017
“Beltway media outlets like The Hill contribute to the poisoning of the public discourse over climate change by treating the science as if it is a matter of choice, or belief, rather than what it is — a matter of science,” Mann told ThinkProgress in an email. “Such fallacious framing normalizes climate change denialism, posing a threat to all of us and our planet.”
On Thursday, Trump announced he would reverse President Obama’s decision to end U.S. funding for coal plants overseas, where most new electricity generation capacity is being added. By making it easier and cheaper to build coal plants — rather than, say, solar plants — Trump is ensuring that humanity will continue to increase its emissions for years to come.
We only need to do so for three.