I am going to try to untangle the numbers that climate scientists and journalists throw around a bit, the very numbers that confused the heck out of me when I started to look seriously at climate change, and confuse many folks still.
First, let's start with all this 1C, 1.5C and 2C warming. What exactly does that all mean? That means, if you average together all the temperatures around the surface of the globe before 1880, and you compare them to the average global temperatures between 2006 and today, they are warmer today. Depending on which years you choose (2000-2010, 2005-2015, 2006-2016), our current warming is about 1C or 1.8F. (This should not be confused with the more terrifying numbers of the warming we have seen when we average only January through July of 2016. Those amount to 1.38C warming. This is, we hope, a particularly high number because El Nino is taking extra stored heat out of the ocean and bringing it to the surface right now. Keep in mind that even in that context, 1.38C is extremely high and should alarm everyone.)
In Paris, in December, almost 200 nations agreed that we need to limit warming to under 2C and as close to 1.5C as possible. Why? Well, the scientists are pretty clear that beyond 1.5C warming means utter disruption and severe devastation. Island nations disappear, coral reef ecosystems cease to be (and the food that they provide for millions of people), extreme weather intensifies, water supplies disappear for many people, food crop yields drop. We begin to see impacts that will themselves certainly bring greater warming (called a positive feedback).
|IPCC's projections of damage at varying levels of warming|
That warming is the result of the greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere up until about 40 years ago. Keep in mind that greenhouse gases do not make heat. They trap it like a blanket. When you are cold in the winter, and you put a blanket on, it takes a while for the heat you are producing to build up, trapped by the blanket, to make you feel warm. The same is true with global warming, except the heat source is the sun. We are on a delay and will continue to warm even if we stop burning fossil fuels today. Stop completely. We will still warm for another 40 years. We have "locked in" at least 1.5C warming (2.7F).
That makes it sound like we need to stop burning fossil fuels today. Like, why am I typing this out on a computer if it is this urgent, today? Even James Hansen, who arguably understands the urgency as well as anyone on the planet, is using fossil fuels. Why do people who get the urgency keep saying, we have to cut emissions to zero by 2050? Why not by tomorrow?
Well, here is where the sociopolitical realities meet the physical realities. The latter is immutable. The former? Only stubbornly slowly mutable.
No one is going to turn off the energy. This isn't some demonstration of humanity's evil side. Our technologies are things we rightly think should be accessible to the poor, who do not yet have it. We don't see energy as an evil luxury of wealthy nations that the poorest are noble to go without. Just consider hospitals and refrigeration alone. These are not evil things. And no politician is willing to tell a populace that they must go without them. I would say, understandably. Just the simplest example: we travel to our jobs, where we earn money to care for our children, those same children we are endangering with warming.
The very values that would make us cut emissions are often the very values that drive us to continue to use fossil fuels.
Here is the beautiful thing: we could continue to use energy without causing warming. Everyone should, at this point, agree that is what we need to do. Continue to refrigerate, heat, cool, drive, but without carbon emissions.
We have the technology to decarbonize our energy systems. The tools we have available for electricity are solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear. Transport, home heating and cooling, and much of our industry can convert to electricity. Agriculture can be done in a way that minimizes fertilizers and reduces meat consumption. Almost all industry can be carbon free. (There are some exceptions, and R&D into things like cement, a source of high carbon emissions, are essential).
We have the technology and means to cut almost to zero emissions now without halting all modern civilization.
Turning off technology is not an answer anyone can or will choose. But decarbonization is.
BUT here is the thorny part. We can't just turn off gas, oil and coal tonight and wake tomorrow and turn on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and nuclear. We can't just park our internal combustion engine cars tonight and drive off in EVs tomorrow.
It takes time and money to build the infrastructure. That's right. This is basically a question of time and money.
People say we must ban fracking. I am all for ending fracking. But to do that, we have to have something to replace it. Solar and wind are excellent. But they require sufficient storage and transmission. (If those are not sufficient, then, when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, we use gas, which can be turned on and off easily, called "dispatchable.") Thankfully, Clinton has plans to build up our electrical grid and our energy storage, which will, in fact, permit us to end gas use as a necessary complement to renewables. But that takes time.
People say we must ban coal. Coal produces more emissions than any other fossil fuel. So it is rightly the first to go. Because we don't have the infrastructure for transmission and storage to complement renewables built yet, when coal plants are shut down, they are often converted into gas plants. The option? No energy for the very families we are trying to protect from the ravages of climate change. So gas comes online as we end coal. Because gas has lower emissions, we have seen it as a step forward, albeit one rife with problems, not the least of which is fugitive methane. (Keep in mind, this has been primarily driven by market, simply because gas is so cheap, coal couldn't compete).
People say we must ban nuclear. This makes no sense to me. Nuclear energy produces nearly zero carbon emissions. Keeping our current plants running gives us one less source of energy likely to end up replaced by gas.
People say we must build solar and wind. Absolutely. ABSOLUTELY. But these are intermittent. Alone, they leave people in the dark if the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining. So as we push for renewables, we must also push for a national grid that can move the energy from where the sun shines or wind blows to where it does not, and we must also push for storage like batteries and pumped hydro to keep from when the sun and wind are productive to when they are not.
And we must push for the infrastructure necessary for transport. Charging stations for electric vehicles, for example.
This all takes time and money.
So here is the bottom line. We are not going to avoid 1.5C. We won't. We likely won't avoid 2C. (Heck, discussion of staying under 2C was all but given up a few years ago, before Paris gave us newfound hope). When the nations met in Paris in December, they each pledged to make changes that will allow us to avoid the 4C we are headed toward, and come in around 3C. They agreed they would work to pledge more each five years, to "ratchet up" efforts. Our ultimate warming is a moving target.
And THAT is what we need to take away. Our ultimate warming is a moving target. Our job is to get it to move as low as possible by building the infrastructure we need today.
We are now, finally, talking about building the very infrastructure we need to begin decarbonizing. (Hillary Clinton's plans incorporate many of these measures). We must continue to push for that infrastructure: grid, storage, solar, wind, nuclear, EVs, efficiency, and, yes, lifestyle changes. But we cannot stop to call our desire to raise our children with modern technology evil. We must continue to value our children's welfare by working as quickly as we can toward cutting emissions. At this moment, that simply means taking the first steps, and knowing we will be urging more after those first steps are taken. And accept that we are chasing a moving target.
Infrastructure changes like those that Clinton is proposing will help move that target in the right direction. And legislative actions like a price on carbon, brought by a progressive voting bloc in Congress, will help speed its movement in that right direction.
Your vote this November may be the single most important action you can take on climate change. Not because we have no time left, but because we have this time left.