The world’s leading authority on climate breakdown issued its most serious warning yet to world leaders last week. UN Secretary-General António Guterres calls the report of the International Panel on Climate Change “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failing climate leadership”, as people around the world “get crushed by climate change”.
The report follows a trio of sobering new studies in recent weeks projecting accelerating sea level rise, a burgeoning global wildfire crisis and vastly underestimated emissions of methane, a gas shorter-lived but much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
But the IPCC report also reveals a narrow window of opportunity to stop the chaos and offers specific strategies to deal with some of the worst effects. At the same time, scientists offer a glimmer of hope that it is still possible to stop the “train” of global warming in its tracks.
Next Avenue asked famed climatologist Michael Mann to be the harbinger of good news, for change. Mann, 54 (he calls himself “the end of Generation X”) directs the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State University and is a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.
““We still face this monumental effort by vested interests to muddy the public discourse on the climate crisis, ultimately preventing us from making the changes needed.””
He is credited with propelling the climate into the public eye with his legendary “hockey stick curve”, a graphic illustration of global warming since medieval times. It was grabbed by Al Gore for the memorable stepladder scene in his 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Mann recently co-wrote a perspective piece for the Washington Post, in which he says we could stop the process of global warming in more than three to five years and why the hope inspired by this knowledge is an essential first step for keep global warming to 1.5. degrees C (2.7 degrees F), the ceiling to avoid the most serious consequences. The Earth has already warmed by 1.1°C since the pre-industrial era.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The latest studies on climate change
Next Avenue: What road are we on right now with our overheated planet?
Man: We are anywhere between 3 and 5 degrees Celsius – like 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit – global warming, twice as much in the Arctic due to the amplifying effects of melting. So, you know, in business as usual, we’re heading into what can reasonably be described as a disaster.
Play it a bit.
Three degrees Celsius – 5 degrees Fahrenheit – is a world, first of all, where CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels are so high that we will see destruction of the world’s coral reef systems by a combination of bleaching corals and ocean acidification. We will see far more damaging extreme weather events. We are committing not to feet, but to meters of sea level rise, enough to flood major cities and coastal regions of the world. The exact rate at which this would happen is subject to uncertainty due to the uncertainty of ice sheet dynamics, how fast do the ice sheets collapse once you warm up.
And yet you say there is good news, which is surprising. For more than a decade, we in the media have dutifully reported that even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions, the planet would continue to warm for decades. Now you’re telling us we can stop warming abruptly if we stop warming emissions?
There is warming in the pipeline, but it is offset by something else. What we do is put carbon into the atmosphere, and the Earth system itself determines what happens to that carbon. We know that about half don’t stay in the atmosphere; it is absorbed by the oceans and by the plants, in what we call the terrestrial biosphere.
Now we have to turn it off. We need to get those carbon emissions down to zero. And if you do the math, we have to get them down to zero by mid-century. Once we reach zero emissions in 2050, there will be no more warming. And it took a few decades for this aspect of science to mature.
[Editor’s Note: Stopping the warming is different from stopping all of its effects, some of which, like melting glaciers and rising sea levels, are likely to continue for decades, regardless.]
““We give massive subsidies to fossil fuels and we don’t give the same kind of subsidies to renewables.””
You say the science to support this reversal has been evolving for some time. Why is it important to disseminate this information now?
I think there’s so much pessimism right now, and I think some of it is probably made worse by the health crisis we’re going through. We feel like we’ve lived through this dystopia and everything is collapsing on us. And I think there’s a tendency for a kind of climate desperation to be kind of lumped together with this general feeling of desperation.
But misfortune and despair in general do not lead to commitment. This leads to disengagement. Interestingly, in the latest studies, just anger Is lead to commitment. You look at the youth climate movement, you look at Greta Thunberg. There is anger right there and it is very mobilizing.
Continued: High methane emissions from the oil and gas sector are 70% higher than official reports : IEA
We’ve read a lot about the things we can do in our own lives to reduce emissions, but you warn that this could be a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. How? ‘Or’ What?
Individual action cannot be the solution to the problem. We need systemic change. We need policies that collectively move us all in the right direction. Not just people who are environmentally conscious or concerned about the climate crisis, but we want everyone to make climate-friendly choices.
And the way we do it is through market signals [e.g.] encourage clean energy. It shouldn’t cost you more to get your electricity from sources that don’t harm the planet. We give massive subsidies to fossil fuels and we don’t give the same kind of subsidies to renewables.
It’s the over-emphasis, this overwhelming tendency to talk about plastic straws and hamburgers (encouraging animal husbandry) and not traveling and not having children. This plays into an industry tactic, an old playbook that has been used by [Big] Tobacco, by the gun lobby, by the beverage industry: the whole idea of diversion.
Read: Offshore wind farms could help capture carbon dioxide from the air to fight climate change
Individual action is part of it. We should do all those things, right? I mean, why do not save us money, improve our health, set a good example for others? We feel better about ourselves, but we must recognize that only individuals like us who choose to engage in climate-friendly actions alone will not deliver the reductions we need. So there is this very delicate balance.
Two of the five books you’ve written have called climate policy a “war,” including your latest, “The New Climate War.” Corn polls show that most people now recognize climate threats and support reducing emissions. So where is the front in this war?
We are still faced with this monumental effort of vested interests to muddy the public discourse on the climate crisis, ultimately preventing us from making the changes needed if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming.
So to the extent that there are bad actors intentionally blocking this effort to address the greatest challenge we face as a civilization, to me, yes, it’s a war on climate action. I do not use this formulation lightly. But my belief is that you have to call the bad actors. And as I say in “The New Climate War,” the easiest way to lose a war is to refuse to acknowledge that you are part of it.
To verify: Living with climate change
Considering all of this, would you call yourself a climate optimist?
It is a monumental challenge. We must reduce carbon emissions by 50% in this decade and bring them to zero by the middle of the century. can we do this? Yeah. We are not lacking in technology. And this is where I fault some, like Bill Gates, for communicating this notion that we need new technologies to do this.
You gotta keep fighting the good fight, knowing you might lose, and I don’t deny that we might lose. If there isn’t even a 50% chance of success, we keep fighting, knowing with 100% certainty that we will fail if we don’t.
To see: UN to move forward with first legally binding treaty to reduce plastic waste
I can say in good faith that the science indicates that there is still hope to avoid the worst impacts. And because of that, it would be so tragic if we were to fall into unhappiness and despair just when we need action the most.
You can read the full report IPCC Working Group II, which addresses impacts, vulnerabilities and potential strategies to adapt to changes already underway.
Craig Miller’s career in broadcasting and journalism spans over 40 years, although since 2008 he has focused on monitoring climate science and policy. Miller launched and edited the award-winning multimedia initiative Climate Watch for KQED in San Francisco, where he remained science editor until August 2019. Prior to KQED, he spent two decades as a television journalist and documentary producer in the big market stations like as well as CNN and MSNBC. When he’s not working, his favorite place is in his kayak on a scenic river or mountain lake.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
More from Next Avenue: