Do you have a baby or a young child? (Or do you know one?) Good. Stop what you are doing right now and look at them. In 20 or 30 years, maybe when they are the same age as you are now, they will be living in a world vastly different from the one we inhabit now. For sure there will be new objects and technologies adults today can only dream of, far-off sights we haven’t seen yet, tastes we’ve never tasted, music we’ve never heard. A world of endless possibilities, right?
Look into those adorable eyes and think about what she will be seeing in the year 2030, experiencing in 2040, or wishing for in 2050. Grasp his hands and wonder who he will be holding in 2075. There is some reason to hope that your child will be walking around this planet in 2100, when “80 is the new 60.” Unfortunately for us and for them, a special report issued Monday from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the definitive governmental and scientific agency tasked with studying the global climate crisis and reporting on its impacts — puts a damper on that hope of longevity and every parent’s wish that their children’s future will be better, more prosperous, more exciting than their own. Reading the report and listening to what practically every Earth, space, and climate scientist is telling us in 2018 (and has told us for decades), it is reasonable to conclude that the great realizations, discoveries, and inventions to come will not be able to reverse the damage already done to the climate system and ecosystem, even if they help us and our kids adapt.
Already, the global surface temperature has increased almost 1°C (1.8°F) since 1850 when coal was principally fueling the industrial revolution and the evolution of human civilization. The new IPCC report warns of an additional 0.5°C warming (to 1.5°C) by 2030 — just 12 years from now (when your newborn is in 6th grade) — if governments, industries, communities, and individuals fail to take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to limit carbon dioxide emissions driving global warming. The panel concludes that the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement keeping global temperatures “well-below” 2°C by 2100 is not achievable without a dramatic and immediate drawdown of CO2 emissions from human activities for energy, industry, agriculture, transportation, and land use. Stephen Leahy describes what this drawdown will entail:
The IPCC’s Special Report lays out various pathways to stabilize global warming at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). These solutions all require unprecedented efforts to cut fossil-fuel use in half in less than 15 years and eliminate their use almost entirely in 30 years. This means no home, business, or industry heated by gas or oil; no vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline; all coal and gas power plants shuttered; the petrochemical industry converted wholesale to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminum production either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture CO2 emissions and permanently store it.
Keeping all fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — in the ground, unburned in power plants, in cars and trucks, and in homes, businesses, and factories (including those making plastic and other petrochemicals) will get humanity to zero emissions of CO2 by 2050 at the very latest. In addition, CO2 will need to be removed from the atmosphere at an enormous scale with technology that hasn’t even been developed yet to achieve negative emissions of CO2. Currently, governments including the U.S., which has threatened to withdraw from the Paris Agreement effective November 2020, are going in the wrong direction, says Leahy:
Global warming is like being in a mine field that gets progressively more dangerous, says Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State. “The further we go the more explosions we are likely to set off: 1.5C is safer than 2C, 2C is safer than 2.5C, 2.5C is safer than 3C, and so on,” said Mann, who was not directly involved in this latest IPCC report.
“Stabilizing global warming at 1.5C will be extremely difficult if not impossible at this point,” Mann said via email.
In 2018, at 1°C above preindustrial temperatures, we have been witnessing what one climate advocate calls a daily “nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” We have seen an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including epic heat waves that are making some locations uninhabitable; unimaginably destructive wildfires all over the globe; stronger and more damaging hurricanes forcing many out of their homes; and increased precipitation, flooding, landslides in some regions and severe droughts in others. Sea levels have been rising as glaciers melt and oceans warm, threatening low-lying island and coastal communities and infrastructure. The Arctic ice pack is melting very rapidly in geographic terms, exposing the climate system to frightening positive feedback loops that will only exacerbate global warming. Coral reefs — the birthplace and protector of all sea life — have already experienced massive bleaching events and death around the world due to warm ocean temperatures and rising acidity. Non-human lifeforms are losing biologic diversity and habitats. Water for drinking and for irrigation of farmland has become scarce in many places around the world including the American Southwest and the agricultural Central Valley of California, impacting food supplies and human health. Vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue, and Lyme disease (notably here in Pennsylvania) are on the rise as diseases rarely heard of before (chikungunya and zika, for example) suddenly emerge. Population migration has resulted in climate refugees — from Syria and Cape Town and New Orleans and Houston — as people flee the degradation of their home environments and the pressures of surviving caused by climate change.
As we have discovered before, experts agree that climate change is real. It’s already happening, it’s caused by human mismanagement of fossil fuel emissions (it’s us), and it’s bad. Imagine how much worse conditions will be at the end of the next decade, when temperatures warm to 1.5°C. For example, the IPCC report predicts that 70-90% of the planet’s coral reefs will die if the we hit the 1.5°C mark; at 2°C, we lose them all. That fact alone will impose extreme pressures on all life on the planet — all in the lifetimes of our children. And it may get even worse with the current business-as-usual economic and energy strategy in the United States: we learned last week that the Trump administration expects a 4°C (7.2°F) global temperature rise by the end of this century. Imagine that.
This is the reckoning. The new IPCC report puts the climate crisis in clear view. Now it is our turn — you and me, we are all equal stakeholders — to listen to the scientists and focus our political leaders on planning action now. Is there an issue that is more important and more urgent to solve than this one? Raising the temperature by continuing to add carbon emissions to the thin and fragile atmosphere which we treat as an open sewer is not an option if we are being honest when we declare that we love our children. Not history, nor our children will judge us kindly if we tune out and yawn — if we fail to acknowledge reality and use the wealth, knowledge, and technology we already have at our disposal to solve the problem of climate change.
The clock is ticking and we are running out of time to ensure a habitable and peaceful planet for our children to inherit. We have the tools to fix this. Today, it is time to act.
Let’s get to work.
Here is some additional reading material to get yourself and your family up to speed:
IPCC Special Report — October 8, 2018
IPCC Special Report Summary for Policymakers — October 8, 2018
IPCC Fifth Assessment Report — 2015
Media reporting on IPCC Special Report:
*Thursday, October 11 is Children’s Environmental Health Day!