Time to Panic

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Fuente: The Newyork Times

The planet is getting warmer in catastrophic ways. And fear may be the only thing that saves us.

The age of climate panic is here. Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. Pacific hurricanes forced three million people in China to flee and wiped away almost all of Hawaii’s East Island.

We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the late 1800s, when records began on a global scale. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.

In October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what has become known as its “Doomsday” report — “a deafening, piercing smoke alarm going off in the kitchen,” as one United Nations official described it — detailing climate effects at 1.5 and two degrees Celsius of warming (2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). At the opening of a major United Nations conference two months later, David Attenborough, the mellifluous voice of the BBC’s “Planet Earth” and now an environmental conscience for the English-speaking world, put it even more bleakly: “If we don’t take action,” he said, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. For decades, there were few things with a worse reputation than “alarmism” among those studying climate change.

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This is a bit strange. You don’t typically hear from public health experts about the need for circumspection in describing the risks of carcinogens, for instance. The climatologist James Hansen, who testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, has called the phenomenon “scientific reticence” and chastised his colleagues for it — for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat actually was.

That tendency metastasized even as the news from the research grew bleaker. So for years the publication of every major paper, essay or book would be attended by a cloud of commentary debating its precise calibration of perspective and tone, with many of those articles seen by scientists as lacking an appropriate balance between bad news and optimism, and labeled “fatalistic” as a result.

In 2018, their circumspection began to change, perhaps because all that extreme weather wouldn’t permit it not to. Some scientists even began embracing alarmism — particularly with that United Nations report. The research it summarized was not new, and temperatures beyond two degrees Celsius were not even discussed, though warming on that scale is where we are headed. Though the report — the product of nearly 100 scientists from around the world — did not address any of the scarier possibilities for warming, it did offer a new form of permission to the world’s scientists. The thing that was new was the message: It is O.K., finally, to freak out. Even reasonable.

This, to me, is progress. Panic might seem counterproductive, but we’re at a point where alarmism and catastrophic thinking are valuable, for several reasons.

The number of people projected to experience heat waves, water stress and other climate events by 2050 rises sharply as the global mean temperature increases.

Note: Temperature change relative to pre-industrial baseline. Source: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis from a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change | By The New York Times

The first is that climate change is a crisis precisely because it is a looming catastrophe that demands an aggressive global response, now. In other words, it is right to be alarmed. The emissions path we are on today is likely to take us to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040, two degrees Celsius within decades after that and perhaps four degrees Celsius by 2100.

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As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as 2050. There would be ice-free summers in the Arctic and the unstoppable disintegration of the West Antarctic’s ice sheet, which some scientists believe has already begun, threatening the world’s coastal cities with inundation. Coral reefs would mostly disappear. And there would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.

There are many reasons to think we may not get to four degrees Celsius, but globally, emissions are still growing, and the time we have to avert what is now thought to be catastrophic warming — two degrees Celsius — is shrinking by the day. To stay safely below that threshold, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, according to the United Nations report. Instead, they are still rising. So being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand. Perhaps the only logical response.

This helps explain the second reason alarmism is useful: By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly. For years, we have read in newspapers as two degrees of warming was invoked as the highest tolerable level, beyond which disaster would ensue. Warming greater than that was rarely discussed outside scientific circles. And so it was easy to develop an intuitive portrait of the landscape of possibilities that began with the climate as it exists today and ended with the pain of two degrees, the ceiling of suffering.

In fact, it is almost certainly a floor. By far the likeliest outcomes for the end of this century fall between two and four degrees of warming. And so looking squarely at what the world might look like in that range — two degrees, three, four — is much better preparation for the challenges we will face than retreating into the comforting relative normalcy of the present.

Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California last summer, when more than a million acres burned in the state. Scientists cite climate change as a factor in California’s increasingly destructive wildfire seasons.CreditNoah Berger/Associated Press
Fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in California last summer, when more than a million acres burned in the state. Scientists cite climate change as a factor in California’s increasingly destructive wildfire seasons.CreditNoah Berger/Associated Press

The third reason is while concern about climate change is growing — fortunately — complacency remains a much bigger political problem than fatalism. In December, a national survey tracking Americans’ attitudes toward climate change found that 73 percent said global warming was happening, the highest percentage since the question began being asked in 2008. But a majority of Americans were unwilling to spend even $10 a month to address global warming; most drew the line at $1 a month, according to a poll conducted the previous month.

Last fall, voters in Washington, a green state in a blue-wave election,rejected even a modest carbon-tax plan. Are those people unwilling to pay that money because they think the game is over or because they don’t think it’s necessary yet?

This is a rhetorical question. If we had started global decarbonization in 2000, according to the Global Carbon Project, we would have had to cut emissions by only about 2 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming. Did we fail to act then because we thought it was all over already or because we didn’t yet consider warming an urgent enough problem to take action against? Only 44 percent of those surveyed in a survey last month cited climate change as a top political priority.

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But it should be. The fact is, further delay will only make the problem worse. If we started a broad decarbonization effort today — a gargantuan undertaking to overhaul our energy systems, building and transportation infrastructure and how we produce our food — the necessary rate of emissions reduction would be about 5 percent per year. If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by some 9 percent each year. This is why the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, believes we have only until 2020 to change course and get started.