Climate Explained: Are We Doomed If We Don’t Curb Carbon Emissions by 2030?
By Robert McLachlan
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Is humanity doomed? If in 2030 we have not reduced emissions in a way that means we stay under say 2℃ (I've frankly given up on 1.5℃), are we doomed then?
Humanity is not doomed, not now or even in a worst-case scenario in 2030. But avoiding doom — either the end or widespread collapse of civilization — is setting a pretty low bar. We can aim much higher than that without shying away from reality.
It's right to focus on global warming of 1.5℃ and 2℃ in the first instance. The many manifestations of climate change — including heat waves, droughts, water stress, more intense storms, wildfires, mass extinction and warming oceans — all get progressively worse as the temperature rises.
Climate scientist Michael Mann uses the metaphor of walking into an increasingly dense minefield.
As I have been pointing out for some time, climate change isn't a cliff we go off at 1.5C or 2C. It's much more lik… https://t.co/tY8NoRq153— Michael E. Mann (@Michael E. Mann)1545928869.0
Good Reasons Not to Give Up Just Yet
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the effects of a 1.5℃ increase in average temperatures in a special report last year. They are also nicely summarized in an article about why global temperatures matter, produced by NASA.
The global average temperature is currently about 1.2℃ higher than what it was at the time of the Industrial Revolution, some 250 years ago. We are already witnessing localized impacts, including the widespread coral bleaching on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
This graph shows different emission pathways and when the world is expected to reach global average temperatures of 1.5℃ or 2℃ above pre-industrial levels. Global Carbon Project, Author provided
Limiting warming to 1.5℃ requires cutting global emissions by 7.6% each year this decade. This does sound difficult, but there are reasons for optimism.
First, it's possible technically and economically. For example, the use of wind and solar power has grown exponentially in the past decade, and their prices have plummeted to the point where they are now among the cheapest sources of electricity. Some areas, including energy storage and industrial processes such as steel and cement manufacture, still need further research and a drop in price (or higher carbon prices).
Second, it's possible politically. Partly in response to the Paris Agreement, a growing number of countries have adopted stronger targets. Twenty countries and regions (including New Zealand and the European Union) are now targeting net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier.
A recent example of striking progress comes from Ireland – a country with a similar emissions profile to New Zealand. The incoming coalition's "program for government" includes emission cuts of 7% per year and a reduction by half by 2030.
Third, it's possible socially. Since 2019, we have seen the massive growth of the School Strike 4 Climate movement and an increase in fossil fuel divestment. Several media organizations, including The Conversation, have made a commitment to evidence-based coverage of climate change and calls for a Green New Deal are coming from a range of political parties, especially in the U.S. and Europe.
There is also a growing understanding that to ensure a safe future we need to consume less overall. If these trends continue, then I believe we can still stay below 1.5℃.
The Pessimist Perspective
Now suppose we don't manage that. It's 2030 and emissions have only fallen a little bit. We're staring at 2℃ in the second half of the century.
At 2℃ of warming, we could expect to lose more than 90% of our coral reefs. Insects and plants would be at higher risk of extinction, and the number of dangerously hot days would increase rapidly.
The challenges would be exacerbated and we would have new issues to consider. First, under the "shifting baseline" phenomenon — essentially a failure to notice slow change and to value what is already lost — people might discount the damage already done. Continuously worsening conditions might become the new normal.
Second, climate impacts such as mass migration could lead to a rise of nationalism and make international cooperation harder. And third, we could begin to pass unpredictable "tipping points" in the Earth system. For example, warming of more than 2°C could set off widespread melting in Antarctica, which in turn would contribute to sea level rise.
But true doom-mongers tend to assume a worst-case scenario on virtually every area of uncertainty. It is important to remember that such scenarios are not very likely.
While bad, this 2030 scenario doesn't add up to doom — and it certainly doesn't change the need to move away from fossil fuels to low-carbon options.
Robert McLachlan is a Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University.
Disclosure statement: Robert McLachlan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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Officials at the highest levels are discussing the possibility of caving in on controlling the coronavirus and instead letting it run rampant throughout the United States until we reach "herd immunity," the point where the virus effectively runs out of people to infect. More than 6,200 scientists, health professionals, and research organizations say this is inhumane and have signed a memorandum rejecting herd immunity as a legitimate strategy.
Herd Immunity’s Unacceptable Toll<p>Resumption of normal life in the United States under a herd immunity approach would result in an enormous death toll by all estimates. Former CDC director Tom Frieden <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/tom-frieden-herd-immunity-wrong-solution-coronavirus/2020/10/16/acb4ae8a-0fe6-11eb-8074-0e943a91bf08_story.html" target="_blank">estimates</a> that another 500,000 people would have to die to achieve 60 percent herd immunity. "And that's the best-case scenario," Frieden wrote in a <em>Washington Post</em> op-ed. "The number of deaths to get there could be twice as high."</p><p>Frieden said that is the best-case scenario because no one really knows if the <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/herd-immunity-and-coronavirus/art-20486808" target="_blank">actual percentage needed</a> to see the virus peter out is to have it <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/521834-covid-19-vaccine-barriers-efficacy-availability-and-acceptability" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">infect</a> more like <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/08/31/herd-immunity-covid-19/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">65, 70,</a> or even <a href="https://www.vox.com/21451282/herd-immunity-explained-covid-19-pandemic" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">75 percent</a> of the population. Even if immunity could be miraculously achieved at 50 percent, an estimate <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41577-020-00451-5" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">published</a> in <em>Nature Reviews Immunology</em> places the range of sacrifice somewhere between 500,000 and 2.1 million deaths.</p><p>That makes it little wonder that Anthony Fauci, the most respected scientist advising the Trump administration on the pandemic, called herd immunity for the coronavirus "total nonsense." Fauci is backed up by the likes of National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, who said herd immunity is a "dangerous" and "fringe" component of epidemiology. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Health <a href="https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/10/20/nation/scores-mass-scientists-doctors-sign-open-letter-against-herd-immunity-proposal/?outputType=amp" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called</a> herd immunity "junk science."</p><p>The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, <a href="https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing-on-covid-19---12-october-2020" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said this month</a> that the only acceptable form of "herd immunity" is achieved through vaccination. "Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it," the secretary general said. "Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak, let alone a pandemic... Allowing a dangerous virus that we don't fully understand to run free is simply unethical. It's not an option."</p>
Herd Immunity Is the National De Facto Strategy<p>Somehow, none of that has culled herd immunity from being considered as a legitimate approach for fighting COVID-19. Rather, the Great Barrington Declaration has much in common with the Trump administration's approach to the coronavirus, which has led to more people dying from COVID-19 in the United States than in any other nation on Earth.</p><p>A de facto herd immunity approach is the only thing that can explain the push by governors of so many states to <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/the-push-to-relax-covid-19-protections-exposes-age-old-racial-wounds" target="_blank">reopen</a> bars, restaurants, beaches, bowling alleys, and gyms in states even as the virus has raged and case numbers have been increasing. It is the only thing that can explain the federal designation of meatpackers as essential workers and state demands that teachers go back into classrooms despite outbreaks and deaths related to those professions.</p><p>It also explains how so many of the nation's most respected scientific voices have been silenced. Despite the virus's current "uncontrolled spread" in 34 states and Puerto Rico, according to October 21 <a href="https://www.covidexitstrategy.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tracking</a> by CovidExistStrategy.org, the White House has pushed aside Fauci, Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, and Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.</p><p>In their place, the administration has handed the pandemic podium to <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY4ZGZhZmQ5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNGViMzQyIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL3BvbGl0aWNzL3RydW1wcy1kZW4tb2YtZGlzc2VudC1pbnNpZGUtdGhlLXdoaXRlLWhvdXNlLXRhc2stZm9yY2UtYXMtY29yb25hdmlydXMtc3VyZ2VzLzIwMjAvMTAvMTkvN2ZmOGVlNmEtMGE2ZS0xMWViLTg1OWItZjljMjdhYmU2MzhkX3N0b3J5Lmh0bWw_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.MyoXrwQD-PwWqdbb70_JfrI_fxHO0be_O_tpTTMXBgE" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Scott Atlas</a>, a radiologist and conservative pundit with <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">no background</a> in infectious disease science or epidemiology in measuring disease prevalence. Inhumanely ignoring the more than half of U.S. adults having a pre-existing condition that could compromise them for COVID-19, he blithely praises herd immunity, <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/public-wants-science-based-policies-for-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">saying,</a> "We can allow a lot of people to get infected. Those who are not at risk to die or have a serious hospital-requiring illness, we should be fine with letting them get infected."</p><p>He <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/521688-birx-confronted-pence-about-atlas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pooh-poohs</a> expanded testing, saying, "you are destroying the workforce." Twitter recently took down one of Atlas's tweets for falsely claiming, "Masks work? NO" and then lying that the WHO says widespread mask use is "not supported." The first sentence of the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">webpage</a> on masks says, "Masks are a key measure to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."</p><p>Atlas denies that the White House has a "wide-open strategy of achieving herd immunity." But there's little doubt that the White House is wide open to the idea. Last week, Atlas <a href="https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/trump-adviser-calls-nbc-town-hall-brazen-display-of-media-duplicity" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">appeared</a> on Fox News <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/white-house-touts-document-calling-for-herd-immunity-approach-to-covid-19-crisis-11603051550" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">to say</a> the thrust of the Great Barrington Declaration "is exactly aligned with the president." That was seconded by a senior administration official who <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/covid-herd-immunity/2020/10/10/3910251c-0a60-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told reporters</a> in a conference call that the Great Barrington Declaration "is endorsing what the president's policy has been for months."</p><p>The freezing out of scientists on the Coronavirus Task Force reached deep space levels this week (a metaphoric minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit), with multiple buckets of ice dumped on Fauci. Atlas diminished Fauci as "just one person" on the force, offering only a "limited approach." President Trump called Fauci a "disaster," <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-fauci-campaign-biden/2020/10/19/30b2fe58-1226-11eb-82af-864652063d61_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">claiming,</a> "People are tired of hearing Fauci and these idiots, all these idiots who got it wrong."</p>
Many Thousands of Lives Can Still Be Saved<p>Atlas's malpractice already merits his dismissal. He should be forced to step down because his disregard for science will surely lead to incalculable disaster if a herd immunity approach becomes official government policy. Calls for his ouster have already begun even from inside the task force. <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-den-of-dissent-inside-the-white-house-task-force-as-coronavirus-surges/2020/10/19/7ff8ee6a-0a6e-11eb-859b-f9c27abe638d_story.html" target="_blank">According</a> to the <em>Washington Post</em>, Birx went to Vice President Mike Pence to suggest removing Atlas. All Pence reportedly did was ask Birx and Atlas to work out their problems on their own.</p><p>There is no time left for such discord within the task force and for discordant messages to come from the White House on how people should protect themselves from COVID-19. The thousands of scientists and public health professionals who signed the John Snow Memorandum say "it is critical to act decisively and urgently," to launch a "robust" response on the level of New Zealand, Vietnam, or Japan—all of which have shown success in containing the virus and keeping the numbers of cases and deaths relatively low.</p><p>The approach that has been proven effective starts with face coverings and social distancing and reducing the temptation we all will feel during the oncoming winter holidays to have extended family gatherings. Researchers from MIT and the Vancouver School of Economics <a href="https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.27.20115139v6.full.pdf" target="_blank">estimate</a> in a working paper that, if the United States had established a national mask mandate in mid-March, between 19,000 and 47,000 lives could have been saved by the end of May. Now that the nation's death toll approaches a quarter million lives lost, and is <a href="https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america?view=total-deaths&tab=trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">projected</a> to reach nearly 400,000 by February 1, according to the Institutes for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the institute estimates we could avoid 74,000 new deaths with universal mask use.</p><p>Importantly, masks protect others, including the most vulnerable among us. This week, the <em>Washington Post</em> reported how coronavirus outbreaks among college students partying in unmasked packs in LaCrosse, Wisconsin was found to have <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/21/la-crosse-wisconsin-covid-outbreak-nursing-home-deaths/?utm_campaign=wp_to_your_health&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_tyh&wpmk=1&pwapi_token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJjb29raWVuYW1lIjoid3BfY3J0aWQiLCJpc3MiOiJDYXJ0YSIsImNvb2tpZXZhbHVlIjoiNWE1ZDQ3N2M5YmJjMGYyNmNiMTViMmI0IiwidGFnIjoiNWY5MWU3YjU5ZDJmZGEwZWZiNTE3OGNmIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cud2FzaGluZ3RvbnBvc3QuY29tL2hlYWx0aC8yMDIwLzEwLzIxL2xhLWNyb3NzZS13aXNjb25zaW4tY292aWQtb3V0YnJlYWstbnVyc2luZy1ob21lLWRlYXRocy8_dXRtX2NhbXBhaWduPXdwX3RvX3lvdXJfaGVhbHRoJnV0bV9tZWRpdW09ZW1haWwmdXRtX3NvdXJjZT1uZXdzbGV0dGVyJndwaXNyYz1ubF90eWgmd3Btaz0xIn0.6Ep-AvkJkNqGTE08UsekVlNWR01vYzQe-qg5BPruSQM" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">led to 19 deaths so far of people over the age of 60</a>. Before that, the city had gone without a single pandemic death in its nursing homes.</p><p>That is on the heels of the wedding in Millinocket, Maine that resulted in an outbreak that <a href="https://bangordailynews.com/2020/09/19/news/eight-deaths-now-tied-to-millinocket-area-wedding-outbreak-including-seven-at-nursing-home/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">killed eight elderly people</a>, none of whom attended the event, and the 500,000-person Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally that is <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/10/17/sturgis-rally-spread/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">now tied</a> to the massive coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest and Mountain States. The Germain IZA Institute of Labor Economics estimates that the illness generated from the rally <a href="https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/13670/the-contagion-externality-of-a-superspreading-event-the-sturgis-motorcycle-rally-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">will cost</a> the nation $12.2 billion in health care costs.</p><p>Atlas and the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration have not yet said why this is just fine. That is why they must be unmasked for the charlatans that they are.</p>
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