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.
We still need to make those changes to our energy systems and usage. We need to reduce our contribution to the speed of the temperature rise, in order to buy more time to adapt to the new realities of our climate. We also need to stop increasing air pollution for the sake of everyone’s health. Higher temperatures, without question, make air pollution more dangerous. Continued use of fossil fuels and things like personal automobiles, at least in the way we use them today, will mean more people dying for lack of clean air.
But on top of that, we now also have to adapt to the ways in which our planet is changing. That’s the deadline we missed. That’s the “end of the world” you hear from climate activists. I would argue that world has already ended. We’re on a different world now, and it’s a more hostile one that’s going to be changing constantly for the foreseeable future. I’m pissed about that, and knowing the damage it will do to the biosphere that I love (humanity included) is depressing as hell, but it doesn’t mean that it’s all over, or that there’s any reason to give up the struggle to take power from the vicious thugs who forced us into this situation, or to work for a better world for everyone.
It has been said that science is a tool to keep from lying to ourselves, but in many ways, it can also function as a scrying tool for the future. Used well, it can show us not just how the world is, and how it was, but also a myriad of possible ways it will be. We’ve moved far enough down the present timeline that there are no futures available to us in which the world doesn’t keep warming, just like there are no futures available to us in which Donald Trump was never president of the US. That’s no longer a option. That doesn’t mean that the future is, inevitably, going to be some version of a Mad Max hellscape.
There are certainties about what’s coming, and we can act accordingly. We know that sea level is going to keep rising, and that the rise is going to happen faster as the planet warms. That’s going to mean that even weak storms are going to be increasingly more likely to flood coastal areas that have not been historically vulnerable to flooding. Plans to deal with this are underway in many cities around the world, ranging from creating public parks as flood zones, to floating neighborhoods designed to rise with the water. Whatever approaches are taken, there will obviously be mistakes made, and unforeseen problems, but less than those coming if we do nothing. All the changes necessary are entirely within our capability.
The recent power outages in California also underscore the need for structural change. I’ll be going into more depth on this soon, but for a brief overview, high winds can throw trees and branches across power lines, which can spark wildfires in drought-stricken areas. Currently the “solution” to this is to cut off power to millions of people. This is what NOT adapting looks like. Adapting could mean burying power lines, or even better, investing in distributed power generation so less of the population relies on power lines at all. With a little effort on efficiency, rooftop solar can power most homes without any need for miles and miles of cable that require maintenance, and that can be both a vulnerability for the community, and a fire hazard.
Because scientists have been studying this problem for generations now, we’ve got a good idea of the kinds of problems we’re going to face in different areas, and at minimum the steps we can be taking to head those problems off. Any declaration that it’s somehow “all over” because we missed the window to prevent the coming heat ignores the vast amount of research into what a warming world will look like, and how we can respond to it.
The world that humanity has lived on for the last few thousand years is gone, replaced by one that is more volatile, and more hostile. We have the means to survive it, and to build a better society while we do so. We know where to start, and we know that as we work on one problem, solutions to others are generally discovered along the way. Think of it like this – if we ever hope to have a presence on other planets, we’ll need to know how to adapt our civilization to strange and inhospitable climates, and ultimately how to manipulate planetary climates to suit our needs. We’ll have to rising sea levels, and killer heat waves. We’ll have to be able to produce large amounts of food in substandard conditions, possibly even indoors. We’ll need to start treating the active stewardship of our environment as a priority, rather than a fringe issue.
It would have been better to experiment on other planets without putting hundreds of millions of lives at risk, but now that we’re in this situation, there’s absolutely no good reason not to work on the problem.