Doom and hope

It’s been difficult to think about climate change during this time of deeply counterproductive practices and policies. Then the IPCC’s latest report came out.

The impacts and costs of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) of global warming will be far greater than expected, according to a comprehensive assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released Sunday in Incheon, South Korea.


The past decade has seen an astonishing run of record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods around the world with just 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1.0 degrees Celsius) of global warming. But much of this will get substantially worse with 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming, and far worse at 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), according to the IPCC’s “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C”, released Sunday and examining more than 6,000 studies.


The IPCC also reported that 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit could be reached in as little as 11 years—and almost certainly within 20 years without major cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Even if such cuts were to begin immediately it would only delay, not prevent, 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming.

This seemed to turn everyone’s anxiety knobs to 11. And then came word that the report appears to soft pedal the problem. Key climate scientists said that the IPCC report has serious omissions that result in an overly optimistic picture.

A number of scientists contend that the report wasn’t strong enough and that it downplayed the full extent of the real threat. They say it doesn’t account for all of the warming that has already occurred and that it downplays the economic costs of severe storms and displacement of epeople through drought and deadly heat waves.


The world has a smaller carbon budget—the amount of fossil fuels that can be consumed before a critical tipping point is reached—than the report states, said Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University in Philadelphia.

Avoiding despair is now the first order of business. The invaluable Rebecca Solnit has some thoughts on the subject.

The histories of change that have made me hopeful are often about small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition. Whether they were taking on slavery in antebellum USA or human rights in the Soviet bloc, these movements grew exponentially and changed consciousness and then toppled institutions or regimes. We also don’t know what technological breakthroughs, large-scale social changes, or catastrophic ecological feedback loops will shape the next 20 years. Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.

That kind of grassroots activism will be key to rescuing our government and laying the groundwork for sane economic, energy and environmental policy. As historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway point out, government is crucial to the sweeping transformation we need to make.

Demand for new technologies is rarely entirely spontaneous. If people have been living without something, it’s not always obvious to them why they now need it. They are likely to resist being told that they must spend money or endure inconvenience to change. In most cases, demand has to be developed and nurtured. A case for change has to be made, supported by public policy.

Here’s the goal line that we need to keep our sights set on, as detailed by Vox’s David Roberts: What genuine, no-bullshit ambition on climate change would look like: How to hit the most stringent targets, with no loopholes.