A few years back I came to the realization that avoiding some level of runaway greenhouse effect was no longer possible. First, there’s a fair amount of warming already in the pipeline, that’s going to happen whether or not we cut emissions. Second, there are powerful propaganda and corruption campaigns working in opposition to all efforts to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions. Third, there are the feedbacks like melting permafrost, decreasing albedo, and the effects of higher temperatures and associated drought on CO2 uptake by plants, all of which are already contributing to the warming. It seems pretty clear, taking all these factors into account, that avoiding a hotter world is no longer an option. Barring some way to pull CO2 from the atmosphere at a rate higher than we’ve been putting it there, the climate is going to keep warming for at least a few more centuries at this point.
This is one reason why I’m generally less than thrilled by the “end of the world if we don’t do something now” rhetoric – setting a deadline like that causes two problems. The first is that it creates an easy propaganda victory for the individuals and corporations fighting to stop action on climate change. It lets them point to past deadline warnings, and say “the world didn’t end then, so we shouldn’t listen!” This isn’t a valid argument, because we have taken SOME action, which may have pushed back the deadline a bit, and also because we really have passed the deadline to prevent 2°C warming, it’s just that it was always going to take time for it to get there. Validity, however, isn’t really relevant to whether it makes for convincing propaganda. The second problem is that it lets them say “if they’re right, it’s already too late, so why bother making big changes, since it won’t matter anyway?
This message is a lie. In reality, the proposed deadlines have always been about avoiding the need for big changes. Sure, changing where we get our energy and how we use it both count as “big changes”, but they’re nothing compared to the changes needed to maintain a high standard of living and increase global justice in a world that’s getting hotter with every decade. We’ve missed that chance. Personally, I think there should be punishment for those who used their power to put us in this situation, but that’s less important than the work before us now.