Rising seas, ocean acidification, melting ice caps, raging forest fires, melting tundra — everywhere you look, the news about climate change and the effects of a warming planet is bad. The world’s nations are continuing to spew billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere despite all their happy talk about meeting the “spirit” of the accords they signed in Paris in 2015. Is there no respite from the dire news, no relief from the constant drumbeat of bad news and apocalyptic projections?
The conventional wisdom among climate scientists has long been that if we stopped all carbon emissions today, the climate would continue to warm for decades or even centuries. Think of climate change as a really big oil tanker. Even after the engines are shut down, its forward progress continues for miles and miles. That has led many people to throw up their hands in despair and choosing to continue doing what they have always done because if we are doomed, at least let’s have some fun while we still can. It’s like the band playing Nearer My God To Thee on the fantail of the Titanic as it slipped beneath the waves but if the message is that there is no hope, why not?
Writing for Inside Climate News, Bob Berwyn reports on a recent conversation he had with Joeri Rogelj of Imperial College London. Rogelj is not some crackpot on the lunatic fringe of climate science. He is the lead author of the next major climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“It is our best understanding that, if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two,” Rogelj told Berwyn. “There will be very little to no additional warming. Our best estimate is zero.” He adds the notion that decades or even centuries of additional warming are already baked into the system as suggested by previous IPCC reports was based on an “unfortunate misunderstanding of experiments done with climate models that never assumed zero emissions.”
Those models assumed that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would remain constant and it would take centuries before they decline, Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann told 60 Minutes last October. At the time, Covering Climate Now reported the idea that global warming could stop relatively quickly after emissions go to zero was a “game-changing new scientific understanding.”
Mann told Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes, “This really is true. It’s a dramatic change in the paradigm that has been lost on many who cover this issue, perhaps because it hasn’t been well explained by the scientific community. It’s an important development that is still under-appreciated. It’s definitely the scientific consensus now that warming stabilizes quickly, within 10 years, of emissions going to zero,” he said.
He explained that climate research over the past decade has led scientists to revise their vision of the climate system. Previously, they treated “carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as if it was a simple control knob that you turn up” and temperatures climb accordingly, “but in the real world we now know that’s not what happens.” Instead, if humans “stop emitting carbon right now … the oceans start to take up carbon more rapidly.” The actual lag between halting CO2 emissions and halting temperature rise will not be 25 to 30 years as previously thought but “more like three to five years.”
While that is undoubtedly true, the ability of the oceans to absorb more carbon dioxide is falling rapidly. Any notion they have an unlimited capacity to take on more carbon dioxide is simply not accurate. We must begin reducing carbon emissions now, not 5, 10, or 20 years from now.
A Ray Of Sunshine In A Very Dark Cloud
The message from Rogelj and Mann is hopeful but should not and must not be used as an excuse to back off on efforts to reduce carbon and methane emissions. The truth of the matter is that burning fossil fuels leads to an overheated climate, one in which humans may no longer be able to survive.
While the latest scientific thinking offers hope, it is predicated on actually zeroing out the world’s carbon emissions, a tremendously difficult task. And there is a real risk that organizations sponsored by the Koch Brothers like the Heritage Society will seize upon this bit of good news to prove their cockamamie claims that climate science is a hoax perpetrated by greedy, grasping scientists hungry to secure lucrative government research grants.
As Michael Mann said in October, reducing emissions as quickly as needed will require a rate of change “unprecedented” in human history and it must begin immediately. “That may be, although not physically impossible, societally impossible,” Mann said. “It just may not be economically possible or socially viable to do it that [fast].”
Where does that leave us? With a glimmer of hope but little more. The fossil fuel lobby is still the most powerful special interest group in the world and it is digging in its heels, determined to extract and burn every molecule of oil, gas, and coal sequestered anywhere on the planet. And why not? It pays nothing for the harm it does, even though it is slowly strangling the very customers it depends on. Making the industry pay for the damage it inflicts on the Earth and the human community would be the best, most efficient way to reduce emissions quickly.
The situation reminds me of a ditty entitled The Merry Minuet penned by Pulitzer Prize winning lyricist Sheldon Harnick and sung by The Kingston Trio in 1959. (If you don’t know who they are, ask your grandparents.) Like all satirical works, its words may be mildly offensive to some but they are still startlingly pertinent today. The last line in particular remains relevant: “What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man.” Will the nations of the world actually do what needs to be done to reduce carbon and methane emissions rapidly? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.