Excerpt from Dahr Jamail’s op–ed “A Planet in Crisis: The Heat’s on Us“. Dahr’s new book was published earlier this week (and will be available in e–book formats early next week), titled “The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption”.
In October 2018, 15 months after Jirinec’s words brought me to tears in the Amazon, the world’s leading climate scientists authored a report for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning us that we have just a dozen years left to limit the catastrophic impacts of climate change. The gist of it is this: we’ve already warmed the planet one degree Celsius. If we fail to limit that warming process to 1.5 degrees, even a half-degree more than that will significantly worsen extreme heat, flooding, widespread droughts and sea level increases, among other grim phenomena. The report has become a key talking point of political progressives in the US, who, like journalist and activist Naomi Klein, are now speaking of “a terrifying 12 years” left in which to cut fossil fuel emissions.
There is, however, a problem with even this approach. It assumes that the scientific conclusions in the IPCC report are completely sound. It’s well known, however, that there’s been a political element built into the IPCC’s scientific process, based on the urge to get as many countries as possible on board the Paris climate agreement and other attempts to rein in climate change. To do that, such reports tend to use the lowest common denominator in their projections, which makes their science overly conservative (that is, overly optimistic).
In addition, new data suggest that the possibility of political will coalescing across the planet to shift the global economy completely off fossil fuels in the reasonably near future is essentially a fantasy. And that’s even if we could remove enough of the hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 already in our overburdened atmosphere to make a difference (not to speak of the heat similarly already lodged in the oceans).
“It’s extraordinarily challenging to get to the 1.5 degree Celsius target and we are nowhere near on track to doing that,” Drew Shindell, a Duke University climate scientist and a co-author of the IPCC report, told theGuardian just weeks before it was released. “While it’s technically possible, it’s extremely improbable, absent a real sea change in the way we evaluate risk. We are nowhere near that.”
In fact, even best-case scenarios show us heading for at least a three-degree warming and, realistically speaking, we are undoubtedly on track for far worse than that by 2100, if not much sooner. Perhaps that’s why Shindell was so pessimistic.
For example, a study published in Nature magazine, also released in October, showed that over the last quarter century, the oceans have absorbed 60 percent more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 IPCC report. The study underscored that the globe’s oceans have, in fact, already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere, that the climate system’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is far higher than thought and that planetary warming is far more advanced than had previously been grasped.
To give you an idea of how much heat the oceans have absorbed: if that heat had instead gone into the atmosphere, the global temperature would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is today. For those who think that there are still 12 years left to change things, the question posed by Wanless seems painfully apt: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans?
Two weeks after that Nature article came out, a study in Scientific Reports warned that the extinction of animal and plant species due to climate change could lead to a “domino effect” that might, in the end, annihilate life on the planet. It suggested that organisms will die out at increasingly rapid rates because they depend on other species that are also on their way out. It’s a process the study calls “co-extinction.” According to its authors, a five to six degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures might be enough to annihilate most of Earth’s living creatures.
To put this in perspective: just a two degree rise will leave dozens of the world’s coastal mega-cities flooded, thanks primarily to melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm. There will be 32 times as many heat waves in India and nearly half a billion more people will suffer water scarcity. At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought and the area burned annually by wildfires in the US will sextuple. These impacts, it’s worth noting, may already be baked into the system, even if every country that signed the Paris climate accord were to fully honor its commitments, which most of them are not currently doing.
At four degrees, global grain yields could drop by half, most likely resulting in annual worldwide food crises (along with far more war, general conflict and migration than at present).
The International Energy Agency has already shown that maintaining our current fossil-fueled economic system would virtually guarantee a six-degree rise in the Earth’s temperature before 2050. To add insult to injury, a 2017 analysis from oil giants BP and Shell indicated that they expected the planet to be five degrees warmer by mid-century.
In late 2013, I wrote a piece for TomDispatch titled “Are We Falling Off the Climate Precipice?” Even then, it was already clear enough that we were indeed heading off that cliff. More than five years later, a sober reading of the latest climate change science indicates that we are now genuinely in free fall.
The question is no longer whether or not we are going to fail, but how are we going to comport ourselves in the era of failure?