So, what do we do now that we know we are probably screwed?

Stephen Mulkey
Jul 10 · 8 min read
Dana Point a coastal city in California which is now facing rapid sea level rise. Wikipedia Commons.

“The IPCC report demonstrates that it is still possible to keep the climate relatively safe, provided we muster an unprecedented level of cooperation, extraordinary speed, and heroic scale of action.”
— Mario Molina. 2018. IPCC Nobel Laureate

Science does not blink. The special report issued by the IPCC in October 2018 is unequivocal in its warnings. We are out of time to take action to reduce fossil fuel emissions. We must engage in steep and immediate reductions in emissions if we are to keep the global average temperature from exceeding 2˚C by the early part of the second half of this century. The popular discourse about how many years we may have remaining to take this action is immaterial to whether we might achieve this. Given the current administration’s aggressive repression of science and the denial of the need to address this gravest threat to civilization since we wandered out of Africa, it is very unlikely that we will mount such a massive global effort with the necessary urgency.

But, certainly despair is premature. There are now many countries, mostly small ones, that are committed to zero carbon emissions in the near term. Despite political resistance by utilities and the fossil fuel lobby, renewable energy is developing rapidly in Europe and some states of the US. Innovation in grid management and power storage have removed the often ridiculous arguments that renewables are unreliable because wind and sunlight are intermittent. My colleagues point to progress in the largely commercial renewable energy sector and declare that we will be mostly carbon free by 2050.

Terrific, but “mostly” doesn’t cut it, and mid-century is too late. There is a 30 to 40-year time lag in the Earth System after fossil emissions cease in which positive feedbacks and ocean heat transfers continue. Thus, continuing impacts are nonnegotiable. As McKibben has said, “winning slowly is the same as losing.”

Staying at or below 2˚C warming during this century does not guarantee that we will avoid damaging climate change. The putative guardrail of 2˚C was agreed on at the Copenhagen 15th Conference of the Parties as a last-ditch compromise to salvage a positive outcome of this disastrous meeting of nations. There is no scientific basis for the notion that this is a safe level of warming. The present warming above pre-industrial is ~1˚C and features of several recent extreme events can be attributed to climate disruption. It will get worse. If you are alive today, you have already experienced the best climate that you will ever experience in your lifetime.

If all signatories to the Paris Accord from December 2015 meet their voluntary cuts, we will realize between 3.0 and 3.5˚C global warming by the latter part of the century. The impact of this warming on positive feedbacks from living systems is presently unknowable, but it will not be a walk in the park for humanity. This amount of warming will result in an acceleration of climate disruption that will make conducting the affairs of civilization increasingly unmanageable.

At 3˚C we can expect widespread disruption of ecosystems and amplification of emissions from natural sources. The phenomenon of Arctic Amplification, whereby warming is more rapid and more extreme in the far north, will enhance positive feedbacks from melting permafrost, resulting in even more warming. The vast Amazon Basin is already close to a tipping point and, rather than acting to remove carbon, it will become a net source of carbon to the atmosphere. We can expect accelerating sea level rise, and an unknown but likely steep increase in the frequency of extreme climatic events such as severe drought, more and bigger fires, more and stronger cyclones, and more extreme precipitation.

The impacts of a 3˚C world on public health will be manifold with emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases driven by habitat destruction and climate warming. Warming will make cities in India seasonally uninhabitable and water supplies will be increasingly limited in the Hindu Kush Himalaya, where snow and ice melt serve over 2 billion people. The public health impacts of cyclones and flooding will continue to overwhelm our resources for repair and recovery. The UN expects tens of millions of climate refugees and it should be obvious that millions will die. The political disruption from this is difficult to contemplate. No nation has policies or infrastructure in place to manage such a tidal wave of desperation.

Without significant mitigation, our current emissions trajectory will result in 4–6˚C average warming by 2090. This degree of warming will end civilization for most of humanity. Crop production for a large population will be out of the question. All we have to do to achieve this result is to keep doing what we are doing.

Optimists continue to support the notion that we may be able to derail this trajectory. I hope the glass is indeed half-full, but it seems clear that moving the corporations and the government of the largest consumer economy will not happen in time. The hardest question that I get when I present climate science to the public is often from a young person who wants to know, “Should I have children?” Of course, I refuse to offer my opinion on such a personal choice, but I encourage them to consider the pace of social change in the context of what we know about climate disruption. They may choose to have kids anyway, but at least they will know what they are up against.

It is hardest for me to accept the naked immorality of this period in our history as a nation. In 2018, slightly more than half of the emissions residing in the atmosphere had come from the United States in some form. Present annual emissions from the US may rank second to that of China, but because we import much of our consumer goods from other countries, the emissions from their production and transport should appear in our debit column. If morality means anything, the United States has a moral obligation to lead in making this right.

My generation of baby boomers has a personal moral obligation to the current generation facing this daunting future to offer every assistance that we can. This includes the unmerciful dismantling of the fossil fuel industry and the associated economy. There is no doubt that a clean economy can replace this self-perpetuating abomination. We owe it to our kids to undertake this urgent task, regardless of whether we can stay below 2˚C.

The economist and Nobel Laureate, William Nordhaus, has stated that “there is no solution to climate change that is not a market solution.” Such narrow thinking got us into this mess, and it is worthy of scorn rather than a Nobel. Instead of insisting on a market-based solution, I suggest that we simply do the right thing and deal with reconfiguring the global economy as necessary.

The economy must serve humanity, not the other way around. We can invest in retraining generations of workers who presently participate in the fossil fuel economy. An alternative version of a clean sustainable economy that provides a safe and just future for humanity has been developed by such thinkers as Kate Raworth at Oxford. We can do far better, if we choose to.

Given that we are out of time and that the degree of necessary change is unlikely in the near term, this leads me to ask what we should be doing. Should we give up?

There have been moments when I considered buying a big-ass RV and traveling around to see our magnificent continent before our ecosystems transform. I am partial to glaciers and mountains. Perhaps there are a couple of decades that I could enjoy myself before age and the planet blow the whistle on my time on the field.

Thomas Berry has written that every generation has their Great Work. My father went ashore at Normandy, and his generation’s Great Work was the preservation of liberal democracy. They succeeded, if only for a time.

The Great Work of my generation has been to manage climate and biosphere disruption. We have utterly failed.

Perhaps our most important task is to prepare the current generation of young people for the changes that are coming and to give them the tools and infrastructure to mitigate the challenges that will result. In addition to working to reduce carbon emissions, the work for my generation is twofold. First, we must realign our secondary and higher education institutions to provide students with the facts about their future and the life skills to live in a post-consumer economy.

In the US many of these skills can be developed through the extensive system of community colleges. Sustainability should be central to the curriculum during the first two years of post-secondary education. All students should be required to have a minimum level of ecological literacy before graduation. This means that they will understand basic processes such as the carbon cycle, ecosystem services, and renewable energy production, and how disruptions of these will affect their lives.

In order to respond to the needs of our children and future generations, we must resurrect the doctrine of the Public Trust. This idea dates from ancient Rome and posits that certain functions and resources should be held in trust by government for the public good. Education at all levels must be rescued from its capitalist purgatory and refinanced as part of the Public Trust. Call this Socialism if you wish. I am all in.

Secondly, we should develop an extensive understanding of the changes that are likely to affect communities, including explicit projections of factors such as hurricane storm surge and the probability of compound heatwaves and multiple crop failures. The community is the front line of impacts and adaptation to the disruptions heading our way. As we work to reduce emissions, we can prepare the next generation to survive and even thrive in such a world, but we need to invest in the social sciences and the human infrastructure necessary to develop realistic scenarios for defined geographic regions.

What should the community of Daytona, Florida, expect by 2050? How about the changes that are likely to affect Wichita, Kansas, or Mumbai, India, or Bogota, Colombia, or Lagos, Nigeria, or Anadyr, Siberia? Big or small, all communities need expert scenario analysis and risk assessment. Our local and state governments can take the lead in developing these scenario analyses and we should demand that they do so.

The order of day by midcentury will be the maintenance of energy, food, and water security. Without the appropriate return on investment the business sector is unlikely to provide the resources and innovations needed to protect our communities. Maintenance of essential services must not be derailed by greed and business imperatives that require economic growth at the expense of additional carbon emissions and social equity. Central to keeping this process from being owned by corporations is the need to develop the civic structures and processes that ensure the democratic rule of the people of these communities.

As the ride gets bumpy, we must have in place processes and people that protect the common good and the ecosystems that we depend on. We should not look to the private sector for salvation. Corporations will never have such concerns as part of their imperative to increase shareholder value. At best, they are amoral, and at worst they are usury of the public good. For many corporations, their very existence and use of public resources constitutes a moral hazard.

Perhaps you find my thesis too grim to accept. Certainly we must continue to reduce carbon emissions regardless of the likelihood that we can alter the near term trajectory. I fervently hope I am wrong, but the science suggests that at minimum it is not only prudent but necessary that we develop plans and infrastructure for future generations. Gee, what would happen if we made our planet and society better, and somehow climate and biosphere disruption turned out to be mild?

Fat chance, but I propose that we invest in our kids no matter what.

Stephen Mulkey

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Environmental scientist and educator; forest and climate change ecologist.