The consequences of carbon dioxide in our ecosystem are existential, and not distant

by Mike Shatzkin

There is a clear divide between Democrats and Republicans about the facts of climate change: that it is happening, that it is real, that it is man-made. There’s another big barrier to mobilizing the political will to address it. Because when all voters — Democrats and Republicans and independents — are polled by Gallup about what they think are the most important issues, climate change is almost invisible.

Of several dozen enumerated problems, “environment/pollution” is the only heading under which concern about the climate could fall that was rated a top problem by as many as two percent of the voters. The only other spelled-out concerns that could subsume climate change — “fuel/oil prices”, “natural disaster response”, and “energy/lack of energy sources” — all registered with less than one percent of the voters.

So the fact that too many Republicans are skeptical of the facts of climate change is only part of the political problem with getting meaningful political action. The other big piece is that even the Democrats who accept the truth of it clearly don’t appreciate the urgency of the problem.

They should. Because it is urgent.

How urgent? Well, maybe so urgent that talking about the reality would be more discouraging than energizing for many people.

We missed our chance to address global warming when gradual measures could have prevented a dire situation in the late 1980s and we temporarily, as it turned out, had worldwide awareness and concern about the problem. But having failed then, we have now passed the point where we could navigate what is really a threat to human civilization relatively painlessly.

One of the starkest characterizations of the situation humankind finds itself in comes from a British social scientist named Mayer Hillman, who sees civilization as “doomed”.

Unfortunately, barring miracles I can’t imagine, I agree with him.

Hillman has seen this coming for a long time. He gave up flying on airplanes twenty years ago (before he decided, as he has now, that individual actions are “futile”) because it is the single most carbon-intensive thing we people do. He makes the point that the warming limit under current discussion and spelled out in the Paris Accords — 2 degrees Celsius this century — is both inadequate and not likely to be achieved. And he forces us to confront the fact that the warming will continue past the end of the century — and past the 2 degree mark — no matter what we do.

So, even “holding the rise to 2 degrees Celsius in this century” means “and hope we can figure out a lot of other stuff by then”. And that’s the rosy scenario.

Like Hillman, I see disaster ahead and not very far down the road. Consider just this.

Experts tell us that six feet of sea level rise is very likely over the next 120 years and quite conceivable in the next 80 years, and that three feet of rise might well occur in the next 40 years. (Forty year units make sense to me because it is about half a full lifetime.)

How far inland the ocean goes as the sea level rises depends upon the shoreline topography, of course. But experts work with a rule of thumb that the inland penetration is 100 to 300 times the amount of rise. (It is much higher in some places; in Bangladesh and Florida, the shoreline can move inland 1000 times the vertical sea level rise. And, obviously, there are some places where cliffs meet the sea where no land would be lost at all.)

So in most places, and certainly most inhabited shoreline places, six feet of sea level rise would submerge between 600 to 1800 feet — about a quarter of a mile on average — of what is now land. In fact, six feet of rise would move many coastlines miles inland.

That will cause trillions in losses of property value and millions of displaced people looking for someplace else to go. And they will be everywhere in the world, on every continent. This situation is coming in our lifetime or our grandchildren’s lifetime, at an accelerating rate of speed starting now.

Compounding the challenge, the weather will become much more variable than what humans have always been able to count on as “normal”. In our warmer and mostly wetter world, as we have seen, there will be more droughts, more violent hurricanes, extreme rainfall, and worse wildfires. Aside from all the other costs these changes imposed, they will cripple food production.

So millions of people migrating and global food shortages are foreseeable within the lifetime of every child on this planet today. It is my expectation that governments and the other organizational structures of society won’t be able to handle the disruption. In short, compared to the world we live in, the world that’s coming is one you wouldn’t want to occupy.

You’d think many people would see this for what it is: the most urgent conceivable problem for humanity to solve.

Among climate change activists, there are mixed opinions about how helpful it is to paint the stark picture of our future reality that Hillman foresees. Does understanding this galvanize people into action? Or is it more likely to discourage them so they just focus on enjoying the time they have in the world we have?

The answer to whether painting a really scary picture (however accurate) is helpful is not obvious. What we have to do to address this crisis (because that’s what it is) is not so obscure. We have to pull CO2 out of the ecosystem. That means we need to burn a lot less fossil fuels (and ultimately burn none) and push ahead on every possible front to remove CO2 from air and water and somehow sequester or change it to something else (a process known as “drawdown”.)

We have to address those things with all the resources we can muster and we have to change the economic rules to the maximum extent we can to throw even more resources at these challenges than might “make sense”. We have to recognize that burning fossil fuels and living with the CO2 they produce creates a greater threat to humankind than any other environmental issue we can identify.

We have to develop wind and solar and tidal and geothermal energy and perhaps “next-gen” nuclear and, of course, the batteries for stored electricity to cover us when the winds are still or the sun is down. We have to rebuild our transportation and energy infrastructures because what we’ve constructed is killing us.

But most of all we have to see exploring the new energy technologies that power us with renewables and the emerging capabilities to pull CO2 out of the ecosystem for what they are. They are no less than the tools that can save human civilization. All the costs and sacrifices and changes to business-as-usual that developing and implementing them require should be seen in the context of the alternative. And the alternative, within the lifetimes of most of us here today, is just about unthinkable.

I have been writing about climate change on Medium for about a year now. Some of the pieces try just to explain the challenge. I am definitely pounding a drum trying to push fellow-Democrats to support a market-based carbon-pricing strategy proposed by Republicans which could be very powerful force in the right direction. And last month, inspired by much of the data cited in this piece, I took a stab at making the argument in this post using a bigger dose of logic and a smaller dose of fear. You can find more of these at Medium, where I have declined the monetization option so all of these should be accessible without paying a toll. And, of course, my writing on publishing and digital change is called The Shatzkin Files on my web site.