A new IPCC report predicts a dire future climate if we don’t make big changes. Trump doubts, but the administration says we’re toast. Will we turn or burn?
Last week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued yet another dire climate warning on top of a tall pile of climate warnings that have come out since the 1980s. The new IPCC report, 700 pages written by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies, paints a bleak picture indeed. We’re already experiencing climate change, of course, but the UN scientists warn that the world will be terrifyingly different as soon as 2040 unless we change our ways, and fast. Not “changes” in the sense of expensive new light bulbs, canvas shopping totes and Meatless Mondays, but revolutionary, global change on par with (or greater than) the effort it took to win World War II.
The Paris climate agreement drew a (voluntary, non-binding) line in the (increasingly desertifying) sand at a 2°C rise above pre-industrial levels, which translates to 3.6°F for Americans, if any of them are still reading along. Such a small increase in the global average temperature sounds insignificant, but the effects are not. Beyond that, climate scientists predicted a world more hostile to human life, with rising seas, more weather disasters, and frequent crop failures, creating refugees and causing social unrest.
Staying below 2°C to meet the Paris goal was already a daunting prospect, especially considering we’ve already hit 1°C. We’d have to cut carbon emissions in half every decade over the decade before. We’d have to scale up existing carbon sequestration efforts and invent new ones. Overhauling land use and the economy to that degree would face technical, social, corporate, and governmental obstacles, and that was before President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement.
The new IPCC report kicks it up a notch, predicting catastrophic outcomes at a mere 1.5°C rise, a number that may already be baked in to our collective cake. Individual changes won’t do; collective action on an unprecedented scale is necessary, simply to salvage a minimally livable ecosphere from the jaws of a “genocidal level of warming.” Food shortages. Permanent drought. Wildfires. Devastating storms. Desertification. All by 2040, easily within the lifetime of many people alive right now.
In public, President Trump shrugged off the IPCC report. “It was given to me, and I want to look at who drew, you know, which group drew it,” he said. However, buried in a 500-page environmental impact statement issued in August by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (to justify tossing out Obama-era fuel efficiency standards) was a startling assumption: the Trump administration already expects the global average temperature to rise 7°F (about 4°C) by the end of the century. Since they believe this deadly rise is inevitable, why not lay back and enjoy it?
To be fair, the changes called for in the IPCC report are hard to swallow. For one thing, we’d have to bid adieu to economic growth, and who is going to be the first country or corporation to step up and voluntarily commit economic suicide? Population times consumption is the driver of growth, and stopping or slowing either of the two is anathema on a planet where religion and capitalism are in control. (Permanent growth on a finite planet is also impossible, though, so either way, we’re due for a crash at some point. The only difference is if it will be on our terms, or in crisis mode later.) Low-tech ways to feed people and sequester carbon exist, but even if everyone adopted agroforestry practices and silvopastoralism, would it be enough? Or would we have to invent sci-fi levels of technology that may or may not be physically possible? And make no mistake, in a world with rising inequality and blunt-force nationalism, not everyone will be on board.
So, who are we going to believe, the dire yet magically hopeful revolutionary vision of the IPCC report, or the Trump administration’s coal-rolling view of the future? Based upon the blinkered disbelief with which we’ve largely ignored every other climate warning that came down the pike in the last forty years, I hate to say it, but Trump’s probably right on this one. The corporations are going to win.
Please prove me wrong.
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