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Progressing Toward Disaster

"The pledges that countries are making to battle climate change would still allow the world to heat up by more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit, a new analysis shows, a level that scientists say is likely to produce catastrophes ranging from food shortages to widespread extinctions of plant and animal life. ...
The planet has already warmed by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above the temperature that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution, representing an enormous addition of heat. Virtually every piece of land ice on Earth is melting, the sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, droughts and other weather extremes are intensifying, and the global food system has shown signs of instability.
At a meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, climate negotiators from nearly 200 countries agreed that they would try to limit the warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above the preindustrial temperature, a level that would require that emissions from fossil fuels largely cease within a few decades."
- Justin Gillis and Somini Senguptasept, Limited Progress Seen Even as More Nations Step Up on Climate, New York Times, Sept. 28, 2015


If we do what humanity has always done in the past, we’re likely to burn all the fossil fuels, and then have a hard landing at a time of high population, with an unbearable climate posing existential risks, at just the time when we’re facing the crisis fossil fuels running out. That will hardly make for ideal conditions under which to decarbonize, and there is a severe risk civilization will collapse, leaving our descendants with few resources to deal with the unbearable environment we will have bequeathed them.
- Raymond Pierrehumbert, "Your Dot" contribution, NYT, Feb 15, 2015


“This long-term view shows that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.”
- Consequences of 21st Century Policy for Multi-Millennial Climate and Sea-Level Change, quoted in The Climate Ahead, Ed Hayward, Boston College News, Feb. 11, 2016


If we move quickly enough to meet the goal of 80 percent clean power by 2030, then the world’s carbon dioxide levels would fall below the relative safety of 350 parts per million by the end of the century. The planet would stop heating up, or at least the pace of that heating would slow substantially. That’s as close to winning this war as we could plausibly get. We’d endure lots of damage in the meantime, but not the civilization-scale destruction we currently face. (Even if all of the world’s nations meet the pledges they made in the Paris accord, carbon dioxide is currently on a path to hit 500 or 600 parts per million by century’s end—a path if not to hell, then to someplace with a similar setting on the thermostat.)
- Bill McKibben, A World at War, New Republic, August 15, 2016


We’ve known that climate change was a threat since at least 1988, and the United States has done almost nothing to stop it. Today it might be too late. ...
Climate change is hard to think about not only because it’s complex and politically contentious, not only because it’s cognitively almost impossible to keep in mind the intricate relationships that tie together an oil well in Venezuela, Siberian permafrost, Saudi F-15s bombing a Yemeni wedding, subsidence along the Jersey Shore, albedo effect near Kangerlussuaq, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, the polar vortex, shampoo, California cattle, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, leukemia, plastic, paper, the Sixth Extinction, Zika, and the basic decisions we make every day, are forced to make every day, in a world we didn’t choose but were thrown into. No, it’s not just because it’s mind-bendingly difficult to connect the dots. Climate change is hard to think about because it’s depressing and scary.
Thinking seriously about climate change forces us to face the fact that nobody’s driving the car, nobody’s in charge, nobody knows how to “fix it.” And even if we had a driver, there’s a bigger problem: no car. There’s no mechanism for uniting the entire human species to move together in one direction.
- Roy Scranton, When the Next Hurricane Hits Texas, NYT, Oct. 7, 2016


From the common barn swallow to the exotic giraffe, thousands of animal species are in precipitous decline, a sign that an irreversible era of mass extinction is underway, new research finds.
- TATIANA SCHLOSSBERG, Era of ‘Biological Annihilation’ Is Underway, Scientists Warn, NYT, JULY 11, 2017


In April, Mr. Turnbull met with Mr. Adani and later told reporters that the mine “will create tens of thousands of jobs,” adding, “Plainly, there is a huge economic benefit from a big project of this kind, assuming it’s built and it proceeds.”

If Adani and other mines in the Galilee Basin go ahead and reach maximum production, coal from the region would release as much as 700 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, or nearly as much as Germany generates in emissions, according to a study by Greenpeace.
- https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/world/australia/australia-adani-carmichael-coal-mine.html


After declaring that “climate change is an issue determining our destiny as mankind,” Ms. Merkel acknowledged that Germany was likely to miss the goals it had set itself for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 because of its continued reliance on coal power. ...
... the European Union... is currently on pace to fall short of its 2030 emissions goals.... ...
... the world’s nations are still failing to prevent drastic global warming in the decades ahead. ...
... industrial emissions of greenhouse gases have not yet peaked — instead, they are likely to rise again in 2017, driven in part by a rebound in coal use in China.
- BRAD PLUMER, At Bonn Climate Talks, Stakes Get Higher in Gamble on Planet’s Future, NYT, NOV. 18, 2017


Twenty-five years ago this month, more than 1,500 prominent scientists, including over half of the living Nobel laureates, issued a manifesto titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which they admonished, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” ...
This month a new coalition of scientists, led by researchers at Oregon State University, published a new warning: “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” ...
“Soon,” they write, “it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out.” Over 15,000 scientists have signed the new call to action....
- ANTHONY DOERR, Anthony Doerr: We Were Warned, NYT, NOV. 18, 2017


To stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, global emissions would likely have to peak in the next few years and then be cut by half every decade all the way down to zero by midcentury.
- BRAD PLUMER, At Bonn Climate Talks, Stakes Get Higher in Gamble on Planet’s Future, NYT, NOV. 18, 2017


Opening the remote Arctic refuge to oil and gas drilling is a longtime Republican priority....
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans say drilling can be done safely with new technology, while ensuring a steady energy supply for West Coast refineries.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said opening the refuge to drilling is "the single-most important step we can take to strengthen our long-term energy security and create new wealth."
- THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, Tax Bill Boosts Oil, Gas Drilling _ and Renewable Energy, DEC. 16, 2017


Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, won a decades-long battle on Wednesday to open part of an Arctic wildlife reserve in her state to oil and gas drilling....
- REUTERS, Fight Over Alaska Arctic Drilling Has Just Begun, Opponents Vow, DEC. 20, 2017


If the world wants to avoid drastic global warming this century, we’ll need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions sharply in the years ahead.

For now, however, we’re still moving in the opposite direction: Carbon dioxide emissions from the use of coal, oil and natural gas increased 1.4 percent globally in 2017... the International Energy Agency reported on Thursday. ...
“The overall share of fossil fuels in global energy demand in 2017 remained at 81 percent,” the agency’s report said, “a level that has remained stable for more than three decades despite strong growth in renewables.” ...
A particularly hot summer in China also led the country to run its existing coal plants more often to power air conditioning. ...
The agency noted that many countries appear to be easing up on government policies to improve energy efficiency.
- Brad Plumer, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rose Last Year. Here Are the Top 5 Reasons., NYT, March 22, 2018


Mr. Pruitt spent most of his first year on the job working to roll back dozens of environmental regulations, while appearing to try to dismantle the very agency he headed. Environmentalists were horrified, but his efforts quickly made him a favorite of President Trump’s. He appeared to be using his newfound prominence to position himself to run for national office — senator of his home state of Oklahoma, followed by a shot at the White House. But things took a turn over the last few months, as a cascade of revelations emerged about his office’s alleged ethical missteps.... ...
Any one of the revelations might not have been enough to damage Mr. Pruitt’s standing with his boss, but the unending stream of allegations has caused irritation at the White House. A big blow came in mid-April, when the Government Accountability Office concluded that the E.P.A. broke the law when it installed a $43,000 secure phone booth for his office. Mr. Pruitt is now the subject of 11 federal investigations.

Nonetheless, Mr. Pruitt still has champions, particularly among a far-right cadre who deny the established science of human-caused climate change and see Mr. Pruitt as the best hope of undoing the government’s policies to curb fossil fuel pollution.
- Coral Davenport, Covering Scott Pruitt, Beige Career Lawyer and Master of the Non-Answer, NYT, April 29, 2018


He had long been trying to raise the alarm without success, and so had other scientists. But then, on June 23, 1988 — 30 years ago Saturday — a Colorado senator named Tim Wirth convened yet another hearing on the topic. Dr. Hansen was one of several scientists on the witness list. ...
His near certainty that human emissions were already altering the climate caught the attention of a sweltering nation, catapulting Dr. Hansen to overnight fame. That year, 1988, would go on to be the hottest in a global temperature record stretching back to the 19th century. ...
''As emissions have soared, the planet has warmed relentlessly, just as he said it would; 1988 is not even in the top 20 warmest years now. Every year of this century has been hotter.

The ocean is rising, as Dr. Hansen predicted, and the pace seems to be accelerating. The great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are dumping ever-rising volumes of water into the sea. Coastal flooding is increasing rapidly in the United States. The Arctic Ocean ice cap has shrunk drastically.

If his warning in 1988 had been met with a national policy to reduce emissions, other countries might have followed, and the world would be in much better shape.

But within a few years after he raised the alarm, fossil-fuel interests and libertarian ideologues began financing a campaign of lies about climate research. The issue bogged down in Congress, and to this day that body has taken no action remotely commensurate with the threat.
- Justin Gillis, A Prophet of Doom Was Right About the Climate, NYT, June 23, 2018


And perhaps most troubling of all, among many Britons there seems to be a tacit agreement that we’re just not going to talk about it: Who wants to mention climate change among friends, only to be met with awkward silence and pegged as the bore who is ruining everyone’s summer of picnics and barbecues? ...
The world is catching fire before our eyes, the predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and we are either fumbling conversations about the causes or settling for not talking about those causes at all.

Climate change is so unlike any risk we have ever dealt with that we are hamstrung by a basic inability to articulate what it is, or what it means for our lives. But we do not have a choice anymore. There are many things that urgently need to happen to start reining in the climatic changes we have unleashed; deciding how we’re going to talk about those changes is a start.
- Adam Corner, Britain, Can We — Really — Talk About This Weather We’re Having?, NYT, July 27, 2018


... politicians, regulators and environmentalists fixated on local incidents of air pollution that were immediately observable, while the climate crisis, whose damage would be of far greater severity and scale, went entirely unheeded.
- Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, NYT, AUG. 1, 2018


Two important conclusions emerge... (i) the potential long-term risks of significant social disruption caused by increased atmospheric concentrations are real..., and (ii) if a global response to the CO2 problem is postponed for a significant time, there may not be time to avoid substantial economic, social, and environmental disruptions once a CO2-induced warming trend is detected.
- Global Energy Futures and the Carbon Dioxide Problem, Council on Environmental Quality, January 1981, p. 64


Globally, this is shaping up to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The only years hotter were the three previous ones. ...
... 17 of the 18 warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.
...
Temperatures are still rising, and, so far, efforts to tame the heat have failed. Heat waves are bound to get more intense and more frequent as emissions rise, scientists have concluded. On the horizon is a future of cascading system failures threatening basic necessities like food supply and electricity. ...
Against that background, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide grew to record levels in 2017, after holding steady the previous three years. Carbon in the atmosphere was found to be at the highest levels in 800,000 years.
Despite a global agreement in Paris two years ago to curb greenhouse gas emissions, many of the world’s biggest polluters — including the United States, the only country in the world pulling out of the accord — are not on track to meet the reductions targets they set for themselves. Nor have the world’s rich countries ponied up money, as promised under the Paris accord, to help the poor countries cope with the calamities of climate change. ...
Switzerland hopes to prevent railway tracks from buckling under extreme heat by painting the rails white. ...
In El Salvador, a country reeling from gang violence, farmers in the east of the country stared at a failed corn harvest this summer as temperatures soared to a record 107 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 41 degrees Celsius. The skies were rainless for up to 40 days in some places, according to the government.
Wheat production in many countries of the European Union is set to decline this year.
- Somini Sengupta, 2018 Is Shaping Up to Be the Fourth-Hottest Year. Yet We’re Still Not Prepared for Global Warming., NYT, Aug. 9, 2018


What’s really alarming about President Trump’s preposterous tweets about the California wildfires is not what he gets wrong, which is plenty, but what they say about his stubborn refusal to grasp the basics of climate change and, perhaps worse, his administration’s contempt for the science that is drawing an ever-tighter link between a warming globe and extreme weather events around the world. ...
Any doubts about global warming’s pivotal role in extreme weather events have been put further to rest by a long, hot and dangerous summer of climatological surprises. Add them up. Wildfires raced not only through California but also Greece and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Japan recorded its highest temperature in history, 106 degrees, in a heat wave that killed 65 people in a week. Europe continues to suffer through one of its hottest summers ever.

“We know very well that global warming is making heat waves longer, hotter and more frequent,” said Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Britain, long a center for cutting-edge climate research. A preliminary analysis released last month by World Weather Attribution scientists said that climate change had made Europe’s scorching temperatures more than twice as likely.
The future? Not at all rosy. “This is really frightening, if this is the new normal,” Thina Margrethe Saltvedt, an energy industry analyst, told The Times. And to many climate scientists, this will be the new normal unless nations, particularly big emitters of greenhouse gases like the United States, move decisively to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. As Michael Mann, an eminent American climate scientist, put it, “What we call an ‘extreme heat wave’ today we will simply call ‘summer’ in a matter of decades if we don’t sharply reduce carbon emissions.” ...
And where is Mr. Trump in all of this? Playing the ostrich, in full denial mode. Having promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris agreement on climate change, he continues to press his officials to roll back or weaken every initiative undertaken by President Barack Obama to resist the carbon-loading of the atmosphere, including policies aimed at reducing emissions from power plants, automobiles and oil and gas operations. The very words “climate change” remain verboten throughout most of the administration, having been replaced on agency websites by vaguer words like “sustainability.” The administration’s 2018 and 2019 budgets have cut funding for a host of scientific and clean energy programs intended to prepare the country for the consequences of climate change and ensure an energy future less dependent on fossil fuels.
- The Editorial Board, Where There’s Fire, Trump Blows Smoke, NYT, Aug. 8, 2018


... Nov. 6, 1989... in the Dutch resort town of Noordwijk... the first major diplomatic meeting on global warming. The delegations would review the progress made by the I.P.C.C. and decide whether to endorse a framework for a global treaty. There was a general sense among the delegates that they would, at minimum, agree to the target proposed by the host, the Dutch environmental minister, more modest than the Toronto number: a freezing of greenhouse-gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. ...
More carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the final day of the Noordwijk conference, Nov. 7, 1989, than in the entire history of civilization preceding it. In 1990, humankind burned more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. By 2017, the figure had risen to 32.5 billion metric tons, a record. Despite every action taken since the Charney report — the billions of dollars invested in research, the nonbinding treaties, the investments in renewable energy — the only number that counts, the total quantity of global greenhouse gas emitted per year, has continued its inexorable rise. ...
Even some of the nations that pushed hardest for climate policy have failed to honor their own commitments. When it comes to our own nation, which has failed to make any binding commitments whatsoever, the dominant narrative for the last quarter century has concerned the efforts of the fossil-fuel industries to suppress science, confuse public knowledge and bribe politicians. ...
... while the Exxon scientists and American Petroleum Institute clerics of the ’70s and ’80s were hardly good Samaritans, they did not start multimillion-dollar disinformation campaigns, pay scientists to distort the truth or try to brainwash children in elementary schools, as their successors would. It was James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988 that, for the first time since the “Changing Climate” report, made oil-and-gas executives begin to consider the issue’s potential to hurt their profits. Exxon, as ever, led the field. Six weeks after Hansen’s testimony, Exxon’s manager of science and strategy development, Duane LeVine, prepared an internal strategy paper urging the company to “emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions.” ...
The American Petroleum Institute, after holding a series of internal briefings on the subject in the fall and winter of 1988, ... set aside money for carbon-dioxide policy — about $100,000, a fraction of the millions it was spending on the health effects of benzene, but enough to establish a lobbying organization called, in an admirable flourish of newspeak, the Global Climate Coalition. It was joined by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 14 other trade associations, including those representing the coal, electric-grid and automobile industries. The G.C.C. ... added a press campaign, to be coordinated mainly by the A.P.I. It gave briefings to politicians known to be friendly to the industry and approached scientists who professed skepticism about global warming. The A.P.I.’s payment for an original op-ed was $2,000. ...
The G.C.C. spent $13 million on a single ad campaign intended to weaken support for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed its parties to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 5 percent relative to 1990 levels. The Senate, which would have had to ratify the agreement, took a pre-emptive vote declaring its opposition; the resolution passed 95-0. There has never been another serious effort to negotiate a binding global climate treaty. ...
We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions, we risk the collapse of civilization. We also know that, without a gargantuan intervention, whatever happens will be worse for our children, worse yet for their children and even worse still for their children’s children, whose lives, our actions have demonstrated, mean nothing to us.
Could it have been any other way? In the late 1970s, a small group of philosophers, economists and political scientists began to debate, largely among themselves, whether a human solution to this human problem was even possible. They did not trouble themselves about the details of warming, taking the worst-case scenario as a given. They asked instead whether humankind, when presented with this particular existential crisis, was willing to prevent it. We worry about the future. But how much, exactly?
The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount; the farther out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster. The Yale economist William D. Nordhaus, a member of Jimmy Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued in the 1970s that the most appropriate remedy was a global carbon tax. But that required an international agreement, which Nordhaus didn’t think was likely. Michael Glantz, a political scientist who was at the National Center for Atmospheric Research at the time, argued in 1979 that democratic societies are constitutionally incapable of dealing with the climate problem. The competition for resources means that no single crisis can ever command the public interest for long, yet climate change requires sustained, disciplined efforts over decades. ...
These theories share a common principle: that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. ...
If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison. ...
Hansen’s most recent paper, published last year, announced that Earth is now as warm as it was before the last ice age, 115,000 years ago, when the seas were more than six meters higher than they are today. He and his team have concluded that the only way to avoid dangerous levels of warming is to bend the emissions arc below the x-axis. We must, in other words, find our way to “negative emissions,” extracting more carbon dioxide from the air than we contribute to it. If emissions, by miracle, do rapidly decline, most of the necessary carbon absorption could be handled by replanting forests and improving agricultural practices. If not, “massive technological CO₂ extraction,” using some combination of technologies as yet unperfected or uninvented, will be required. Hansen estimates that this will incur costs of $89 trillion to $535 trillion this century, and may even be impossible at the necessary scale. He is not optimistic. ...
It is true that much of the damage that might have been avoided is now inevitable. And Pomerance is not the romantic he once was. But he still believes that it might not be too late to preserve some semblance of the world as we know it.
- Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change, NYT, AUG. 1, 2018


Rich acknowledges these enormous technical obstacles, while minimizing the political hurdles, in reaching his most contentious and widely mocked conclusion: that failure to find a solution was, and remains, an inevitable consequence of human nature.
- Ron Meador, The battle over 'Losing Earth': Why a new history of climate inaction has inspired so much pushback, MinnPost, 08/10/18


And the public seems apathetic. On the phone with Serreze, the veteran journalist Seth Borenstein lamented, “How many times can a journalist report on what is happening in the Arctic before it becomes so repetitive that people lose interest?”
The great Dutch writer and historian Geert Mak once told me that in 1933 the Dutch newspapers were full of stories of the threat of Nazism, yet by 1938 those same papers were all but silent on the subject. Sometimes, it seems, threats to our future become so great that we opt to ignore them. Yet if we fail to act with the utmost urgency to slow climate change, we will invite catastrophe on all humanity. ...
Stabilizing the Arctic’s climate, if it can be done at all, is the task of decades or centuries. It will require a swift cessation in the use of fossil fuels and the development of methods and technologies that will draw CO2 out of the atmosphere.
- Tim Flannery, The Big Melt, New York Review of Books, AUGUST 16, 2018







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