The International Atomic Energy Agency released its annual report on November 12, the World Energy Outlook, in which it made a historic statement: “No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.” Two degrees Celsius is the recognized threshold to average global warming in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is compelling: among other things, rising sea levels, climbing temperatures, ocean acidification, warming oceans, declining ice sheets and melting glaciers. The evidence is so compelling, in fact, that it has become the consensus among climate scientists (97 percent of climate scientists) that climate change is occurring and, more importantly, that the change is anthropogenic (human-caused). Yet, Republicans have made rejection of climate science a litmus test, slandering the peer review process, funding for scientific research and scientific institutions, and even the scientists themselves. While Democrats sometimes mangle climate science, there is nothing on the Left (or in professional science) remotely equivalent to the Right’s outright rejection of scientific fact. It has become an article of faith on the Right that the overwhelming evidence for climate change is part of a grand conspiracy, a devious hoax perpetrated by scientists who seek to destroy “traditional” America.
Climate change was completely ignored during the 2012 presidential election. And at times, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney seemed as if they were competing for the Fossil Fuel Man of the Year award. But even if neither of the candidates (or the media, for that matter) wished to debate climate change, Mother Nature, in the form of Hurricane Sandy, forced it into the public conversation. “The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast – in lost lives, lost homes and lost business – brought the stakes of next Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief,” wrote New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it may be – given the devastation it is wreaking – should be enough to compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
In his victory speech, President Obama mentioned wanting our children to live in an America “that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” This position, it should be noted, is far better than Mr. Romney’s, who argued, “We don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.” But it is not enough to simply acknowledge climate change. Something has to be done about it, and the Obama Administration must shed its fear of taking on vested interests.
As Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, noted in an article in Rolling Stone, “to grasp the seriousness of our predicament, you just need to do a little math.” According to McKibben, three simple numbers illustrate the severity of climate change: 2, 565 and 2,795. And if we are serious about addressing climate change, they should shock us into action.
The first number, 2, stands for 2 degrees Celsius. In 2009, world leaders signed the “Copenhagen Accord” which agreed with “the scientific view that the increase in global temperature should be below two degrees Celsius.” In other words, 2 degrees Celsius is the threshold which climate scientists consider tolerable planetary warming. Thus far, the average temperature of the planet has risen just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, causing far more damage than most scientists expected. Given these changes, McKibben notes, many scientists have come to disagree with the 2 degree Celsius target and argue, like Kerry Emanuel of MIT, that “[a]ny number much above one degree involves a gamble.”
The second two numbers, however, are the numbers worth worrying about. The former (565) is an upper boundary: “Scientists estimate that humans can pour 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees [Celsius].” The latter is a number derived by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which calculated “the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies,” and the oil-producing countries that follow their example. “In short,” McKibben writes, “it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.” The number the Carbon Tracker Initiative came up with was 2,795 gigatons – five times higher than the 565 gigaton limit.
A recent report by the World Bank, entitled “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided,” highlights the devastating impact of a world hotter by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Under current policy such warming is likely to occur, particularly if countries fail to comply with the pledges they have made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But even with full compliance, the world will warm by more than 3 degrees by 2100. According to the report, this hotter climate would cause, among other things: a three foot rise in sea levels (flooding major cities like Vietnam and Bangladesh); water scarcity and falling crop yields (exacerbating hunger and poverty); devastating heat waves (July in the Mediterranean, for example, could be 9 degrees hotter, akin to temperatures in the Libyan desert); and an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
The impact of climate change, however, will go beyond mass extinctions and changing weather. On November 9, the National Research Council (NRC), on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency, published a report assessing the impacts of climate change on social and political stresses outside the United States, and on climate-driven security risks. The NRC’s report concluded that catastrophic climate change will likely cause destabilizing domestic political and social conditions, challenge the institutions of global governance, and stir unpredictable shifts in the global balance of power. As such, climate change represents a clear concern for U.S. national security.
But while the NRC’s report acknowledged that heading off the threat posed by climate change will require significant adaptation, it painted a grim portrait of our political will to change:
In principle the thermal impulse could be mitigated to a degree that would presumably preserve the current operating conditions of human societies, but the global effort required to do that is not being undertaken and cannot be presumed. As a practical matter, that means significant burdens of adaptation will be imposed on all societies and that unusually severe climate perturbations will be encountered in some parts of the world over the next decade with an increasing frequency and severity thereafter. There is compelling reason to presume that specific failures of adaptation will occur with consequences more severe than any yet experienced, severe enough to compel more extensive international engagement than has yet been anticipated or organized.
The American public will get a glimpse at Mr. Obama’s (second term) approach to climate change in two early test cases: (1) the Wind Tax Credit; and (2) the Keystone XL pipeline. These two cases will provide a window into whether or not our government is willing to confront vested interests and take the necessary steps toward healing our planet.
The first test case concerns the Wind Tax Credit, which is set to expire on December 31 of this year. While the tax credit, worth 2.2 cents per 1,000 watts of wind energy, appears to have bipartisan support, some House Republicans have said the nation cannot afford to extend the credit amid a budget deficit. And Big Oil, an industry that receives century-old annual tax breaks despite posting record profits, has lobbied Congress intensively to permit the credits to expire. “Big Wind has had extension after extension after extension,” Benjamin Cole, a spokesman for the oil-industry funded American Energy Alliance, told the New York Times. “The government shouldn’t be continuing to prop up industries that never seem to be able to get off their training wheels.” Without the tax credit, however, the American wind industry would be devastated, and thousands of people would lose their jobs. The wind industry employs roughly 75,000 Americans across the country. Failing to extend the Wind Tax Credit could result in up to 37,000 job losses in the coming year.
The second test case concerns the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline; specifically, whether or not Mr. Obama will approve the project. At the outset, it must be noted that the Keystone XL proposal has nothing to do with boosting domestic energy production. The pipeline will carry oil sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Gulf Coast, after which the oil will be pumped onto oil tankers and shipped to international markets. While some of the oil may very well make it back to the domestic market, the intention of TransCanada is to pump the oil through the U.S., not to the U.S. In addition, claims of job creation have been grossly exaggerated. TransCanada has said that the pipeline will create 20,000 jobs, but that figure is 67 times higher than estimation given by the company to Canadian officials. Independent estimates on job creation range from 50 permanent jobs to 2,500 temporary jobs.
Of greater concern for the climate, however, is that the Canadian tar sands industry has enough projects (existing and planned) to blow well past the 2 degrees Celsius goal, discussed above. As the New York Times notes, tar sands are “game over”: “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.” The Keystone XL project is a minor cog in Canada’s tar sands operation, but facilitating its progress would be disastrous for climate change.
Democratic lawmakers have called on the Republican House leadership to hold hearings on the “critically important issue” of climate change. It is not clear whether or not these hearings will occur. But even if Congress does nothing, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are running out of time. “While our public policy makers equivocate and avoid the topic of climate change,” said Unity College president Stephen Mulkey, “the window of opportunity for salvaging a livable planet for our children and grandchildren is rapidly closing.” To save our planet, we must act. And we must act now. The stakes could not be any higher.