We meant well

Bill McKibben in the NYRB a couple of years ago:

Because humans have fundamentally altered the physical workings of planet Earth, this is going to be a century of crises, many of them more dangerous than what we’re living through now. The main question is whether we’ll be able to hold the rise in temperature to a point where we can, at great expense and suffering, deal with those crises coherently, or whether they will overwhelm the coping abilities of our civilization. The latter is a distinct possibility, as Mark Lynas’s new book, Our Final Warning, makes painfully clear.

A survey of the damage done at one degree is impressive and unsettling, especially since in almost every case it exceeds what scientists would have predicted thirty years ago. (Scientists, it turns out, are by nature cautious.) Lynas offers a planetary tour of the current carnage, ranging from Greenland (where melt rates are already at the level once predicted for 2070); to the world’s forests (across the planet, fire season has increased in duration by a fifth); to urban areas in Asia and the Middle East, which in the last few summers have seen the highest reliably recorded temperatures on Earth, approaching 54 degrees Celsius, or 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a one-degree world that has seen a girdle of bleached coral across the tropics—a 90 percent collapse in reproductive success along the Great Barrier Reef, the planet’s largest living structure—and the appalling scenes from Australia in December, as thousands of people waded into the ocean at resort towns to escape the firestorms barreling down from the hills.

And that was a couple of years ago. It’s worse now.

At two degrees’ elevated temperature, “scientists are now confident” that we will see an Arctic Ocean free of ice in the summer—when already the loss of ice in the North has dramatically altered weather systems, apparently weakening the jet stream and stalling weather patterns in North America and elsewhere. A two-degree rise in temperature could see 40 percent of the permafrost region melt away, which in turn would release massive amounts of methane and carbon, which would whisk us nearer to three degrees. But we’re getting ahead of the story. Two degrees likely also initiates the “irreversible loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet.” Even modest estimates of the resulting sea-level rise project that 79 million people will be displaced, and protecting vulnerable cities and towns just along the Eastern Seaboard of the US behind dikes and walls will cost as much as $1 million per person. 

At four degrees, of course, it gets much worse again.

Depending on the study, the risk of “very large fires” in the western US rises between 100 and 600 percent; the risk of flooding in India rises twenty-fold. Right now the risk that the biggest grain-growing regions will have simultaneous crop failures due to drought is “virtually zero,” but at four degrees “this probability rises to 86%.” Vast “marine heatwaves” will scour the oceans: “One study projects that in a four-degree world sea temperatures will be above the thermal tolerance threshold of 100% of species in many tropical marine ecoregions.” The extinctions on land and sea will certainly be the worst since the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, when an asteroid helped bring the age of the dinosaurs to an end. “The difference,” Lynas notes, “is that this time the ‘meteor’ was visible decades in advance, but we simply turned away as it loomed ever larger in the sky.”

Don’t Look Up.

What Lynas’s book should perhaps have made slightly more explicit is how little margin we have to accomplish these tasks. In a coda, he writes valiantly, “It is not too late, and in fact it never will be too late. Just as 1.5°C is better than 2°C, so 2°C is better than 2.5°C, 3°C is better than 3.5°C and so on. We should never give up.” This is inarguable, at least emotionally. It’s just that, as the studies he cites makes clear, if we go to two degrees, that will cause feedbacks that take us automatically higher. At a certain point, it will be too late.

The cruise ship season has begun here. 80 thousand gallons a day.

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