Moderate climate “solutions” can’t prevent the worst effects of climate change

By Greg Findley


It’s 2021 and climate change is no longer in the future: Germany, China, and parts of the US are experiencing unprecedented flooding; a town in British Columbia recently set a freakishly high all time Canadian heat record, then burned to the ground; a series of “heat domes” have broken temperature records across the US West and contributed to the Southwest’s worst drought in 1,200 years; Siberia is on fire; and smoke from forest fires in the western US has blanketed the country and made distant New York City’s air among the unhealthiest in the world.

According to the World Meteorological Society, the “record-breaking heatwave in parts of the US and Canada at the end of June would have been virtually impossible without the influence of human-caused climate change.” This summer’s floods, fires, and droughts all have been made more extreme by anthropogenic global warming. Climate change is here now.

Yet climate change remains a controversial topic in America. The news media has been reluctant to mention climate change in its weather disaster coverage. For many, especially in rural parts of the country, just hearing that phrase ends conversation. For others, proposed climate actions sound too radical. Many environmental, health care reform, and social justice advocates have learned from experience that the way to achieve lasting change is by going slow, trying not to alienate opponents while gradually making incremental changes that eventually will add up to real solutions. They urge this moderate and steady approach to addressing climate change, too.

But climate change is not like the social or environmental issues we have confronted before, where incremental change makes things somewhat better, and where, although not ideal, solutions can be achieved in 10, 20, 50, or even 100 years. Justice achieved 100 years from now is still justice, even though many will have suffered along the way. A polluted stream can still potentially be restored in the future, even though pollution will have harmed many plants and animals over the years it was polluted. 

Climate change is different. Moderate climate solutions don’t reduce climate disasters, they can’t return the climate to a more stable state, and they don’t even stop the planet from continued warming. Moderate plans to incrementally reduce emissions still allow more greenhouse gases to accumulate in the atmosphere.  Every ton of carbon dioxide we emit causes further warming. Every tenth of a degree of additional warming will lead to ever more fires, floods, droughts, and severe storms. Because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for millennia, no currently viable climate “solutions” can return the planet to its previous stable climate of the past 11,000 years.

2º of warming has long been agreed to be the safe upper limit for avoiding climate disaster. But in 2018, a new IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) study found that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared with 2°C would reduce challenging impacts on ecosystems, human health and well-being.” At 2º, for example, 2.6 times more people would be exposed to extreme heat, species loss in plants and vertebrates would double, and 99% of coral reefs, ecosystems that support 25% of the world's fish population and over half a billion people, would die. 1.5ºC is the “safe” threshold we must stay below to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

This summer’s unprecedented heatwaves, droughts, fires, and severe storms are occurring at only 1.2ºC of warming, and moderate policies mean emissions are still increasing. Our current path based on currently enacted national policies, many of which are controversial for being too radical, would rapidly surpass 1.5º, then 2º, leading to around 3º of warming by 2100. If 2º would be a much worse future than 1.5º, 3º would be exponentially worse than 2º.

At 3º, huge swaths of the tropics would become too hot for humans to survive outdoors. 2/3rds of humanity would experience progressively drier conditions, with 25% of the world’s population regularly exposed to prolonged droughts. At the same time, extreme rainfall events would increase, and flooding would become much more common. Food insecurity would increase, and billions of people would be displaced by hunger or rising sea levels. Mass migration of billions of people would lead to conflict, and resource wars would almost certainly occur. 3º, in other words, is a dystopian nightmare that must be avoided at all costs.

Had we started to cut emissions in 1988 when the IPCC was founded, moderate emission reductions would have been enough to keep temperatures below 1.5C. But, because we have failed to act and because emissions have continued to increase, we are already perilously close to 1.5C. Now only “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities” can keep temperatures below 1.5º. We must make “unprecedented changes” to cut emissions in half by 2030 and to net zero by 2050 to have even a 66% chance of avoiding climate disaster. Moderate, less disruptive action on climate would reduce emissions much too slowly, leading to unfathomable human suffering and civilizational distress. Radical change is the only way to avoid the most radical impacts of climate change.