No matter how bad you think Trump’s decision to drop out of the Paris Agreement was, the reality is worse. It is, in fact, by far the worst thing from the very broad list of bad things he’s doing.
This article outlines why we have less time to act to avoid catastrophic climate change than we’ve been led to believe, and it outlines a way forward.
We Can Make Trump Irrelevant
Under the terms of the Agreement, countries can withdraw from the accord no sooner than 4 years after they sign it, which means the US cannot officially exit the agreement until November 4, 2020. But Trump has said he will not honor the emission reduction targets the Obama administration committed to in the interim.
Fortunately, there’s a backlash from cities, states and corporations that could make Trump and his coalition of denier clowns irrelevant. The Under2Coalition, an international agreement, which includes 10 states and some of the largest cities in our country, offers a way to harness the backlash and act to meet the greatest challenge of our time.
Trump’s Justifications are Flat Out Lies
Others have noted that the future belongs to renewable energy and he has just doomed us to being the world leader in the technologies of the last century, and the decaying economy that implies. They will note that clean energy generates three times as many jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuels do, so he is actually killing jobs, not creating them. And still others will note that this makes us international rogues and very likely ends our tenure as the leader of the free world. Finally, others will point out that it will unleash as many as a billion refugees, sparking an exponential increase in terrorism, a humanitarian crisis, and global chaos.
All true, yet none of these make his action what it is: the single most dangerous act any leader could take; a criminally irresponsible, morally reprehensible decision that threatens to bring on a planetary ecological collapse that—together with our continued reliance on fossil fuels—will not only kill 6 million people a year by 2030, but also make all these changes irrevocable and irreversible.
As we will see, the Paris Agreement, by itself, would not have avoided a climatic catastrophe. But it would slow things down a bit and give us a framework to achieve more. Now, thanks to Trump, we are locked into a disaster that is greater than any humanity has ever faced, unless we take action at the individual, community, city and state level, and make this thug irrelevant.
Here’s why we have less time to act than we’ve been led to believe, and why we must act on our own, starting right now.
We Have – Literally – No Time Left to Take Action to Avoid Catastrophic Warming
In the lead up to the Paris Agreement, we were told we had something like 20 years to act to avoid “catastrophic” climate change. We don’t.
The 20-year figure was based on three assumptions:
- Holding warming to 2° Celsius would be sufficient to avoid disaster;
- It’s acceptable to risk a 34 percent chance of exceeding 2°C; and
- It was somehow morally acceptable to pass on a big part of solving the problem to our children’s children
Let’s examine each of these in turn.
2°C Is Too Dangerous
The press accounts referred to the 2°C limit that formed the basis of the Paris Agreement as the “maximum safe level.” In reality, there’s nothing safe about it. Scientists have been more careful, referring to it as a “speed limit” or “guardrail,” and even this phrasing implies a level of protection that a 2°C increase simply doesn’t afford.
In fact, the 2°C was more or less plucked out of thin air, in 1975, not by scientists, but by economist William Nordhaus as “a first intuition.” Subsequent analyses essentially defaulted to this figure in what amounts to the science being molded to fit the political and economic paradigm, as climate scientist Kevin Anderson puts it, rather than to what the data actually tells us.
In fact, we can already see some serious consequences from the increase of about 1 C above preindustrial levels humans have caused to date.
For example, we’re experiencing record-setting droughts across the earth; widespread desertification; an explosion in the number and frequency of forest fires; increases in extreme weather events; flooding; mass extinctions; irreversible melting of the polar ice cap, as well as the ice sheets on Greenland and large parts of Antarctica, and the centuries of rising seas and costal inundation this will inevitably cause. We’re already seeing the bow wave of a massive migration of environmental refugees, and an increase in the range of tropical diseases. Right now. Today.
If this is occurring from a 1 C increase in temperature, then clearly, 2 C is folly.
The IPCC’s Carbon Budgets Distort the Time We Have to Act, While Imposing an Unacceptable Risk to Society and the Planetary Ecosystem
To understand just how dangerous climate change is, and how close we are to irrevocable warming, we have to understand how the IPCC has measured the time we have left to get off fossil fuels.
Carbon budgets are established to determine the maximum amount of GHG we can emit, and for how long, to reach a given atmospheric level of GHG concentrations needed to limit warming to a given temperature increase. So, for example, if we seek to limit temperature increases to less than 2°C, then we have to limit GHG emissions to avoid atmospheric concentrations that would cause warming to exceed that limit.
In establishing carbon budgets, the IPCC used a series of probabilities for staying below the target temperature of 2 C (3.6 F). The probabilities they used were a 66 percent likelihood of meeting the target, a 50 percent likelihood of doing so, and a 30 percent likelihood. What this actually means is that 66 percent of the models result in temperatures staying below the target level, or 50 percent of them do, or 30 percent of them do.
Notice what’s not included in the carbon budgets the IPCC outlined: a confidence level of 100 percent or even 90 percent. Now, think about this for a moment. We are using margins of safety for the future viability of our planet’s life-support systems that we wouldn’t tolerate in almost any other area of our life. Would you board a plane with a 34 percent chance of crashing? Cross a bridge that has only a 66 percent chance of holding up? NO. You wouldn’t.
So why is the 100 percent probability of making our goal not included in the IPCC’s scenarios—or the 90 percent probability for that matter? Answer: because we’ve already blown through the carbon budgets that would achieve 100 percent probability of avoiding catastrophe, and now we’re stuck with the planetary equivalent of playing Russian roulette with a six shooter with two bullets in the chamber. You’d think this would be a big deal, something worth talking about.
But of course, you’d be wrong.
Oh, and a 90 percent chance of meeting the lofty goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C that many nations and scientists fought to include in the Paris Agreement? Forget it. Gone. No chance. Nada, zip, zero.
But by operating with a 66 percent probability of meeting the 2°C target (or a 1.5 C, for that matter) rather than 100 percent or 90 percent we can appear to buy ourselves a lot of time. The lower we set the probability of staying below 2°C, the higher the allowable carbon budget and the more time we have to get off it. Of course, that doesn’t actually give us more time—but it does provide the appearance of doing so. What it really does is expose us to a greater risk of an ecological Armageddon.
Now let’s do some numbers to see how using a 2 C limit rather than 1.5 C, gives the appearance of having more time to act.
If we wanted to have a 66 percent probability of staying below 1.5°C, our total carbon budget would be 2,250 tonnes of carbon dioxide. By 2017, we burned through all but two hundred billion tonnes of that budget. Since we are emitting about forty billion tonnes per year (about forty-four billion US tons), we will blow through the budget by the end of 2020, the year in which the Paris Agreements are to start being implemented. If we were to choose a more rational level of risk management, such as a 90 percent or 100 percent likelihood of preventing global Armageddon, we would have had to start acting a couple of decades ago, since we exceeded those targets in 2013.
Contrast this with the carbon budget based on a 66 percent probability of staying below 2°C, or 2,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2e). By 2017, we would appear to have nearly 810 gigatonnes of carbon left, or twenty years’ worth.
Obviously, if we’re causing planetary disruptions at 1 C, 2 C is unacceptable. And suggesting that a one third chance of failing to meet even that dangerous level is—to say the least—irresponsible. But Trump is dumping the whole thing. The only words that describe this are “criminal and insane.”
Negative Emissions—or Après Moi le Deluge
There’s one other way of expanding carbon budgets and giving ourselves more time: Pass the problem on to our children and their children, so we can burn more fossil fuels now and still appear to stay within our carbon budget.
You can think of this as the Neville Chamberlain approach to climate change: it allows our carbon budgets to exceed the limits “in our time” while requiring our children and their children to mount the most ambitious and costly effort ever undertaken by humanity—one we don’t even know how to do, or even whether it can be done—to wit: extracting massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and safely sequestering it. The idea here is, it would somehow be OK to exceed the limits on emissions as long as “we” got carbon down to an acceptable level by 2100. As we will see, this runs the risk of crossing tipping points and triggering self-reinforcing amplifying feedbacks, which would guarantee hell on Earth. But even if that doesn’t happen, passing a burden like this onto future generations is morally bankrupt.
But hey, anything that would make it appear OK to keep doing what we’re doing. As for the kids? Well, perhaps they could undertake this monumental effort to extract gigatons of carbon in their spare time when they are not engaged in the life or death struggle with sea level rise, famine, droughts, diseases, and a billion or so refugees they will already be dealing with, using whatever left over budget they might—or might not have.
And that’s precisely what the IPCC carbon budgets do. Most of them require our offspring to create extraordinarily expensive new technologies that will take massive quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air and safely sequester it to appear to avoid dangerous levels of warming. What we are saying is that it’s OK for us to exceed concentrations that would put us above the 2°C limit, as long as by the end of the century, we are sufficiently below the level, even if it risks triggering irreversible feedbacks. Basically, this is a giant fuck you to future generations.
The Carbon Budgets Ignore Positive Feedbacks that Have Already Started and They Will Make Warming Happen Faster and Be Much Worse than the IPCC Models Suggest
Basically, the amount of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the planetary sinks is going down. “Sinks” include the oceans, soils, and plants, among other things. These sinks remove more than half of all the carbon humans emit – until now. Recent research reveals that climate change is causing sinks to be less effective at removing carbon, so more of what humans emit stays in the atmosphere.
This means that even if we reduce emissions, atmospheric concentrations could continue to go up. In fact, as Joe Romm explains, that’s precisely what’s happening if you examine two recent reports, one from NOAA, the other from the International Energy Agency.
But it gets worse. The sinks have already stored trillions of tons of carbon over the eons. In fact, fossil fuels are basically hundreds of millions of years of stored photosynthetic energy. One of the more sensitive sinks, permafrost, contains an estimated 1,672 gigatonnes of carbon (more than double the amount currently in the atmosphere), and due to rapid warming, it is releasing some of this carbon—much of it in the form of methane, a GHG that is seventy-three times as strong as carbon dioxide in the short term.
Just three of these feedbacks could, by themselves, increase the global temperature by nearly 2.5°C. The first is a result of decreases in sulfur aerosols from phytoplankton, as the seas become more acidic and these critters begin to die off. Sulfur aerosols are known to moderate solar gain and mitigate global warming. This could increase warming by close to 1°F by 2100.
Extreme weather events could add another 1.5°F, since they effect the earth’s ability to sequester human-caused emissions and in some cases increase those emissions directly. Add these to the 2 F expected from methane releases—a conservative number if one compares the results of similar events in the geologic record—and these three feedbacks alone could add just under 4.5°F, or 2.5°C, to our worst-case projections of 3.5°C to 4°C for 2100, resulting in a net increase of 6°C to 6.5°C, or nearly 11–12 F. Again, humans have never existed in a world this warm—it is essentially equivalent to converting Earth to an alien planet. And of course, Trump has scuttled the Paris Agreement, so the actual increase in global temperatures will likely be considerably higher.
There are other feedbacks at work, each serving to release more GHGs. None of them were considered by the IPCC when establishing the time frame we have to act to avoid disaster.
This compromising of the sinks, and the triggering of feedbacks, may be among the reasons that most of our models—including those that the IPCC uses—haven’t matched the observable geologic record in terms of damage, and that means we’ve grossly understated the difficulty of mitigating climate change.
We Were Headed Toward Dangerous Territory with the Paris Agreement and We Had Very Little Time to Act to Avoid it, but it Did Provide a Framework We Could Build On
Yes, Paris would have only limited warming to somewhere between 3.5 and 4 degrees Celsius—either of which would have been devastating—but it offered a framework for further progress. By dropping out, the US—as the second largest emitter of GHG on an annual basis and the largest historically—has encouraged every reluctant nation to back off their pledges, and it has sabotaged the system that would have helped developing nations bypass a fossil fuel infrastructure by going directly to renewable energy systems.
By backing out of it, Trump is assuring that we are hurtling inevitably toward a different planet – one that is likely to be inhospitable to many of the species now living on it, including us.
We Can – and Must – Act on Our Own to Halt Global Warming, and Make Trump’s Insanity Irrelevant
Within a day of his announcement several States, including California and New York, announced plans to go it alone and meet the targets established in the Paris Agreement, and they were joined by an impressive list of cities and corporations. The Under2Coaliton offers a way forward to not only commit to those targets, but to go further, as we must. With polls showing that even among Republicans, the majority do not want the US to back out of the Agreement, we can muster the political support to make Washington irrelevant.
But we must start now. We have less time than we think.