“There’s no point in stopping climate change,” an acquaintance once told me. “Even if we changed everything to electric and solar panels, your scientists are saying it wouldn’t even help our grandchildren’s grandchildren much.”
That view may sound defeatist, but until recently, that was the prevailing scientific view. My acquaintance was actually right. “Our” scientists were saying something like that. On the NASA climate change frequently asked questions pages, under “Is it too late to prevent climate change?” it says, “Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries. That’s because it takes a while for the planet (for example, the oceans) to respond, and because carbon dioxide – the predominant heat-trapping gas – lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.”
That data led to a lot of hopelessness, and even served as an excuse for people who don’t want to sacrifice anything to mitigate the effects of climate change. Fortunately, some climate scientists are finding that their past assumptions on this question were wrong.
Buried under doomsday predictions for what could happen during a second Trump term was newer information about this from Michael Mann, a distinguished climate scientist. It turns out that if we cut to zero emissions, the warming would continue, but only for a few years.
“What we now understand is that if you stop emitting carbon right now … the oceans start to take up carbon more rapidly,” Mann says. Such ocean storage of CO2 “mostly” offsets the warming effect of the CO2 that still remains in the atmosphere. Thus, the actual lag between halting CO2 emissions and halting temperature rise is not 25 to 30 years, he explains, but “more like three to five years.”
This is “a dramatic change in our understanding” of the climate system that gives humans “more agency,” says Mann. Rather than being locked into decades of inexorably rising temperatures, humans can turn down the heat almost immediately by slashing emissions promptly. “Our destiny is determined by our behavior,” says Mann, a fact he finds “empowering.”
In other words, it’s actually a really good thing to get to zero emissions as rapidly as we possibly can, because it can not only make a meaningful difference for our grandchildren, but for the futures of people alive today. It really is an empowering fact.
In the interview and article, which was a joint effort of 60 Minutes and The Guardian, Mann explains that the view that it would take tens or hundreds of years for the climate to stabilize after emissions were cut was the prevailing view until about a decade ago, and that emerging data and research indicates that it’s simply not the case. The temperature rise would stop pretty fast, and then stabilize, and start going back to normal.
Other scientists on the 60 Minutes segment (available on CBS All Access if you’re a Trek fan), indicated that solar output has been falling since the 1950s, and that current warming is only explainable by CO2 emissions collecting in the atmosphere. If emissions can stop adding to the problem, and the oceans and forests can pull some of that in, it’s probably easier than many would think for temperatures to go back down over time. That’s the part that would likely still take generations to happen, though.
Not An Excuse For Inaction
Mann also warns that these more optimistic facts shouldn’t be used as an excuse for inaction on climate change. While the effects can happen faster than once thought, there are still points of no return that we could potentially cross if we don’t act fast.
Mann told The Guardian that polar ice sheets can still melt if change doesn’t happen fast enough, and extreme weather is happening a lot faster than scientists once thought. Entire ecosystems could be irreversibly destroyed, and more than half of humanity’s biggest cities could be destroyed. Ice sheets are already melting with the warming we have now, so stopping the warming is good, but doesn’t reverse all of the potential damage.
Mann said that humanity is “walking out onto a minefield” of tipping points, and that we could definitely come across more unpleasant surprises not predicted by scientists if we don’t arrest warming by 2030.
In the 60 Minutes interview, Mann said, “People ask, are we dealing with a new normal? And the sobering answer is, that’s the best-case scenario. A new normal is the best-case scenario ’cause that sorta means, well, we’ve got a new situation and we just have to learn how to deal with it. But it’s much worse than that. So, there are surprises in store and we’re seeing some of those surprises play out now.”
Before talking to Mann and other scientists, 60 Minutes talked to people around California who had experienced the worst warming had to offer. Fires doubled over decades, then doubled again in a decade, then doubled a third time in just the last two years. When talking to Thom Porter, head of CalFire, he and the host had this exchange:
Thom Porter: They talk about career fires. And a career fire was sometimes on the order of 10,000 to 50,000 acres. 50,000, that was crazy.
Scott Pelley: The kind of thing a firefighter would see once in his career.
Thom Porter: Correct. Once in a career. it dawned on me at one point that career fires are happening every single year, right now, today, there are ten fires in California that are 100,000 acres plus, and one that’s 850,000 acres plus.
Los Angeles experienced not only unbreathable smoke, but also record temperatures that are more normal for Phoenix than SoCal.
If we stopped warming, this would get a bit worse, and then level off, but the effects we’ve already built up wouldn’t stop for quite a bit longer. They’d just stop getting worse in our lifetimes, which still leaves us in a bad place.
Inaction, on the other hand, would be far worse. Before we got a chance to adjust to a “new normal,” we’d find that it was getting worse. That next “new normal” wouldn’t last, either. When it finally gets bad enough that society makes going to zero emissions a priority, that new new new normal would be what the youngest generation’s grandchildren are actually stuck with, and that’s assuming we don’t find that we crossed a tipping point that leads to runaway warming between now and then.
That’s why it was so critical that Donald Trump didn’t get a second term. By actually taking steps to start reducing warming this year, we stand a chance of being able to get to a functional zero by 2030. If we start on that this year, the amount needed to accomplish that this year is tough, but achievable.
If we had to start this process in 2025 instead, the amount of change needed would have been technologically possible, but not economically possible. The achievement of real cuts would have taken another 5-10 years, and possibly more if legislative and judicial changes had cemented emissions into the US political system.
The Day Isn’t Saved Yet
Before we pat ourselves on the back for taking the advice of Mann, other scientists, and emergency officials, we need to also admit that ending Trump’s chances of a second term doesn’t fix the issue or put us closer to zero emissions all by itself.
Biden will come into office with a lot of problems to solve, and lots of domestic resistance to anything he’s doing. Trump made sure to poison the well for him before admitting that he’s leaving town. With accusations of election fraud continuing, and now violence threatening to continue after rioters sacked the capitol, nobody in their right mind would envy the position Biden is now in.
Supporters of clean technologies are going to need to keep fighting like hell to keep climate change on the front burners. We have optimistic information that we can use to help get us there, but we also need to keep the political strife and partisan grudge matches from pushing the future of humanity off the stove entirely.
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