“I have talked to scientists all over the world. And what they are telling me — if we don’t get our act together — this planet could be 5-10 degrees warmer by the end of this Century! Cataclysmic problems for this planet! This is a national crisis!” — Bernie Sanders, Michigan Democratic Debate, March 6th.
(Bernie Sanders pledges to end fracking and tackle climate change in the Michigan Democratic debate last night.)
Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton gave a spirited debate over substantive issues. To someone who respects political figures who address problems and actively seek solutions, it was a welcome respite from the most recent low-information, public action denigrating, Republican wrangle. But one two-minute segment in Hillary and Bernie’s exchange really stood out for me. And it’s the clip streaming above where Bernie Sanders tackles the critical issue that is human-caused climate change.
And we should be very clear. Bernie is absolutely right — it’s a national crisis that will become an existential crisis if we don’t act swiftly, if we don’t act well, and if we aren’t also pretty amazingly lucky.
A Tough, Tough Issue of Critical Importance
Like many who write on this issue, I often find it difficult not to fall into crushing despair. With each post, it’s like seeing the life-blood of our world slowly drip away. It’s a tough, tough issue.
The posts appear to have an impact. There’s a vigorous discussion going on in the comments section. People are actively identifying problems, taking action, doing their best to contribute to solutions. To spread the word. To develop a sense of urgency. But despite the response here, despite the actions of a vast spectrum of other responsible groups around the world, and despite a growing warning and outcry from the scientific community, the world itself seems to be moving far too slowly to effectively confront the crisis.
(Atmospheric CO2 is now reaching levels comparable to those seen during the Middle Miocene. A period of time when the world was both much warmer than today and sea levels were far, far higher. Each year that greenhouse gas emissions continue, more heat, more sea level rise, and more future dangerous climate change is locked in. Image source: The Keeling Curve.)
To be clear, fossil fuel burning now pumps out enough heat trapping gas to equal one Permian Extinction producing volcanic prominence active on every major continent on the Earth and all going off at the same time. It’s a really big deal. One that people probably aren’t quite so aware of because, well, volcanoes are individually more spectacular than billions of tailpipes, coal and gas turbines, and smokestacks. All efficiently, but relatively quietly, throwing up that hothouse extinction producing pallor. One that hangs invisible in the air. But one whose effects are all-too-real.
The 2 C Goal is Pretty Bad; Continued Burning is Far Worse
Attempts to face down this growing threat became apparent in a flurry of new urgency at the Paris Climate Summit. There the strongest international agreement yet on preventing catastrophic climate change was forged as global climate policy makers appeared to have begun to get a whiff of the gravity of our current situation. But the new agreement doesn’t yet produce enough in the way of committed action to prevent 2 C warming this Century. And it’s pretty clear that Paris’s policies will meet stiff opposition from fossil fuel special interests — who exert far too much influence and control over the world’s various political bodies and governing systems even as they have managed to block many helpful policies and pollute public awareness through the active promotion of climate change denial.
2 C warming by 2100, even if we were to make the monumental strides necessary to achieve that limit, is by itself pretty terrible. Though nowhere near as catastrophic as the 3, 4, 5 or 6 C levels of heating that are entirely possible if the world keeps going all out to extract and burn coal, oil and gas, it’s a rate of temperature increase not seen in 55 million years and a level of warming not seen in 2-3 million years. It locks in severe heatwaves the likes of which we’ve never seen before, terrible wildfires, extraordinary rainfall and droughts, monster storms, city-wrecking sea level rise, habitat loss, ocean health decline, glacial melt on a scale that changes the very complexion of the Earth, sea ice winnowing away to a shadow of its former coverage, amplifying Earth System feedbacks, and a whole host of other problems. It also means that the Earth continues to heat up for hundreds of years more unless greenhouse gasses are somehow drawn down — resulting in a long term warming in the range of 4 C so long as climate sensitivity is about what we’ve come to expect from our study of paleoclimate.
Probably the Worst Crisis Humankind has Ever Faced — Which Makes the 2016 Election Absolutely Critical
Even achieving that rather difficult but probably survivable future will necessitate very swift action. For each year in which a peak in human greenhouse gas emissions is delayed, the more difficult it becomes to limit future warming.
(Amount of warming this Century expected under differing emissions reduction and climate sensitivity scenarios. In the above graph TCRE stands for transient climate response to emissions. It’s basically how much warming you get short term as a result of accumulated greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. Note that greenhouse gas emissions need to decline by more than 2 percent per year starting now if we are to have much confidence in avoiding 2 C warming this Century. It’s also worth noting that even a slow decline rate from near now likely locks in about 3 C warming this Century. Image source: Impact of Delay in Reducing CO2 Emissions.)
To this point, if the best case global policy can currently produce is a future in which the world’s temperatures warm by 2 C by 2100, then we have a serious problem. If that’s the case, then what it really boils down to is the fact that civilization this Century faces an existential crisis. A level of geophysical upheaval worse than the end of the last ice age that may all end up being crammed into the next 300 years with a good chunk of it happening this Century.
This is one of the toughest challenges humankind has ever faced. And its solutions require an unprecedented level of government involvement and activism. It’s for these reasons why it’s pretty amazing that climate change isn’t the central subject of every Presidential debate this year. For who we elect as President will have a significant and important role to play in confronting or facing down this crisis. But so far, candidate comments on climate change have been limited to only the briefest of questions and responses on the democratic side, and to a chilling and all-encompassing climate change denial on the republican side.
This is not how a nation readies itself to effectively confront a very serious crisis. Whispers and denial are not enough. We need strong statements and bold action.
To my mind, so far, Bernie Sanders has been the only candidate to address the problem with the level of urgency the situation warrants. And I suspect he would speak to it more if the question and answer format of the recent debates were not so limiting. Hillary’s own statements seem positive, but it’s pretty clear that much of this is due to Bernie’s own responsible and persistent prodding. A little more ardor on her part would be reassuring.
But the point here is that, according to many of the world’s top climate scientists, we are in a worsening global crisis at this time. If there was ever a time when government climate policy should be front and center as a political issue, then it is now. Rapid and radical efforts are now necessary and warranted. So we should praise Bernie for raising what is an absolutely critical issue. And we should criticize pretty much everyone else for downplaying and denying it.
Hat tip to Caroline (Thank you for your activism)