Are these the end days of life on Earth as we have come to know them and wish to envision them for future generations? A time of great earthquakes, warming and rising oceans, famines and floods. When torrential winds and water rain down upon us as storms named Maria and Utor? When nations will soon rise against nation not out of hate but out of hunger?
Within recent weeks several reports have been released each painting a picture of a time not too distant when the worst becomes commonplace. The good news is these are warnings not predictions of inevitability.
Over 15,000 scientists from around the world published A Second Notice to humanity of the danger of continuing to live like there is no tomorrow. The first, signed by just 1700 scientists, was posted 25 years ago.
According to Henry Kendall, a particle physicist and a co-founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists:
If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.
The second report was released in late October by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Entitled the 2017 Emissions Gap Report, The Report is an annual scorecard of how well the world is doing—following the Paris Climate Accord—to reduce their carbon footprints sufficiently to keep global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). The Report also monitors collective efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The report was released during the COP23 meeting in Bonn, Germany. Like the Notice, it warns of potential disaster and details some of the consequences of our collective actions including famine, global poverty, infertility, disease and mass extinctions of flora and fauna. In short, they describe disasters of biblical proportion.
True to its name, the Report assesses where, in the scheme of things, global efforts to achieve the agreed to Paris goals are and focuses on the gap between where we are and where we ought to be. It attempts to characterize the future consequences of present circumstances.
It should come as no surprise that t[JD1] he overarching conclusions of the UNEP report are [that] there is an urgent need for accelerated short-term action and enhanced longer-term national ambition if the goals of the Paris Agreement are to remain achievable. After all, even the most idealistic of the Accord’s supporters knew the unenforceable Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) made by the signatories would be insufficient to the task.
It is not to say the Accord wasn’t of historical importance. It was. It is. It just isn’t enough. The Second Notice describes in much gorier detail just how not enough it is.
The Report’s release comes ahead of the next round of international climate talks in Bonn, Germany. The November meeting will be the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23). COP1 took place in 1995 in Berlin.
The meeting now going on in Bonn is the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23). COP1 took place in 1995 in Berlin.
The Bonn meeting is focusing on ways to help less-developed island nations blown apart by this year’s hurricane and cyclone seasons and on smoothing the way for next year’s Facilitated Discussions (FD) of the Accord’s signatories, among other things.
The FD is part of the Paris Agreement. It is intended to provide the opportunity to consider what progress nations have already made towards emission reductions and to reconsider the 2-degree goal—possibly moving to the lower 1.5-degree threshold.
The Gap Report provides the information FD participants will need for the 2018 discussion. The importance of COP23, according to Oxfam is its tee(ing) up next year’s Facilitative Dialogue; how things go in Bonn will heavily determine if the FD is a real and credible moment.
If the Dialogue ends without action, the Paris Accord itself will be viewed as a mostly-symbolic affair—as far from reality as the Vegas Strip.
Many of the problems discussed at the first COP appear as intractable today as they did then. Others, however, are successfully being addressed, while some will soon be.
The problem of paying for Less Developed Nations (LDCs) to refrain from reliance on fossil fuels and to increase their resilience to the changes already occurring remains. Slowing carbon emissions by developed and rapidly developing nations like China and the U.S. are a fact. New technologies and biological strategies for sequestering carbon are perhaps coming closer to reality.
The most disconcerting of the findings of the newly released Gap Report is the reminder that time and tides wait for no one.
If the climate targets in the Paris Agreement are to remain credible and achievable, all countries will need to contribute to significantly enhancing their national ambitions, augmenting their national policy efforts in accordance with respective capabilities and different circumstances, and ensuring a full accounting of subnational action. Furthermore, a strong commitment to facilitating and stimulating widespread, equitable and accountable innovation will be needed, to ensure that the best the world can offer in terms of cost-effective technology, policy, and business models [is] available wherever needed. Non-state actors need to adhere to high standards of accountability in this respect.
Missing the 2020 option of revising the NDCs would make closing the 2030 emissions gap practically impossible. (emphasis added)
Missing the 2020 pledge targets appears a foregone conclusion. According to the Report:
Global greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 are likely to be at the high end of the range of the scenarios consistent with the 2°C and 1.5°C goals respectively, making it increasingly difficult to be on track to meet the 2030 emission goals.
The 2017 Report also includes an updated assessment of the emissions associated with the NDC pledges and the current policies of each of the G20 countries, including the EU. The G20 collectively generates three-quarters of total GHG emissions. What these nations do or don’t do to make good on their pledges will determine the limits of rising temperatures.
The 2017 assessment shows that many of the G20 cannot meet their obligations given the policies and programs currently in place. According to the Report’s authors only Brazil, China, India, and Russia are likely to – — or are roughly on track to —– achieve their 2030 NDC targets with currently implemented policies.
Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, the Republic of Korea and the United States are all likely to require further action to meet their NDCs, according to government and independent estimates.
Together the reductions pledged in Paris by the world’s countries are so inadequate that even if they were fulfilled, the world would be on track for a temperature rise of more than 3 degrees Celsius or 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just how far off the mark are the principal players from achieving even their NDC targets? Graph 1 shows the magnitude of the miss. It further plots the consequence of failing to reach the 2020 and 2030 targets through the rest of the century. The gap is between 11 and 19 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (expressed in the Graph as GtCO2e).
Failing to meet these targets will require significant sacrifice—as indicated by the slope of the trajectories—for the remainder of the century, for there being any possibility of meeting the 2-degree target. A classic case of paying the piper now, or having to PAY later. Either way, the note will come due.
Having trouble comprehending just what a gigaton of CO2 is—beyond the obvious of a ginormous amount of the stuff? Me too. Before looking at the Graph, take a moment to consider the following.
Figure 1 is Walmart’s description of a gigaton equivalent. The company posted it to illustrate how its efforts to diminish the company’s carbon footprint relate to environmental sustainability.
The next pictorial representations are from an NPR program. The original depictions and data were released by Michael Bloomberg in 2012 when he was mayor of NYC. The data, according to NPR, assumed every day in New York is a nice day, where the temperature is 59 degrees Fahrenheit, and where, under standard pressure, a ton of CO2 gas would fill a lovely blue bubble 33 feet across like the ones you see down there, rising from the traffic. The other two Figures are meant to provide additional context.
Figure 2: Each Balloon Equals 1 Ton of CO2e
Figure 3: One Hour’s CO2e Emissions in NYC (258.5 Balloons)
Figure 4: One Day’s CO2e NYC (6,204 Balloons)
How many of these balloons then would equal a gigaton? One billion. Still hard to imagine, isn’t it? How much of New York State, let alone NYC, would a billion balloons smother?
According to the UNEP Gap Report, as depicted in the Graph, the world is 11 to 19 billion balloons behind the carbon curve.
Being behind the curve carries with it significant consequences both today and well into tomorrow. Things die at temperatures above today’s averages. Nations can collapse; people everywhere will struggle.
Graph 1: UNEP Estimates of the Carbon Gap (GtCO2e)
Scientists have been asked to characterize the changes that could occur should the Earth warm by 3 degrees Celsius. The 3 degrees threshold was chosen as it appears a reasonable estimate, given recent findings.
The specifics of various answers differ; the direction does not—at least not in the case of the preponderance of the evidence being put forth by 97% of the world’s scientists.
Here is just a sampling:
"The most recent era in which the Earth was believed to have experienced temperatures of 3 C above pre-Industrial levels was the Pliocene Epoch — around 3 million years ago"— according to Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
"At that time, there was almost no ice anywhere. The sea level was 20 meters (65 feet) or so higher, and forests went to the edge of the Arctic Ocean where there is now tundra," Schmidt said.
"It takes a long time for those changes to manifest, but if we see 3 C … it pushes us in that direction,” he added.
A world 3 C warmer would see a significant drop in food production, an increase in urban heat waves akin to the one that killed thousands of people this year in India, and more droughts and wildfires, according to Ray Pierrehumbert, a physics professor at the University of Oxford.
“I have no doubt that humanity will survive. It’s not an existential threat at 3 C,” Pierrehumbert told Al Jazeera. “But it’s still a world where there are likely to be massive disruptions...A warmer world would also potentially lead to more refugees, he said, pointing to the refugee crisis currently unfolding in Europe. When talking about climate refugees, what if Bangladesh becomes uninhabitable? The scale of climate migration could dwarf anything we’ve seen,” Pierrehumbert said. Many areas of the densely populated and mostly low-lying country could become uninhabitable within a century if warming continues," he added.
Jason Funk, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a temperature increase of 3[degrees] C would seriously disrupt global economic systems and many people’s livelihoods...“It could potentially lead to more conflicts because resources will be impacted, and people will be trying to capture access to those resources,” Funk said. “It’s not a pleasant scenario. Right now we have an off-switch if we can reduce emissions and keep warming below a certain level — we can still turn off the climate change process."
These are not just the conclusions of egghead scientists nor of left-leaning liberals, hippies on dope living in communes thinking it’s still the 1960s or insidious Chinese officials hoping to pull a fast one to gain a competitive advantage over America’s businesses.
The disruptive potential of global climate change and the threat it poses to American security is recognized by Trump’s own generals. In unpublished written testimony provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee (Secretary of Defense General) Mattis said it was incumbent on the U.S. military to consider how changes like open-water routes in the thawing Arctic and drought in global trouble spots can pose challenges for troops and defense planners. He also stressed this is a real-time issue, not some distant what-if.
General Mattis along with many other U.S. military leaders and planners have long advocated reduced reliance on fossil fuels and have warned that tomorrow’s wars will be sparked not by conflicting political philosophies but securing needed natural resources, i.e., water and arable dirt.
Rear Admiral David Titley, who led the U.S. Navy’s task force on climate change, has observed:
For a lot of the readiness of the Department of Defense, it doesn't even really matter why [the climate] is changing…we know it's changing; we know it's changing pretty quickly, and we’d better be ready for that, because if we just plan for the past we're going to be surprised—and that's not where the Department of Defense wants to be.
Herein lies the question. Does it even really matter why the climate is changing--really?
Whether one believes all that the 97% or more of the world’s scientists have to say in peer-reviewed studies on the Globe’s warming, trust that warming has consequences. One doesn’t have to have a degree from MIT or Stanford to accept that warm ocean waters feed hurricanes.
I am not speaking of a one-off hot day in January. Ask residents of Texas, Louisiana, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico whether they have ever before experienced the hurricane intensities of those of 2017?
Look at pictures of Antarctica’s ice flows, the calving of icebergs the size of Delaware. Ask yourself, are the polar caps melting and what it might say about ocean temperatures and levels?
Scratch that--don’t ask yourself. Ask your neighbors, friends, colleagues, members of your church congregations or chatroom chums what they think. Better yet--seek out skeptics and ask them.
The policy battle that rages at the federal level will continue whether Donald the Denier is president or not. If Trump leaves office before the end of his four-year term and Mike Pence becomes president, the assault on the nation’s clean energy and climate policies will continue.
If Trump or Pence lose in the 2020 national elections, the victor may be more disposed to proposing and implementing new federal policies, but that alone won’t make much headway against the problem—certainly not immediately.
Remember what President Obama confronted in an obstructionist clan of Congressional climate deniers. Consider how he had to rely on executive orders to have even had a chance at regulating the carbon emissions of electric power generators, the discharges of mining companies into the nation’s waterways, the actions of frackers and the leveling of mountain tops.
The hyper-partisanship of today’s politics poisons the policy well. These days party affiliation is the overwhelming determinant of a person’s position on climate change.
The division in Congress is a reflection of the divide of the nation’s electorate. The inability of Republicans possessed of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to enact their promised reforms further reflects intra-party divisiveness.
The Democrats are no better. At the moment, they simply have common targets to shoot at. Are they, as a party, more disposed to environmental protection? Yes, but are they capable of governing any more competently than the Republicans?
I’ll address that question another time. Meanwhile, look for the release of my new book which is out next week on Kindle--of which this is an edited excerpt.
Lead photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@kjpaynter
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.