Our Climate Pearl Harbor

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

In the late 1930s as Germany and Japan were taking control of huge swaths of the world, Americans were strongly opposed to getting into the war. For all his rhetorical skills, President Roosevelt was unable to mobilize the nation. That changed with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the climate events of the past week will finally produce the national mobilization that we so badly need if we are going to prevent a climate Armageddon.

Chris Hayes summarized last week’s catastrophic climate events. Thousand year floods in Europe and China, unprecedented wildfires in North America and Siberia.

Pete Buttigieg said this is the new normal. The kind of problems that were predicted for 2050 are already upon us. But that doesn’t do justice to how bad our situation is.

The rate of increase in temperature since 1981 has been 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit. But it is highly unlikely that the rate of increase will continue to be 0.32. After all, the rate of increase since 1981 is more than double its rate for the 20th century as a whole.

And consider the factors that portend further increases in the level of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “ Since 1970, CO2 emissions have increased by about 90%.” The U.S. has made slight progress in reducing our emissions, but that progress is offset by increases from China and developing countries. The pandemic produced substantial reductions in global emissions, but emissions are already rebounding as the pandemic slows. And as the earth’s temperature rises, we are seeing the melting of the permafrost in the northern hemisphere, which is accelerating the release of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Finally, the wildfires occurring here in Oregon and around the globe are destroying millions of acres of forests and releasing Co2 into the air, at the same time that they kill trees that remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

If you go here, you can get a look at what our prospects are for stopping warming or even reducing it. It is not very encouraging. If we achieved zero additional CO2 emissions by 2040 and had no other GHG emissions (e.g. methane), we could hold temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius (the magic number that physical scientists tell us we cannot breached). But how likely is that?

If it takes us until 2080 to achieve zero CO2 emissions and other GHG emissions don’t increase, we could exceed 1.5 C in five years and reach a 2.4C increase by 2100. If the emissions from other gases increase — as is likely due to permafrost melting — we could reach a 2.97 C increase in temperature by 2100.

But that is not all. The heat wave in the Pacific Northwest raised an even more frightening possibility. In June, Portland, Oregon hit a record 116 F, 40 degrees above the average and 90 higher than it has ever been. In Lytton, British Columbia, the temperature reached 121°F, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, and the highest ever recorded north of the latitude of 50°.

World Weather Attribution, an organization that systematically evaluates the contribution of climate change to extreme whether events, concluded that it is nearly impossible that the extreme heat in the Pacific Northwest could have occurred without climate change. Worse still, they found that their statistical models of these weather events did not encompass such extreme heat. They estimated that such heat was a once in a thousand-year event. They raise the possibility that “nonlinear interactions in the climate have substantially increased the probability of such extreme heat, much beyond the gradual increase in heat extremes that has been observed up to now.” In other words, our climate may be changing in ways that were not anticipated in models that assumed that gradual increases in global temperature would produce gradual increases in the occurrence and degree of heat waves.

The fossil fuel industry has done a very effective job of delaying any significant effort to reduce emissions. Scientists have been cautious in their claims. That is an admirable feature of good science. But their projections for the rate of increase in temperature have routinely been lower than the actual change we have been experiencing. Ten years ago, the fossil fuel industry would have love to have a scientists assert that things could be far worse that their models predict. “Just another hysterical scientist’s hoax!”

And so we face the prospect that we are in for much worse than existing models have predicted.

The time has come for a mobilization of every sector of society, just as we mobilized to win the Second World War. You can contribute to that mobilization by urging your Senators and Representatives to massively increase funding for behavioral science research to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Anthony Biglan, PhD, is President of Values to Action and author of Rebooting Capitalism https://www.valuestoaction.com/