But we aren’t totally fucked just yet. Really. Don’t give up. Even if the climate was beyond repair, which it isn’t, we must still prepare ourselves and our communities for the chaos that will follow in the decades ahead. Even the worst case scenarios require that we plan and coordinate with each other. These aspects of the human condition won’t change no matter how hot it gets. As long as we have a network to maintain our work is not done.
And we haven’t yet condemned ourselves to these worst case scenarios. We are in the final moments during which real actions can be taken to avoid utter catastrophe. Hundreds of millions of human lives are at stake. If we’re going to do something it has to be now.
So what can we do? Let’s discuss our options in the decade ahead.
Actually, let’s first understand what’s going on. Then we’ll discuss options.
One point five degrees see
Historically, climate scientists have pointed to +2℃ average increase in global temperatures as a critical policy threshold. Beyond those temperatures will see catastrophic runaway processes, like disappearing ice caps, that will inevitably make the planet much, much warmer. Passing +2℃ in the next few decades could result in as much as +4℃ by the end of the century, and +6℃ or more in the centuries ahead. These temperatures represent a grave threat to humanity and the biosphere as we know it.
To be clear, some parts of the world are already experiencing greater than +2℃ compared to the historical average. The impact of climate change is distributed unevenly across the planet, and some of the places that will be most severely impacted are also least prepared to address the consequences. We’re witnessing these facts already. Nevertheless, the policy threshold urged by scientists is to keep the average global temperature from reaching those peaks, to prevent the worst consequences. So far we have not crossed these critical thresholds, but we’re very close.
The IPCC reports are notoriously conservative. Projections in AR4 (2007, above) seem to optimistically assume that world policy makers would eventually heed their advice. Climate models anticipated likely scenarios where temperatures reach +2℃ sometime after the end of the century in all but the worst cases. More recent projections in AR5 (2013, below) see +2℃ warming possibly as early as 2050. Scientists now believe that limiting warming below +2℃ is only possible in the most optimistic circumstances.
The most recent report looks at the consequences of changes at +1.5℃, below the historic critical +2℃ threshold. All models more or less agree that we’ll hit 1.5℃ sometime around 2040. The relevant question is whether we’ll continue to blast through to 2℃, or if we’ll manage to hold average temps at or below 1.5℃, indicated by the dark blue line in the graph above.
In other words, we can think of 2040 as a potential inflection point for different future temperature scenarios. After 2040 we’ll have settled on a trajectory towards the high or low end of the graph above. And if we’re not clearly inflected towards the low end by 2040, then we should be bracing for global catastrophes in the decades ahead.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can wait until 2040 to do something about this. The climate doesn’t turn on a dime. The IPCC report argues that maintaining targets of +1.5℃ beyond 2040 requires an immediate and dramatic restructuring of the worlds resources and economic infrastructure. Specifically, it says we need to achieve net zero carbon globally by 2030. To achieve these results, the report says that global investment in alternative energy would need to double, investment in fossil fuels would need to diminish by one quarter, and the entire framework of carbon pricing and regulation would need to be reworked the world over.
Furthermore, the report makes clear that the difference between 1.5 and 2℃ is very serious. Record heat waves, droughts, and other extreme weather events, rising sea levels displacing major population centers, and the resulting strain on our political institutions means the difference in half a degree will have direct, immediate consequences for hundreds of millions of people around the planet over the next few decades.
If these goals aren’t accomplished by 2030, the report suggest that we’ll lose this small window of control within which we can maintain temperatures below 1.5℃. Scenarios for avoiding disaster after 2040 are described as “overshoot”, where we briefly exceed 1.5℃ (or 2℃) before returning to cooler temperatures. Overshoot scenarios will likely require major geoengineering projects which are either extremely expensive or exceedingly risky, or both. None of these choices are pleasant, but they will look more tempting as our climate situation becomes more dire. If we mess up our chance(s) at overshoot, well, things will get significantly worse going into the next century, and the challenges future generations of humans face will become even more grim.
But the IPCC report makes clear that we’re not yet in a situation where we have to make choices like that. We’re not completely fucked just yet. In fact, we’re living through potentially the last, brief period of human history where our best choices involve things like “dismantling global capitalism” and “building new, stronger, cooperative geopolitical institutions”. Regardless of your political disposition, these options look really, really tempting compared to the kind of choices we will be faced with when this window closes a decade from now.
We’ve known most of this science for a while. What is new in the latest report is a clear timeline in our immediate purview. Until now the most dramatic warnings have looked forward to 2050 and beyond, comparatively a long time from now. Such time frames are psychologically difficult to plan for. This recent report tells us the critical period is directly before us in the decade ahead. If 2040 marks a critical inflection point in the temperature future, then the IPCC report identifies 2030 as a critical inflection for our political futures. 2030 has become the new critical threshold around which we must all become hyper-aware.
A decade isn’t that long. I’m in my late thirties. I’ll admit my retirement account isn’t great, but I think I can get my head around what it means to plan for things on the scale of a decade. I can see 2030 coming almost as clear as I can see next summer. We can do this. Scientists agree that our situation is dire, but they also agree that it remains within the realm of possibility that we do something about it. We can do this by 2030.
Seriously. I’ll say it again because it isn’t being said enough. Our best scientific research says there absolutely are things we can do, and that we know how to do, over the next decade to keep the most devastating consequences of climate change from happening. Science is telling us that it’s possible to act now and save hundreds of millions of lives and significant parts of the biosphere. Right now is our best shot at doing this with minimal suffering. We will never have these opportunities again.
So contrary to the media headlines, this IPCC report isn’t telling us we’re fucked. It’s saying just the opposite. It’s saying there’s still a chance.
A twelve year calendar
Okay, well, when I say “we can do it” I don’t really mean you and me. Even if everyone who has ever known someone that has read an article on medium.com were to stop driving their cars and eating meat today, by itself this would have very little impact on global warming trends. Individual behavior isn’t the problem. The global industrial dependence on fossil fuels is the problem. The “we” who can do this are the international regulatory bodies and multinational corporations, mostly energy companies, who are responsible for the heavy infrastructural dependence on fossil fuels.
Don’t get me wrong: if we can turn the system around, you will absolutely see dramatic changes in your individual daily routines, including basic things like transportation infrastructure, diet, and energy use habits. You should expect and prepare for those changes to arrive, and quickly. But we aren’t going to stop global climate change because you’ve made those changes. Rather, the fact that you’ve made those changes will add to the (hopefully growing) evidence that we’re effectively addressing climate change at the global scale. If we aren’t seen these sweeping changes in our own lives relatively soon we can be certain that we’re failing globally.
This is why the new IPCC report is so important. Not just because it might renew our motivation to take serious actions. We’re as motivated as we’ll get before climate disasters force us to attend to more more immediate concerns, like not drowning. What the new report gives us is a clear timeline of the very near future, and clear deadlines for when our current window of opportunity will close. The consequences of our actions depend very heavily not just on which actions we take, but on when we take them. The options we’ll have after 2030 are different from the ones we have to make right now.
I made the following calendar to help visualize this timeline clearly.
I’ve marked the calendar to indicate the US election cycle because I live in the US and we’re due for one in a few weeks so it felt like a relevant framing device. Typically elections are about incremental change, taking small steps towards a more just society. A calendar like this can help put our elections, and our choices generally, in their appropriate context. We have seven elections between now and the critical 2030 deadline. Three are presidential elections. It isn’t a lot of time to radically change the course of history, regardless of who is on the ballots.
No confidence 2028
Worse, as the deadline grows near these elections can’t be treated the same. If we aren’t already deep into a process of radical geopolitical transformation by the spring of 2028, if the headlines don’t read “Unbelievably, the climate is on course for a stable future” and “Holy cow, we just might pull this off” throughout the first half of that important year, then there’s no serious hope of initiating such a transformation with a fresh new candidate in the fall of 2028. There’s even less hope for a new crop of candidates in the 2030 midterms. It doesn’t matter which party might win or how inspiring their platform is. If there isn’t already an air of global celebration going into the 2028 US election, then we will know with some confidence that humanity has failed, and our options going forward have changed.
And again, there remains hope for recovery after 2028 with “overshoot” techniques. But the later and warmer it gets, the more likely that overshoot solutions will require risky, expensive geoengineering strategies that are just as likely to increase human suffering as they will decrease temperatures. If we aren’t deep into recovery by 2028, it raises the prospect of putting these risky geoengineering decisions into the hands of the very same political institutions that were unable to negotiate solutions today, when our options are far less severe and ethically complicated. If we can’t trust our political institutions to negotiate the challenges of 2018, it would be unwise, unethical, and profoundly irresponsible to trust those same institutions with continued power to make even riskier decisions in 2028.
So I propose that we collectively start thinking of 2028 as the critical deadline of political confidence. If we aren’t globally on target for staying below +1.5℃ by the start of 2028, we have some responsibility to recognize that our institutions have fundamentally failed us, and we should collectively declare a vote of no confidence. A declaration of no confidence would assert the people’s collective power to render the political framework in its current incarnation null, void, and inert. Perhaps we clean house and start fresh, perhaps we try some attractive alternative frameworks. If we suspect a no confidence vote going into 2028, we ought to be hard at work preparing alternatives beforehand. Regardless of which alternatives we advance, however, we should under no circumstances allow 2028 to pass without fundamental, sweeping political reform. One way or another, our political institutions after 2028 cannot resemble our political institutions before.
Interlude: a confession
If you’re still reading, I’ll suspend my central thesis of optimism for a moment of honesty. I lost confidence in our political process a long time ago. I personally don’t trust our political institutions to manage this challenge. At all. I don’t think there’s enough leverage in the system to counteract the fundamental greed embedded in every facet of global capitalism. If you want my opinion, we should have demanded these sweeping reforms decades ago.
But I’m not here to give my opinion. I’m here to interpret and understand the IPCC report, which condenses the wisdom of the world’s top climate scientists. I can admit that they probably know better than me. And contrary to my own cynical opinion, our best science says it remains possible to work a geopolitical miracle over the next decade. Science is fallible, of course. But I’m willing to take the report at face value and maintain optimism as long as possible. And the report conveniently tells us exactly how long it will be possible: until 2030. So instead of giving up during the closing moments of our last opportunity for humanitarian success, I would rather fight my own cynicism and believe the science and try to pull out the win.
And much as I fucking hate to admit it, the IPCC report simply does not suggest that we must completely dismantle global capitalism for victory, regardless of the clickbait headlines. Full communism is a compelling path to success, but it isn’t the only one. +1.5℃ can be achieved entirely by dismantling the fossil fuel industry and reorganizing global production to be carbon neutral by 2030. Eliminating capitalism would be my own preference, but we don’t have to seize your small business to restructure the energy industry. You can put your Gadsen flag down there, buddy.
In fact, it’s more than a little hasty to equate “dismantle the fossil fuel industry” with “end global capitalism”. Unless you’re a neckbeard arguing about the basic principle of free markets, there’s nothing inherently anti-capitalist about using government powers to prevent conditions that threaten the survival of the very populations which compose those markets. An empty market is only trivially free. It is in the interest of most capitalists to engineer a solution to climate change. The only big losers among the capitalists will be in the energy sector, because their business practices have triggered a global extinction event. If your primary concern is that a coordinated response to climate genocide is somehow anti-capitalist, perhaps your priorities are not where they should be. Any politician with this position is working for the energy industry, and should be treated as an enemy of the people and stripped of power immediately.
If you ask me: fuck the capitalists. Eat the rich. But with respect to our 2030 deadline, we are not faced with a crisis of capitalism. That is simply not the political hurdle we have to climb in the next decade to address climate change. Equating the two makes the task seem much harder than it actually is. And as much as I fucking hate capitalism, the task at hand is ultimately more important than our greater political ambitions. There will be plenty of time to dismantle capitalism in a +1.5℃ world, and in a +6℃ world capitalism will effectively dismantle itself amid the wailing and gnashing of teeth. So let’s please try to focus. Time is a factor.
Besides, when you get right down to it, it’s the oil industry that most desperately wants you to think this task is impossible. That’s really their only chance for surviving the next decade in tact. If the task is impossible, why bother holding them accountable? Why even try? Why not just give up now, and give the oil billionaires a pass to keep soaking up blood money and fucking the planet up?
OH RIGHT BECAUSE 100 MILLION LIVES
Last call 2024: the end of the system as we know it and this is fine.
If 2028 is the last vestige of political confidence, then we really only have two presidential elections between now and then. The politicians and the news media alike, already bored of the coming midterms, have impatiently started to mine the 2020 elections for drama and position. Elections are always about the next step, and our political climate has so many question marks hanging over that next step: will power shift in the midterms? Will the Mueller probe conclude? Will Trump be impeached? Will a competent opposition rise to power? Answers to these questions will trickle out slowly over the next two years, and we will keep eagerly slurping at the feed for guidance and orientation.
But if our perspective is focused instead on 2030, as it ought to be, then the 2020 election is actually the least important one of the coming decade. The 2024 election is far more important, regardless of what happens in 2020. As discussed above, sustained confidence in our political system would require us to be deep into the recovery process by 2028. Such progress will take years of planning and coordination to come together. Perhaps we should expect that this planning is substantively underway by 2024. But it’s not totally unreasonable to think that fresh ideas brought to the table during the 2024 elections could hold important consequences for the plans that are ultimately in effect by 2028.
In other words, there is room in the calendar for some traditional debate and democratic consensus building around competing alternatives in our piece of the plan to save humanity. The election in 2024, and to a lesser extent in 2026, give some space for the machinery of our political system to do its intended work. I don’t mean any of this red-blue bullshit. I mean spirited debate between serious people offering genuine alternatives to the challenges that we face. The election of 2024 had better be about substantive plans to address the challenges of climate change. Anyone who doesn’t have such plans as the focus of their platform in the 2024 election is not fit to represent the people.
After 2024, the die to our political future, and so to our climate future, will be cast. 2024 is our last call. If somehow a Trump-like climate skeptic holds the presidency after 2024, then we can give up on the system with the same resolve we would in 2028. In this case no confidence would come early. We would have very little time to cobble together alternative institutions prepared for these challenges, so there would be no point dumping any more time or effort into the system as it exists.
However, it’s within the realm of imagination for an inspiring person to rally widespread popular support in 2024 for a concrete action plan that could successfully carry us through to a +1.5℃ future. An Obama-like candidate but with a bloodlust for oil executives could pull such a maneuver off. Figures like Obama come once in a generation, but we know they exist, so surely it’s possible for such a thing to happen again.
The more comfortable scenario, of course, would be that whoever rallies the people behind a massively popular plan in 2024 would be an incumbent candidate, one who spent the years since their win in 2020 building popular and institutional support for said plan. In this scenario, the 2024 election would serve to reinforce popular support for this plan, the 2028 election presumably would pass the reigns to like-minded leadership with follow-through, and a confident 2028 and a cool 2030 start to look firmly in the realm of the possible. As far as I can tell, this is the only pathway in which the current constitution of our political infrastructure can or should stay mostly in tact.
However, it’s possible that the climate change candidate doesn’t win in 2020. If not Trump’s reelection, then someone just as bad; doesn’t matter who. Even in this case, it would still be possible for a popular counter-wave to sweep someone into office in 2024 capable of implementing a successful plan in time for the 2030 deadlines. It would be cutting things razor thin; in this case, the 2024 election feels more like a genuine revolution than mere incremental change. Neither scenario changes much about the 2030 deadline, or the 2028 confidence threshold.
The takeaway message is that on this calendar, there remain traditional political pathways open for recovery even if the climate skeptics take the 2020 election. So all these open questions surrounding the next two years ultimately don’t matter very much. The wrong candidates can make things harder, of course, and the right candidate can make things easier. But all the big questions hanging over our heads right now could go either way, and the political circumstances around 2024 and 2028 don’t change very much. Either way, we still have pathways open to us that end in a stable climate future.
I’m not telling you that your vote doesn’t matter, although the apparent legitimacy of our electoral process has never been lower. To achieve these goals, we’ll need every ounce of political will we can muster. What I am saying is that these next few elections should not be triggering climate-induced panic. It will be time to panic in a decade, when we will know clearly our world is fucked. Until then we have every reason for optimism. Or at least, there won’t be reason for optimism much longer.
Conclusion: Optimism? I hardly new him!
In this essay I’ve tried to make the case for reading optimism into the IPCC 1.5℃ report. I’ve argued that the science lays out a pathway to a stable climate future, leaving us with a clear timeline of action and window of opportunity ahead. I’ve also argued that taking a next-decade perspective on our challenges puts a lot of anxieties over our current political climate in their proper context and setting. I’ve also made a political infographic with lots of arrows and bolded text.
The upshot of my argument is that things are as good now as they’re ever likely to be again in our lifetimes. So I’ve concluded that we ought to act like this is the case. Our best science says it is, and it would be stupid not to.
There are some problems with my argument. Most obviously, I’m talking only about the US election cycle. I’ve ignored all other political fronts, both domestically and abroad. And yes, without a doubt, the world does not turn on US elections. For most of the world, the discussion above is irrelevant. And even here in the US our capacity as a people to effectively control our political fates is deeply uncertain. If you ask me personally, I don’t think our institutions are capable of executing on this challenge, and I think humanity will suffer for it.
But this isn’t about me. This is about us. And the science says we can do this. So I’ve tried to take the claim seriously and work out what it would mean to do this from the perspective of our federal election cycle over the next decade. That’s only an admittedly small piece of the puzzle, but it’s an accessible enough piece to treat in a short essay like this. Hopefully my approach helps you think about the political motivations of your own communities over the next decade. I left a blank template of the graphic below to use for whatever purposes you like. I’d encourage you to use the framework to start thinking seriously about the next decade of our political lives together, and what we can do with it.
Thanks for your attention!