Science

Time's up: 3 reasons why gradualism won't save us

 
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Reason 1: The idea of a "safe upper limit" to warming is a myth

For years, policymakers considered 2° C of warming over pre-industrial levels the point at which “dangerous” climate change would begin. TLDR: what this really meant was, 'this is when we think it'll get bad for rich countries.' 

The UNFCC Paris climate agreement set a goal of keeping warming to “well below” 2° C this century. But of the 195 signatories of the Paris Agreement, only seven countries’ commitments are considered “compatible” with the agreement’s goal targets. All of them are in the Global South

Former NASA scientist James Hansen has repeatedly described the 2°C temperature target as a “prescription for disaster.” In 2009, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77, urged the world community to abandon the target: “Two degrees centigrade [of warming] translates into...certain death for Africa.”

Not only would 2°C of warming devastate crop yields across the planet, it would likely cause the complete collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and an enormous sea-level rise that would render the planet “ungovernable.” In addition, warming well below 2°C would likely cause a massive, long-term release of carbon dioxide and methane from thawing Arctic permafrost. 

Current warming of 1° C is already causing millions of deaths from heatwaves, infectious disease, and extreme weather events, as well as a refugee crisis of horrific proportions. The last time the earth experienced similar C02 concentration rates, humans didn’t exist

Averting catastrophe will require shattering our assumptions about “acceptable” levels of warming and dismantling the unjust power structures that got us into this mess.

 

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Reason 2: There is no carbon budget if we face reality

The truth is that the atmosphere very likely already contains enough greenhouse gases to eventually warm the earth more than 2°C, and that humanity has no “carbon budget” left to burn if we apply basic safety and risk management standards to the climate system.

The New York Times has reported that limiting warming to 1.5°C would require global industrial greenhouse gas emissions to come to an end by 2030. Climate researcher Glenn Peters has projected that meeting the 1.5C target would require a global fossil fuel phase-out between 2025 and 2030, as well as a large-scale effort to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

 

Reason 3: We probably shouldn't gamble the future of all life on technologies that don't exist yet

Gradual emissions reductions plans (such as those outlined in the Paris agreement) depend on the development and large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies in the future to off-set decades of continuing emissions in the present.

Such technologies don't exist yet, and it is highly uncertain these technologies will ever be up to the task of pulling us back from the brink of runaway warming. We should absolutely put every effort into discovering technologies that might help reverse global warming. But counting on technology that doesn't exist yet to swoop in and save us in order avoid drastic emissions cuts in the present is just madness. 

 

Visualizations courtesy of the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration