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Where we are today: the Climate Crisis
Global warming and climate change are misleading and obsolete descriptions for what is going on. We are now in a global climate emergency. Many have warned against being too pessimistic about the climate. They suggest sugar coating the situation and not giving the full story, fearing that non-activists would withdraw into apathy or defeatism. I prefer the forthright approach taken by Greta Thunberg, Bill McKibben, and Margaret Klein Salomon, PhD of The Climate Mobilization.
In "Leading the Public into Emergency Mode," Salomon argues that the climate movement must tell the truth about the climate emergency, and act as though that truth is real — using peaceful civil disobedience, militant tactics, and demanding an emergency mobilization from the government and all society. Makes sense to me.
Here's how we got to this point. Until a few hundred years ago, humans used wood, animal power, human power and some wind and water power for energy. The Industrial Revolution brought a host of technical innovations that enabled people to convert the very concentrated sources of energy in fossil fuels into effective power.
Check out Richard Heinberg's five-minute animated video, "300 Years of Fossil Fuels in 300 Seconds"
Very briefly, here's the physics of climate change. As the fossil fuels oil, coal and natural gas are burned, they release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. The Earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen. CO2 is one of a few trace greenhouse gases that increases the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere from sunlight instead of it radiating back into space. Scientists have been measuring the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere since about 1958. Carbon dioxide has been rising steadily since then and just passed 415 parts per million (PPM) in the atmosphere for the first time in human history. The pre-industrial level, from the 1800s, was 280 PPM. The last time it was this high was 3 million years ago. The global average temperature back then was 3 -4C (5.4 – 7.2 F) higher. There were trees at the South pole, no Greenland ice sheet, and sea levels were 20 – 60 feet higher than they are now. (Here's a handy C to F conversion tip: multiply or divide the temperature by 1.8.)
On geological time scales, the CO2 increase is incredibly rapid. Most of the increased heat has gone into the oceans, which will eventually circulate to the air. Warmer water evaporates more, leading to stronger storms. The five hottest years on record were the last five years.
As formerly mild-mannered science educator Bill Nye said in an interview with John Oliver: “the planet is on ------ fire.”
In 2016 world leaders at the Paris summit set a goal of limiting the increase in the Earth’s temperature to under 2C (3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels to avoid runaway warming, aiming for only 1.5C (2.7F).
In 2018 the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that limiting warming to the 1.5°C this century will require an unprecedented transformation of every sector of the global economy over the next 12 years.
The IPCC said renewable energy would need to supply 70-85 percent of electricity by 2050 to stay within a 1.5C limit, compared with about 25 percent now. Look at this graph. The changes needed are really extreme.
To cut greenhouse gas production in half every seven years for the rest of the century requires extreme and severe cuts in fossil fuel - about 11 percent per year. If we had started these cuts in the 1990s, more gradual changes would have worked – but since James Hansen first testified to Congress in 1988, the world has procrastinated.
By 2050, we need to be at or close to zero emissions, IPCC says. And that will not be enough.
Besides extreme cuts in our fossil energy use, we’ll also have to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and bring the CO2 PPM down past 350 to put the emergency brakes on whatever tipping points have already been tipped.
What happens if we continue with business as usual? CO2 and methane will continue rising. We may hit tipping points, after which some effects of climate disruption will speed up the process. For example, warming of areas near the poles that have been permanently frozen all year around start thawing and releasing methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Or, polar ice, which has reflected sunlight, is replaced by darker open seawater, which absorbs sunlight, the warming of the oceans speeds up. We may have passed tipping points already.
We’re already experiencing some climate disruption, and more is inevitable. We must make emergency efforts to change our ways, mitigate the damage and suffering already underway, and then we must adapt to the dangerous, life-threatening scenarios on the way.
But there is still time to avert the worst case scenarios! Where do we start? One good framework is the Drawdown Project. A team of scientists have researched the top 100 methods that can stop the increase of greenhouse gas levels and get them to drop down below the danger zone.
Another is the concept of a Green New Deal. Many Federal responses to the climate crisis have been proposed, but only recently have those calling for a WWII scale response, completely redirecting the economy, have entered mainstream political discussion. Details of potential GND programs will still have to be worked out. Before that is even possible, progressives will have to win the White House and the Senate in 2020.