Facing Up to the Climate Crisis
I am going to try a different way of presenting civilization’s biggest challenge, which is much greater than coping with the present pandemic. Let me illustrate how the emerging climate crisis would be viewed by those in the medical community who are used to dealing with fuzzy categories and their closing windows of opportunity for effective action. I hope to provide an intellectual toolkit for facing up to the climate crisis, largely borrowed from what we medical school professors teach med students about dealing with emergencies.
Because of sudden steps up in extreme weather, there are more immediate concerns than the year when our global fever hits 1.5°C or 2.0°C above normal. Big trouble can arrive suddenly — and stay. Focus your mind for a moment on the traditional bathroom light switch, where a gradual increase in finger pressure suddenly triggers a flip and a click, flooding the space with painfully bright light.
Climate can flip-flop as well. We keep assuming the overheating is like pushing a dimmer switch, where results are proportional to the switch position. But for five types of extreme weather, something flipped between 1991 and 2011. The NOAA workups make it look like regime change, better known as “It’s a whole new ball game.” This changes everything — it even makes statistics of 20th-century weather a poor guide to the future.
The emergency medicine physicians have a motto: “Think Fast. And then Think Again.” Get moving, but keep revisiting the patient’s diagnosis, in case something additional has crept in — say, internal bleeding or shock.
During quiet times in the office, some physicians get around to asking themselves if their standard treatments really work. For climate, we too must ask: Has our fifty years of emissions reduction effort been effective? Can it ever be?
Despite occasional partial-success stories, such as the way that California has held emissions per person constant since 1980, the annual world-wide bump up in carbon dioxide (CO2) has increased about 50 percent since the turn of the 21st century. This is not progress.
And in the future? About a third of annual emissions now come from the developing countries, soon to be in great need of overnight air conditioning to survive heatwaves. They will then burn their local fossil fuels to generate electricity to run the extra A/C units. But because it’s a global common because of air mixing, the CO2 doesn’t stay local. Just as ours did not. Similarly, a warmer world causes more forest fires, adding to annual emissions, which triggers even more forest fires that raise CO2 further.
The continued framing of climate action as an emissions reduction task (similar to a heavy smoker “cutting back to one pack a day”), with no additional discussion of backing out of the danger zone for extreme weather, will take us straight into “too little, too late” and the massive social consequences of hopelessness. We do not want to go there.
Prevention and treatment often demand different approaches, but that is often not reflected in major international scientific reports about our climate problem. Civic organizations supporting climate action usually uncritically echo them, focusing solely on rallying the troops to “use less.”
Most reason, in effect, “Emissions caused the problem. Reducing them ought to fix it.” However true for smog cleanup in the 1970s, CO2 is not cleaned up by nature as fast as visible air pollution is (a thousand years vs. two weeks). That’s rarely mentioned.
Today, the continuing emphasis on “use less” is like treating a painful tooth solely with reduced candy consumption.
While emissions reduction was the obvious strategy for CO2 fifty years ago, it is a preventative measure (like reducing smoking), not a fix once a disease (like lung cancer) develops.
Things have changed since 1970 but our strategy has not. Let us start asking why.
Are our leaders successfully warning us of imminent danger? The scientific leaders try, but people may compare the +1.5°C warning to the occasional hotter summer or to a mild fever. They opine, “That’s not much. What’s the big deal? Just wait and it will go away.” It’s not like the way that the next good rain cleans up the visible forms of air pollution; nature takes a thousand years to do the cleanup job for excess CO2.
We must do the cleanup ourselves — and the new extreme weather now says it is an emergency, that we must do the cleanup very quickly, complete in several decades at most.
Fifty years of trying to warn people using the creep of small numbers is enough. It is time to lead with other indicators of trouble. I’d suggest leading with the steps up in extreme weather, among the many knock-on effects of uneven global overheating. Those escalation numbers are big. They are recent. Many have felt them; they do not have to imagine a fractionally warmer future.
Current extreme weather threats could crash the economy and leave us too battered to get our act together for effective action. Imagine famine and civil unrest on top of the pandemic’s economic hit. This alone demands a change in strategy. We now need stronger climate medicine in the form of an emergency CO2 cleanup.
The window of opportunity for backing out of the extreme weather danger zone may be as short as the next ten to twenty years. In addition to reducing annual emissions, we need to remove the excess CO2. Because of prototyping and ramp-up, it will take at least eight years to counter current emissions and then get started cooling. We don’t know how fast climate troubles will decline as the CO2 comes down; this makes an immediate start even more urgent.
In the U.S., we worry it will take four years to get our government started on a big climate repair project. That’s four years that we don’t have, not anymore. Replacing reluctant legislators is now too slow; instead, we must help them open their minds.
Yet we also need to get moving on climate repair this year.
There is a possible workaround to climate action’s slow road ahead, one that would provide hope as well — but it likely will not happen in time without a strong expression of what we expect from our federal government.
The CO2 Foundation is reaching out to a few state governors to immediately set up and run a nonprofit design project, where a group of experts work together for a few years to design and prototype a large carbon sink undertaking, one that removes the 50 percent excess of CO2 from circulation. The experts would aim for prototypes and field trials done in only four years, like the Manhattan Project did between 1941 and 1945.
The Governors’ Design Initiative for Climate Repair would utilize a finance committee of a dozen tech billionaires, already familiar with what it takes to complete big design-and-prototype projects quickly. The governors would run the project, likely via hiring an experienced serial entrepreneur or army general to act as general manager.
News about the project would help build momentum for legislative action authorizing mass deployment. Without such a project to provide an expert stamp of approval, legislators may be unlikely to act quickly. The designs would be available to all countries, allowing faster roll-out than any market-driven solution could achieve.
Enough scrubbing capacity to remove the excess CO2 by 2040 is the goal, yet even that would not get cooling started for at least seven years (the ramp-up needs to first counter the continuing emissions, then cooling begins).
A lot can happen in the meantime, such as pandemics that crush the economy, but our situation is not hopeless, as exaggerated headlines are starting to suggest. There are effective actions we can still take to smooth out the future — if we hurry.
William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, and the president of CO2Foundation.org. This is adapted from the preface to his seventeenth book, “Extreme Weather and What to Do About It.”
See also my pandemic pieces: