That’s a problem, because the IPCC report also notes that while that 1.5 degree temperature rise is now our best-case scenario, it will require herculean world efforts to even manage that. It may be just as likely that the world temperature rises to double that amount, given the seemingly impossible task of getting many of the world’s most powerful people to give a damn. At about 2 degrees Celsius, all hell breaks loose. Greenland’s ice sheet collapses. Antarctic glaciers flow into the sea. The northern ice cap is reduced to nothingness, and the dark ocean water absorbs new heat that the reflective ice had bounced back into space.
That 2-degree tipping point? The IPCC report pins it as happening somewhere around the year 2040. Most of us here today will live to see it.
From here until the all-but-certain 1.5 degree measure, things still get dire quickly. We can expect more powerful monsoons and hurricanes, fueled by ocean waters hotter than we have ever seen them. Much of the United States’ most important agricultural regions will be locked into permanent drought. Mass extinction events go without saying. In California and the West, “extreme” fires are reshaping landscapes, carving through drought-weakened forests that may not return. Dried-up waterways will shift migration patterns and cause mass die-offs.
We are extremely damn boned even right now, a conclusion that many climate activists resist spelling out for fear of so demoralizing people that they tune out of the crisis entirely. That’s not the proper response. This isn’t the time to tune out; this is a time to get angry. Very, very angry. As in the pandemic, now stretching out into new crises due to incompetent leaders and willfully self-destructive behaviors by shallow ideologues, much of this could have been prevented and all dangers at and above the 2-degree mark could still be. The scientific consensus has properly pinned the cause of the crisis for a half century. The effects were known in abstract even then, and are far more thoroughly detailed now.
It has been stonewalled at every turn by falsely premised denials issued from those most invested—often literally—in the causes of the crisis. Oil companies have opposed the expansion of solar and wind energy. Governments have opposed either measuring or acknowledging their nation’s contribution to the crisis. From plastics manufacturing to car companies, every industry that has turned a profit by socializing the consequences has asserted that the world could not possibly continue to function if their profits were impeded.
Back when the damages of a warming atmosphere and warming oceans could be ignored as tomorrow’s problem, it was relatively easy to gaslight the public into believing that “science” was spooky witchcraft by elite cabals that simply had it in for everyone else because reasons. It is harder to make that argument to people fleeing from their homes as floods or fires that were supposed to happen only once per century now take up more permanent residence in each of the 50 states. As major U.S. cities grapple with unprecedented flooding and the haze of western wildfires changes the color of the sky on the Eastern Seaboard, apocalyptic “worst case” scenarios like the total collapse of Mississippi River flood control systems or a barrage of hurricanes pummeling Gulf towns into nonexistence may be a countable number of news cycles away.
That’s where we are right now—our starting point, presuming governments, industries, and communities can be pressured into taking immediate and truly drastic actions to keep new carbon out of the air. This is still not the true worst-case scenario, and the worst-case scenario of 3 or 4 degrees of temperature rise is unknowably worse. It may require the abandonment of entire coastal cities, but we can adapt to the current effects of the new climate. It will require new infrastructure, new power systems, and gaudy public spending. It will require new systems for watering crops, new sewer systems that (expensively) reclaim city water for reuse as tap water, but it’s possible. We will survive the extinction event that is currently wiping away coral reefs, suffocating marine animals, and turning western forests into dead, brown landscapes of leaning matchsticks.
And we should demand all of those emergency measures with anger, because it is corporate profit margins, lobbyist manipulations, and lawmaker incompetence that will require all of it. The people you see on your television screens, the ones preening with self-importance as they banter to each other about the economy and the deficit and the elites and socialism are the people who crafted this new landscape. God help you, you should be mad. You should be livid.
As we hit the dreaded 2-degree mark and upwards, however, things begin to change in ways too complex for us to say what happens afterwards. One of the most terrifying phrases in climate change science is the notion of a new equilibrium. Imagine the climate as the track of a roller coaster, with hills and dips of various sizes; we are on a single cart stopped at one of those low spots.
Or rather, we were in one of those low spots. The low spot is the preindustrial stable state of the climate, a place where it happened to rest for a while as human civilization developed. But we are changing that climate: By expelling heat-absorbing carbon into the atmosphere, we are pushing the cart up the hill. It goes a little higher each year.
Where’s the top of the hill? We don’t know. It could be 2 degrees. It could be 10.
But there is a peak. Suppose we can somehow manage to stop pushing the cart—only after it hits that peak and crosses it. What happens then?
It sure isn’t going back to the place it was, that’s for sure. Whether it eventually stops one valley over or 10 valleys over depends on the size of each hill and the depth of each valley, but it’s not going back.
Each of the valleys is a new, “local” state of equilibrium. It takes energy to push our climate cart into a new place, but once it’s there it will tend to rest in that new place even if our initial “push” has long since vanished. The new climate is, for a millennium or 10, stable in a new place.
It is not that simple, of course. It is not a single track, and not a single push, and each system is so complex that we have only the vague outlines of where the hills and valleys might be, or how many exist, or if any exist. The central premise, however—that if we push the climate too far, there is no technology that will ever be able to shove it back—is why scientists have been in a state of panic about the Greenland ice sheets, the Atlantic currents, the twists of the jet stream, and the acidity of ocean waters since the early days of climate science.
If Greenland’s ice sheets collapse into the ocean, not only will sea levels rise, the relative reflectance of the planet changes. If the Arctic ice cap melts, the darker water underneath will absorb increasing levels of heat even if so-far-imaginary carbon sequestration technologies allow us to scrub some of the atmosphere’s carbon back out. Antarctic changes are even more unpredictable: What happens to Europe if the great circulation that pushes warm water from Florida to Greenland simply stops? Does that current resume if carbon levels are fixed? Ever? Do new hurricanes, typhoons, and monsoons change regional landscapes into new states? If droughts scrub current forests or grasslands of their current flora, what moves in? How does that change affect adjacent regions? What happens next?
Mars once had a climate with more water and a denser atmosphere. Now it doesn’t. We don’t understand what caused that change, but we know something did.
We believe we can survive a rise of 1.5 degree Celsius, but it will cause the deaths of millions or even billions due to worldwide agricultural collapse. We think we can perhaps wall off coastal cities so that they can exist in a perpetual state of near-disaster slightly below the new sea levels.
Go higher than that, all bets are off.
The new IPCC report, the headlines say, should be a “wake-up” call. It should be more than that. It is a written description of the failures of world leadership in the past, the continued failures of world leadership today, and the newly updated odds of existential crisis as greed and apathy shove us past each point of no return and towards the next. It should be a pitchforks-and-torches sort of call. It should be a final line drawn in the sand—no matter what malicious bullshit invested actors have used in the past to refuse to face the crisis, not an ounce more should be tolerated.
We can either take worldwide action to curb the use of fossil fuels immediately and drastically or we can sentence ourselves to a world in which fires regularly consume entire cities, hurricanes routinely reach intensities that were once rarities, and we all choke on summer air thick with the smoke of fires half a world away—in the best-case scenario. Be angry. We saw this point coming a half century off. It wasn’t inevitable. We got here for the same reason people were long “confused” over whether cigarettes caused cancer—because the people selling the products made damn sure to keep the “confusion” going as long as they possibly could. There have been television shows that have lasted more seasons than we currently have left to prevent worldwide ecological and societal collapse.
There’s no more confusion on this one. This year’s blistering, dangerous weather will likely be the among the coolest summers of the next 20 years, or 50, or 100. Get mad. You are allowed to be.