November 13, 2022

Like the proverbial frog in the pot whose temperature slowly rises.

Yes (sigh) this is about climate change. But please read it anyway, it may provide some clarity.

There’s another big global climate talk-fest going on now in Egypt. The 2015 Paris agreement set an ambitious goal of limiting Earth’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That was a big victory for poorer nations, which stood to be harmed most by warming (being less equipped to cope with it). However, Paris included no commitments for specific action to achieve the goal.

Since then, the 1.5 degree goal has become a totemic gospel, dominating climate discussion. But — as argued in a recent analysis in The Economist, aptly titled “An Inconvenient Truth” — the chances of achieving 1.5 are zero (and have been for quite some time). It would have required massive reductions in carbon emissions, that simply are not happening. Rather than biting the bullet, we’ve barely been licking it. Consequently, at this point, 1.5 would require, going forward, reductions even more draconian. Which won’t happen either.

Because there’s no way to develop and deploy, fast enough, the technological fixes that would be required to reduce emissions enough without huge dislocations to our way of life, for which there is no public or political will. We’re talking here about the burning of fossil fuels, as in power generation, industrial processes, car and air travel; and there are many further ways we put carbon into the atmosphere, another big one being agriculture. Cow farts are actually a significant factor.

The 1.5 target was adopted even though 1.5 would entail pretty severe climate effects — but that seemed the outer limit for both what might be achievable and what might be more or less tolerable. Now it looks like 2 degrees is about the best we can hope for. And the difference between 1.5 and 2 is the difference between bad and very bad. While blowing past 2 looks increasingly likely.

What are the bad effects? A lot of ice will melt, dumping more water into the oceans, raising sea levels, and flooding low lying coastal cities (and some island countries). More and worse heat waves, obviously; a lot of places becoming simply uninhabitable. More and worse weather events, like hurricanes. More floods, droughts, forest fires. Big disruptions to agriculture and food production. All of which will send vast numbers of people on the move.

Part of the problem is feedback effects: warming creating conditions that cause more warming. For example, ice reflects a lot of sunlight back into space; less ice means less of that. And permafrost melting would release a lot more carbon-rich methane into the atmosphere. There’s danger of a tipping point, causing runaway warming. That’s apparently what happened to Venus, whose temperature now averages a toasty 867 degrees Fahrenheit.

I have argued forever that the zealots were misguided to insist on emissions reductions exclusively, because reducing them enough was a pipe dream. And even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures would still be baked in, due to the carbon already in the atmosphere.

We have three main other options. One is carbon capture and storage — sucking it out of the atmosphere. The technology exists. So far, the amount being done is piddling. However, scaling this up to where it would make a difference would be a colossal and colossally costly undertaking.

Second, there’s geoengineering — action to actually lower temperatures. The best known method would mimic the effect of volcanoes — which do periodically reduce temperatures (remember 1816, the “year without a summer”) by throwing a lot of particles into the upper atmosphere that deflect sunlight. This would be problematical and controversial for a host of reasons, and it too would be a gargantuan undertaking.

Both carbon removal and geoengineering would take many years, if not decades, to be deployed at anything near the scale needed.

That leaves the third course — adaptation. Measures to anticipate and cope with higher temperatures. Like building sea walls to protect cities against rising waters. Some places (Venice, for example; the Netherlands, historically) already do this. I’m skeptical that makes sense in the long term; but there are many other things we can do. The Economistarticle shows how much is actually being done already, although much more is needed.

The idea that humanity is suicidally wrecking the planet is over-the-top. What we have done is what we had to do, utilizing the planet’s resources in order to make ever better lives for generations of people. Of course it was no free lunch, and now we must pay the price. We will pay it.

We will not go extinct. We are the most adaptable of species. Coming out of steamy Africa, humans accommodated to living in the Arctic, and a vast array of other different climates. And that was without the benefit of all the scientific knowledge and technology we’ve acquired since. We will cope with a warmer planet.

As long as it’s not another Venus.

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