Climate deniers have cause to rejoice today: they were right, environmental advocates are way off in their calculations. The situation is actually much worse than previously thought.
There is precious little world governments can agree on right now with respect to climate change. Conferences come and go without serious action taking place. The only thing the world does agree on is that two degree warming above pre-industrial levels is the absolute highest level the Earth could withstand without ruin. Two degrees is essentially the point of no return. If we go past that, climate change becomes self-reinforcing and it doesn’t matter what humanity does, the globe will keep on heating up. Two degrees isn’t a safe target, it’s actually quite dangerous. It’s like driving the car at breakneck speed towards a cliff and slamming on the brakes at the last minute, dangerous as hell, but unfortunately it’s all we can agree on.
The world is now one degree warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, so we’re already more than halfway to oblivion. Until recently, most scientists were predicting we’d hit that two degree mark around 2050. I’ve been using the date 2050 in my climate talk with people. It was a comfortable number because the ~40 years between now and then corresponds roughly to the rest of my life. A few months ago, however, that date was revised downward drastically as Bill McKibben published his Terrifying New Math article in Rolling Stone. His prediction, based on current rates of fossil fuel use, is that we’ll hit the two degree mark before 2030. For those with kids, that’s around the time today’s toddlers are entering high school. With news like that, it’s no wonder Bill’s article went viral.
I’m afraid it gets worse. Arctic sea ice levels declined dramatically this year, and the remaining ice is now predicted to disappear completely in the summer of 2016. Without this ice reflecting sunlight, the Earth will absorb much more causing the planet to get hotter and hotter faster and faster. This process will heat the ocean and melt the world’s Artic-bordering permafrost, which will release tons of methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. This feedback loop will increase the rate of global warming by ~50%. Take that 2030 cut-off date and yank it forward even more…the point of no return is racing towards us at breakneck speed.
Compare this new math against our present efforts to slow carbon emissions and you’ll find that we fall comically short of our stated goal of 2 degrees. According to Professor Kevin Anderson, the world’s policies have us on track for a 4°C degree increase instead (watch this video!), a point which we’ll hit as soon as 2060. Professor Anderson states:
There is a widespread view that a 4°C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level).
Pour yourself a stiff drink and read that quote through one more time. I’ll wait.
These are strange times. A few months ago I made web games for a living and now I spend all day trying to bum people out about where the world is headed. At Thanksgiving dinner, someone paid me a very nice compliment that they liked the site and that they enjoyed the levity that I brought to the subject matter. I apologize to that person and the rest of you now, because levity will soon be in short supply when stories like this pile up. If you know me or respect me at all, believe me when I tell you:
It’s officially time to freak out.