Today, July 15th, the Sunrise Movement is organizing a national action in the United States. Its aim: to pressure the Biden administration to take more serious steps about the climate crisis.
In line with that call, I’d like to pose a question about the climate crisis.
I’m reading Mark Lynas, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency. (2021) The bo0k offers a series of visions of the world after global warming, with one chapter per degree rise by 2100. Naturally each additional degree makes things worse.
But early on the book pauses to point out a strategic choice that the human race has access to right now. Lynas offers one list of things humanity can do to try reducing the chances of seriously terrible global warming, and I’d like readers to consider what’s involved and how likely they could occur. The precise goal of achieving the actions in this list is to “keep… to the Paris target of staying below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” (271)
In the list are two main items:
- canceling the development of all planned carbon-burning (coal, oil, gas) power plants
- “stop[ping] selling cars and trucks straight away – anything with an internal combustion engine in fact – as well as home boilers, aircraft and shipping, cement kilns, blast furnaces…”
I invite the reader to consider what it would take to accomplish this. You can estimate how likely it is that we make it happen.
Yet these huge measures might not be enough to have a good chance of stopping global warming. Lynas explains:
even if we succeed in cancelling all these sources of future emissions, we are still 200 Gt over budget for the 1.5°C target, if we want a 66% chance of staying under it. If we are prepared to accept only a 50% probability of staying at 1.5°C – gambling the planet for somewhat worse odds, in other words – we can go for a total budget of 580 Gt of CO2. But even then we are still more than 100 Gt over the target (and more, if we include land-use change). The only way to retain even a 50:50 chance of a 1.5°C outcome, therefore, is to do something about future emissions from existing infrastructure – by closing it down early. (272)
So he adds other items to the list:
- shutting down all currently operational coal power plants
- “closing heavy industry, and taking petrol and diesel trucks off the roads before they reach the end of their lifetimes.”
- “scrapping jet aircraft and switching from flying to other less energy-intensive modes of transport until someone comes up with carbon-neutral air travel.”
What would be required for civilization to take these steps in 2021?
There are many issues involved in even considering such vast possibilities, obviously. Lynas touches on several: equity of sacrifice within and between nations; economic devastation, starting by killing the fossil fuel industry; political unrest. Readers can add more.
If such changes seem difficult, unlikely, or laughably implausible, Lynas then follows up with the logical result. We would have to be “prepared to accept the additional climate damages that predictably arise between 1.5 and 2°C.” These include: the north polar icecap passing a tipping point into steep decline; increased melting of the Antarctic ice sheet; millions of acres in northern Asia, now covered in permafrost, thawed out and releasing methane (a far more potential global warming gas than CO2); over 100 major cities experiencing serious flooding; dengue fever spiking in Latin America; declines in agricultural production; more people exposed to dangerous (as in causing illness or death) levels of heat; the collapse of many coral reefs. Several of these changes will accelerate the others, as when an open Arctic Ocean’s dark waters retain heat, rather than bouncing it away as high-albedo ice historically did. (273-5)
That’s a choice we have before us: radical decarbonization at once or accepting one form of global disaster. Note that a 2 degree rise isn’t the worst case. Degree by degree Our Final Warning ratchets things up until 6 degrees. At that point it seems like most observers and modelers give up, or just don’t want to gaze into such an abyss. The choice I identified falls far short of that.
While you consider those possibilities, please add one dimension: the role of academia. How many students, staff, and faculty are thinking of Lynas’ choice now, or advocating for one of his two paths? What role does academic research play in informing or motivating the public about that choice? If parts of higher education are committed to mitigating climate change, do they find themselves in open opposition to the energy industries Lynas’ first option would gut? Conversely, how much of academia is planning on a 2 degree temperature rise for the next two generations?