Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change

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Media Type: Article - Recent

Date of Publication: August 1, 2018

Year of Publication: 2018

Author(s): Nathaniel Rich

Newspaper: The New York Times Magazine

Categories: , ,

The world has warmed more than one degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. The Paris climate agreement — the nonbinding, unenforceable and already unheeded treaty signed on Earth Day in 2016 — hoped to restrict warming to two degrees. The odds of succeeding, according to a recent study based on current emissions trends, are one in 20. If by some miracle we are able to limit warming to two degrees, we will only have to negotiate the extinction of the world’s tropical reefs, sea-level rise of several meters and the abandonment of the Persian Gulf. The climate scientist James Hansen has called two-degree warming “a prescription for long-term disaster.” Long-term disaster is now the best-case scenario. Three-degree warming is a prescription for short-term disaster: forests in the Arctic and the loss of most coastal cities. Robert Watson, a former director of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has argued that three-degree warming is the realistic minimum. Four degrees: Europe in permanent drought; vast areas of China, India and Bangladesh claimed by desert; Polynesia swallowed by the sea; the Colorado River thinned to a trickle; the American Southwest largely uninhabitable. The prospect of a five-degree warming has prompted some of the world’s leading climate scientists to warn of the end of human civilization.

Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?

Because in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions — far closer than we’ve come since. During those years, the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.

Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect” — a metaphor dating to the early 1900s — was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

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  • Greeley Miklashek

    And, of course, no mention of the central, crucial contribution of human overpopulation-230,000 new humans daily, with 29,000,000 homeless migrants already and 1,000,000,000 going to bed hungry. This article is a bit dated, as WAPO published an article on numerous large areas of the US already ABOVE 2dgeC (3.6degF) with a lovely printable map and a color coded reference. We need to wake the hell up, but I’m as pessimistic as most knowledgeable climate scientists at this point that we have irreversibly doomed ourselves already. Want to see which areas are already heating most rapidly? Just check the map. It has a county by county locator.

    The only possibility of redemption can be through a worldwide movement for voluntary reduced reproduction and willing reduced consumption. Do you see anyone you know making this unselfish commitment? Read BirthStrike online. There are a few brave souls leading the way, but the 3rd world, especially in Catholic Central America and Muslim Africa, is still consciously producing unwanted children for the sole purpose of exporting them to wealthy countries in order to have them obliged to send money home. They are the investment portfolios of the 3rd world.

    Anyone optimistic about our species’ future on this finite already stressed and dying planet is just not paying attention. Stress R Us