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Science Policy Future

Normalizing climate change

As we approach the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly referred to as COP27, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in mid November, there is a lot of coverage about climate change. Most of the reporting has basically come to accept that we will live in a hotter world and that is… okay? This normalization of climate change is frustrating because a warmer world is not necessarily a pleasant world.

While it is certainly true that we appear to no longer be on the worst path for climate warming—that of 5º Celsius—the warming we are likely to experience, around 3º Celsius, will result in hardships for most people that will fall disproportionately on the poor. What is more, the worst effects of this warming will be felt at much lower temperatures than first believed, especially the likelihood of potentially catastrophic feedbacks. In other words, tipping points that lead to further warming will likely happen at much lower temperatures.

At the current 1.2º Celsius of warming this year, there was unprecedented heat waves across North America (including the Pacific Northwest again, where I live), Europe, China, India, and Nigeria. These were signifiant and long-lasting heatwaves. Massive flooding also occurred in Pakistan and other areas as monsoons have changed. Hurricanes and other extreme weather events were, well, more extreme. The list goes on, but suffice to say, it does not look good and this is at a fraction of the warming that is expected by 2100.

While it is undeniable good we have avoided the worst effects, we are still going to experience significant climate shocks in the years ahead. The warming is already locked in. The greenhouses gases are already been released into the atmosphere. Short of miraculous carbon capture technology, we are all but certain to reach 3º Celsius of warming at the turn of the century. Better than 5º, but not ideal by any measure.

Extreme weather events will only become more extreme and create a host of problems. Lost of habitat, spillover events (think, more pandemics like Covid and the spread diseases like Dengue and Zika), massive migrations of people, reduced food production and less nutrias food, and so on. When it comes to habitat and the loss of biodiversity, these are irreversible. What is lost is lost forever.

There is talk of some benefits from warming. The African Sahel may green up a bit from shifting monsoons making it more hospitable. The fabled Northwest Passage may just finally open up. But these “benefits” do not make up for the massive losses and harm that will experienced elsewhere. Even trying to benefit from these shifts will take decades if not longer. It takes time for people to move and establish their lives and start farming, for example.

The significant progress in alternative energy sources sounds great and suggests that the private sector and “the market” are driving sufficient change on its own, to the point we may not need to worry. Everything will work out. Hardly. The improvements, while good, are not nearly enough. They are insufficient and too slow to meet the need. The world needs a coordinated effort to overcome this challenge. That effort simple does not exist.

I often wonder what it will take for real action to happen. Clearly, the burning of Australia, the West Coast of the US, and Brazil are not enough to drive change. A pandemic was insufficient. Do a million people need to die from a massive heatwave to force a change? Cynically, will the world, and more specially the West, care if a million people die, especially if they are in predominant non-white, poor country? I am not so sure. History tells me no.

So, yes, there has been progress, but this is not something to really celebrate. It is simply too little, too late. That is not to say we give up and do nothing. If anything, it suggests we need to more—far more. Normalizing 3º Celsius of warming as some great achievement hurts efforts to make the true and sustain progress that we really need. If anything, we need to double down on what we know is working.

We need concerted, well-coordinated effort around the world of all countries, not just the wealthy, to affect change. Is it fair to ask poorer countries to chip in? Perhaps not, but this is an existential crisis. Besides, the evidence is quite clear that moving toward a green economy is hugely profitable. Asking developing nations to skip over a fossil fuel phase of growth is in their best interest. (I liken this to many developing countries skipping over land lines and just going with cellular—it was the smart and right thing to do.)

We have the understanding, knowledge, and even the tools today to solve this problem. What we lack is the will. Normalizing warming does not help us build that will. The US took great strides recently in moving itself closer to its stated climate goals, but it was not enough.The US, Europe, and others must not only act, they need to push and help others to act as well. Otherwise, we can expect things to get much worse in the coming years.