Is 2023 the year humans finally broke the Earth’s climate? The Guardian reached out recently to 45 climate scientists around the world to find out how they would answer that question. What follows is a compendium of the responses The Guardian received. In general, the scientists said that, despite feeling events have taken a frightening turn, the global heating seen to date is entirely in line with three decades of scientific predictions.
As a group, they reported being perplexed, confused, and angry that all their warnings have been largely ignored. Severe weather such as the world has witnessed so far this year have long been predicted by the scientific community. However, the speed and intensity of the changes witnessed this year — from warmer ocean temperatures to loss of sea ice in Antarctica — has been shocking to many.
Have We Passed A Climate Tipping Point?
Dr. James Hansen, the scientist who warned the Senate about rising carbon dioxide levels in 1988, ignited a furor in the climate science community recently when he claimed the world had passed a tipping point and that changes would now accelerate geometrically rather than linearly. Many of his colleagues disagree, saying things are happening as predicted, not accelerating faster than expected.
Professor Michael E. Mann of the University of Pennsylvania said the pace of global heating is remarkably steady and that’s plenty bad enough. “There is no reason to invent an ‘acceleration’ that isn’t there to make the case for urgency. The impacts of warming make the case for urgency.”Mann said.
He added, “There is a misconception, however, that these extreme weather events constitute some sort of ‘tipping point’ that we’ve crossed. They don’t. They are tied directly to the surface warming, which is remarkably steady aside from temporary fluctuations due to things like El Niño.”
Professor Matthew England of the University of New South Wales agreed. “While some of the records being set in 2023 are just crazy off-the-charts, everything is actually tracking within the range of projections of how Earth would respond to increasing greenhouse gas emissions — projections we’ve had now for the last 30 plus years.”
Dr. Shaina Sadai of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “This year has been disturbing with the severe, unrelenting, and record breaking heat but it is in line with what climate scientists and climate models have long predicted.”
“The swings from year to year due to natural variability mean that global temperatures rise like a staircase, rather than a straight line, and we’re seeing a big step up so far this year,” said Professor Julie Arblaster of Monash University in Australia.
Professor J Marshall Shepherd, of the University of Georgia said succinctly: “Climate scientists have warned of this for decades and we are now living those predictions.”
Higher Temperatures Ahead
Whether or not a tipping point has been reached, many of the scientist see hotter temperatures becoming common in the years to come. “Unfortunately, these new records will not last. Global warming will push records into the unknown sooner rather than later,” said Dr. Raúl Cordero, formerly of the University of Santiago, Chile.
“July has been the hottest month in human history and people around the world are suffering the consequences,” said Professor Piers Forster of the University of Leeds. “But this is what we expected at [this level] of warming. This will become the average summer in 10 years’ time unless the world cooperates and puts climate action top of the agenda.”
“My expertise is in heatwaves and I’m not surprised most of the northern hemisphere has had heatwaves this summer, but the intensity is greater than I expected,” said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, an associate professor at UNSW. “We are hitting record breaking extremes much sooner than I expected. That’s frightening, scary, and concerning, and it really suggests that we’re not as aware of what’s coming as we thought we were.”
Climate Justice & Vulnerability
Several years ago, Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, was asked his opinion about a rapidly overheating planet. “People will just have to adapt,” he snarled. That may be easy for wealthy white men, but not so easy for many other members of the human family.
“The weather is changing as expected and predicted by scientists, but our societies and ecosystems are more vulnerable to even small changes than expected previously, and so the damages are worse,” said Dr. Friederike Otto of Imperial College London.
Dr. Christophe Cassou of the Université Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier, in France, said: “Changes in hazards have not been underestimated at global scale, though some of the heat extremes are in the upper range of the anticipated outcomes. But the impacts have been underestimated because we are much more vulnerable than we thought — our vulnerability is smacking us in the face.”
“We have the impression that extreme heat is hitting us sooner and with greater intensity because of our unpreparedness,” he added. “Our perception is also biased by the fact that we are living more often in uncharted territory which gives a sense of acceleration. We now feel climate change that is emerging above usual weather.”
Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, told The Guardian, “I do think we are hitting a tipping point in global consciousness. For years I’ve spoken about the challenge of psychological distance. When people are asked if they are worried about climate change, they say yes, But then when asked if it affects them, they say no. That barrier is falling very quickly as nearly everyone can now point to someone or somewhere they love that is being affected by wildfire smoke, heat extremes, flooding, and more.”
Professor Paola Arias of the University of Antioquia in Colombia said the transition must be fair to all. “We need, above all, a just and equitable transition. A very small percentage of the human population is responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions.”
Improved Climate Models Needed
The scientific community is constantly under attack by those who say all its predictions are just guess work, and that they spout their wild theories in hopes of attaining lucrative research grants. But several scientists told The Guardian the models they have available are simply not sufficiently precise to allow for more accuracy.
“We have strongly suspected for a while that our projections are underestimating extremes, a suspicion that recent extremes have proven likely to be true,” said Hayhoe. Extremes by definition are rare, which in turn means there is little data about them available.
“It is difficult to model something that you have almost no physical evidence for and, in the case of unprecedented extremes, no physical evidence,” she added. “We are truly in uncharted territory in terms of the history of human civilization on this planet.”
Professor Tim Palmer of the University of Oxford pointed out that the data points usually available to climate scientists typically represent an area 100 km wide by 100 km high. “Climate models do such a poor job at simulating regional extremes of weather that I don’t think scientists were especially surprised that observed weather extremes were becoming more intense than predicted by the models,” he said. “We need much higher resolution climate models if we are to stand a chance of simulating these extreme weather events.”
There Is A Solution To Climate Change
When asked if there is a solution to the climate crisis, the scientists answered with a resounding, “Yes!” It is a concept known to all, and it goes like this: Stop Burning Fossil Fuels!
“We need to stop burning fossil fuels,” said Dr. Otto of Imperial College London. “Now — not sometime when we’ve allowed companies to make all the money they possibly can.” Others said the world was on “code red alert” to stop fossil fuel extraction and to fight to halt new exploration projects.
Shaina Sadai of UCS said the dramatic growth of carbon emissions since 1990 was “largely due to the failure to rein in the fossil fuel industry and the multi-decade campaign of delay and disinformation they created.” Suruchi Bhadwal of the Energy and Resources Institute in India put it more simply. “In order to make the Earth habitable for future generations, we need to take drastic measures to reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases.”
“Climate science’s projections are pretty robust over the last decades. Unfortunately, humanity’s stubbornness to spew out ever-higher amounts of greenhouse gases has also been pretty robust,” said Professor Malte Meinshausen of the University of Melbourne.
“We have all the economic and technological tools to reduce emissions swiftly, so we need to elect governments that are willing to embark on the journey. The transition will come simply because of economic reasons – renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuels — but the question is whether it will come fast enough,” he said.
Vincent Ajayi, an associate professor at the Federal University of Technology Akure, Nigeria, said: “Governments must not merely make empty promises but must wholeheartedly commit to fulfilling their obligations to protect our planet’s future.”
Climate scientists today are a nervous lot. They are like observers witnessing a speeding freight train approaching a group of children playing on the railroad tracks and having no one heed their warnings. Like most of us, their emotions range from abject despair to holding out hope for a last second miracle.
American Exceptionalism may be a sore topic for many but the US still exerts a major influence on the rest of the world. At last week’s alleged political debate, all the candidates for the Red Team who attended pooh poohed global heating. One drew wild applause when he promised to eviscerate all federal programs designed to address an overheating planet. He called it a giant hoax and no one on the stage challenged him on that point.
Elections matter. Because of the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the US Supreme Court and many federal courts have been generously sprinkled with climate deniers. The entire Republican party is dead set against taking aggressive action to address the threat to humanity of an overheating planet appropriately. They see those children playing on the tracks and shrug. “Not my problem,” they say.
We are on the cusp of a full-on climate emergency and yet we continue to slow walk the transition to a zero emissions world. This is not likely to end well if we keep doing what we have always done, which is kick the can down the road. A hotter climate is now inevitable. The only question is how hot will the world get? We have the power to control the future. It is in our hands and it begins at the ballot box.
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