In the 2004 Sci-Fi disaster film The Day After Tomorrow, anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change triggers a global catastrophe whose scale and speed reflect Hollywood’s desire for a good show a little more than the scientific goal of accuracy. The sensational movie visual of a massive tsunami crashing over the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is much more memorable than the scientific terms we often hear from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – a collection of hundreds of leading scientists from across the globe – and other scientific bodies.
Some political operatives take advantage of such academic language, such as “medium confidence” and “are projected to be,” to sell the false narrative that there is significant scientific debate on post-industrial human contributions to global climate change. With the softer language of science, it’s not hard to see how people could believe that not all scientists believe human activity is the main contributor to the climate-related impacts we are now feeling all over the world. So let me dispel any question in your mind – and use terms with which the rest of us are more familiar.
Humans are causing climate change. It’s getting worse. And it will have a massive impact on the planet and millions, if not billions, of people in our lifetimes. Full stop.
Even the language scientists are using is getting clearer and less ambiguous. The IPCC just released a report that makes it clear that the time to consider our options and plan for what we want to do about climate change is ending very soon. Within a very short timeframe from a policy perspective (less than 12 years), we need to make significant advances in our climate mitigation efforts (reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions) or very bad things such as food shortages, massive wildfires, and the destruction of coral reefs are going to happen that will affect us, our children, and many generations to come.
Until recently, some climate advocates felt any discussion of adapting to the impacts of climate change was a dangerous precedent as it was seen as cop-out to climate mitigation. But we have waited too long to just focus on reducing carbon emissions alone to save us from the impacts of climate change. That ship has sailed, and now we are being told that the ability to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius could soon be out of our reach.
The impacts of a world where average global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C or greater are significant, and the cost in both human and economic terms will be tremendous. Consider a recent paper published in Nature that found that keeping average temps under 1.5 degrees C would avoid $36.4 trillion in economic damage through the end of the century. Who can’t use an extra $36 trillion? But are we too late?
The evidence shows we don’t have much time to get our act together, and the current politics make it pretty obvious that this is sadly unlikely without some revolutionary advancements in technology or big policy changes. Clean energy and carbon reduction are of little apparent interest to the current U.S. federal administration, which seems instead focused on eliminating regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and promoting a 19th century, coal-centric energy strategy.
The idea that policy can be effective gained even more credence last week, when two economists, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, were jointly awarded a Nobel Prize for their independent work on the connection between climate and economics (Nordhaus) and how governments can drive economic growth by investing in research and education (Romer). Clearly, what governments do matters. And the data and our experience clearly show that contrary to the narrative that addressing climate change will bankrupt us, it actually provides a pathway to strong economic growth.
Let me try to be even clearer: Bad things are happening due to climate change.
Droughts, wildfires, and severe storms are killing people in both developed and still-developing countries. It’s happening today, not sometime in the future. Drought induced wildifires have ravaged the western US and Canada for the past several years. Cities like Cape Town, South Africa, are running out of water. A study from the National Academy of Sciences found that drought was partly responsible for the civil war in Syria (and the impact of refugees on Europe). Another study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that more than 4,000 people died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria, this in the country with the largest GDP in the world. Heat waves will kill millions more in places you may never have heard of and places you have if we don’t keep rising temperatures in check.
Another area of confusion is the concept of a 1.5 degree C vs. 2 degree C or greater rise in average global temps. The key word here is “average.” The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C is a little less than one degree Fahrenheit (1 degree C = 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), but what most people miss is that when the average increase is one degree, the extreme may be as much as ten degrees. 2018 looks like it will be the fourth hottest year on record (only exceeded by 2015, 2016, and 2017), and heat is a problem not only in hot places. Glaciers are melting, pollen counts are higher, and animal and fish migration patterns are changing. All of these things mean problems today like more allergies, Lyme disease, and less available food sources – and worse problems tomorrow.
What even the scientists’ language is clearly saying now is that we have one last shot at reducing some of the worst impacts of human-induced climate change, but even if we were to figure out how to make the massive changes needed to restrict warming, we will need to adapt to an earth where severe weather, flooding, drought, and other climate shocks and stresses are the norm, not the exception.
Both climate mitigation and climate adaptation (resilience) must be achieved for all of us to prosper and for many of us to just survive.
If there was ever a time to act, it is now. Whatever we do in the next few years, we are all in for some hard choices and for many people in low-lying, hot, and poorer countries, there will be no good choices at all. And the good news is that we still have a little time to act and that we can grow the global economy by making these investments. Climate change mitigation and adaptation will create jobs and opportunities for people across the globe and the economic spectrum. Governments and businesses all have a role to play in this whole-of-planet solution. In an increasingly global economy and world, the impacts on anyone will touch us all, but so do the benefits.