The last few weeks have demonstrated that we have arrived at the climate change catastrophe long prophesied by climate scientists—a catastrophe that many thought we still had decades to avert.
In the Pacific Northwest high temperatures broke records day after day. In my former home of Portland, Oregon the temperature reached 116 degrees F (47 degrees C). If you look at the average high temperatures in Portland in summer, you’ll see why air-conditioning is not a feature of the average Portland home or apartment. I lived comfortably without it during the four years I was there. Last week Portland seemed as if it had moved to the desert Southwest.
North and south of Portland, the extreme drought in the West continues as wildfires swirl toward another terrible season. Wildfires now dot British Columbia as well as Western Canada suffers from extreme heat. And, drought exacerbated by climate change is occurring on other continents including in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and in Thailand.
We must not forget that one of the other predictions of climate scientists was more frequent and more severe floods resulting from a speeding up of the hydraulic cycle. In my home state of Michigan, seven inches of rain fell in just a few days recently leading to a declaration of a state of emergency as many areas experienced severe flooding.
When I watched renowned climate scientist James Hansen’s (now prophetic) 1988 testimony before the U.S. Senate, I was at the time uncharacteristically hopeful that the world’s governments would do something to prevent what I perceived as a very, very dangerous threat to human civilization. Surely, the world’s elite would now act with haste before it was too late, I thought. (For a brief review of Hansen’s eerily accurate forecasts 30 years after his testimony, check out this video.)
Now we know that Hansen’s testimony and his later work—despite their increasingly validated (and dire) conclusions—did nothing to stop or even slow climate change. That’s not James Hansen’s fault, of course. Nor is it the fault of the tens of thousands of other climate scientists who have built what must now be the most heavily researched and validated argument in scientific history, namely, that the Earth is warming, that the consequences will be severe, and that human activity is the primary cause.
So, now that it should seem completely obvious that climate change is not a problem for the distant future nor is it something that will be a small problem, what will governments, corporations and individuals do? On current form, they will continue with business as usual.
Carbon emissions rebounded sharply after the drop due to the pandemic. By December 2020 they were already 2 percent higher than emissions for December 2019 BEFORE the pandemic began. In May this year atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, hit their highest level since measurements started 63 years ago. This is despite the deep slowdown in the world economy due to the pandemic. Greenhouse gas emissions may have slowed during 2020, but they did not stop which means the absolute amounts in the atmosphere keep going up.
Even if human societies were to act decisively now, there is another very serious built-in obstacle to progress. It’s called climate lag. There is a significant lag between the time carbon emissions go into the atmosphere and the warming they create shows up. This is complicated, but it has in part to do with the amount of heat the oceans absorb. It takes much longer to heat up water than air.
In this case it can take between 25 and 50 years. It we take the midpoint between the two, 37.5 years, we can estimate that the warming we are feeling today is the result of emissions dumped into the atmosphere through the end of 1983. That means if we were to end all greenhouse gas emissions today, we’d be in for another 37.5 years of warming.
What that tells us is that any actions taken today to curb climate change will seem ineffectual no matter how stringent they are. And, it will be hard to sustain public support for expensive and difficult reductions in greenhouse gases when success will only be visible decades later.
This also implies that no matter what we do, the consequences of climate change will become dramatically worse. Try to imagine what is happening right now in the American West and British Columbia getting dramatically worse in the next two decades. Try to imagine areas which seem “safe” now burning on the evening news. Or worse yet, image that none of this will make the evening news since it will have become an accepted part of daily life. That is where we are headed, and the fact that what we are seeing may already be an accepted part of daily life is what really troubles me.
Photo: A dry riverbed in California (2009). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:California_Drought_Dry_Riverbed_2009.jpg