We’re not denialists, but please no gloom and doom

I was talking earlier today with a colleague who runs a masters degree on Climate Change Management. Their enrollments have fallen. She attributes this to a “change in the discourse on climate change”, which has rendered the very term a downer, to be avoided (she and her colleagues had thought the degree’s name was pretty upbeat, because “management” suggested… hey, it’s a problem, but we can manage it: not enough, it seems). She contrasted the public attention to the Copenhagen meetings a few years ago, to the relative silence on Paris today. And this of course comes in the midst of an increasingly clear picture of the disaster we’re walking into. If your attention has been elsewhere of late, consider these tidbits:

Kevin Anderson tells us that all the IPCC scenarios that offer at least a 50% chance of staying below 2 degrees depend either on negative emissions technologies that don’t exist yet, or on emissions peaking by 2010 (hint: that didn’t happen). It’s a short and readable piece in Nature Geoscience.

That commentary by Anderson is just the latest salvo from the team of Anderson and his Manchester University colleague Alice Bows-Larkin, who keep pointing out that if we want to stabilize the climate without requiring that the developing world stays poor (a requirement that is, surely, a deal-breaker for the developing world, and a broken deal would mean no stabilization), then the rich countries need to de-carbonize, pronto. A nice talk by Anderson on this point can be found here. He manages an up-beat ending about the ample low-hanging decarbonization fruit available because, hey, he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy, and he knows well that people turn away from gloom and doom. The point though is that without the widespread application of technologies we don’t have yet, the decarbonization rates he’s talking about would require some very rapid shifts in how we consume, and so far we haven’t really progressed in that direction at all.

And what’s the matter with exceeding 2 degrees? There are many answers to that, but here’s the latest: the map above is from Solomon Hsiang (Berkeley), Marshall Burke (Stanford), and Edward Miguel (Berkeley), who have just published, in Nature, projections of the economic impact in 2100 of temperature changes under a business-as-usual emissions scenario (which is basically the scenario we’ve kept following for the quarter century since the science of global warming started to give us a reasonably clear picture of the future: it’s what we’ve done, it’s what Volkswagen and the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson want us to continue doing, and it’s what we will continue to do if we can’t deal with a little gloom and doom – quite likely, then). Since the poorest countries tend to be the hottest already and to use more manual labor, they’ve got less margin to adjust to rising temperature, and their GDPs are projected to fall between 40 and 75% by 2100. It’s not just the poorest, though: countries like the US, Spain, China, Japan and Australia also get hit pretty hard under this scenario (only northern Europe, Russia and Canada come out ahead). Much of the loss is due to falling agricultural output. Such numbers imply mass starvation, mass migration, and wars over access to scarce resources – those aren’t in the model, but they can only make things worse than what the model shows on its own. Now, of course, this study may be wrong – maybe unduly optimistic, maybe unduly pessimistic. If we want to bet your grandchildren’s future on the proposition that it’s unduly pessimistic, we can ignore the gloom and doom.

Finally, if you can’t deal with this big picture gloom and doom, shift to a smaller frame and consider this story by the blogger Tamino, about how rising tides are creeping up on Boston. It’s a little wonkish, statistically, but the graphs are pretty clear on their own so you can skip over the technical bits of his discussion.

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