A Matter of Degree

"Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2?"

USAnians are a very strange lot, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed on his road trip with Gustave de Baumont in 1831. The Bible-thumping, coon-skinned, populist utopians fascinated him. Tocqueville blithely compared the young country’s despotic democratic government, then hip-deep in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, to a parent protective of “perpetual children.”

Anticipating Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent by 157 years, Tocqueville observed that the US brand of fervent fascism doesn’t try to break wills but rather bends them, allowing government to preside over people like “a flock of timid animals.” 

These timid animals nonetheless hunted the remnant bands of the First Nations like a wolf pack. Adult male scalps fetched about $100 in silver during Tocqueville’s visit, and about half that for women and children. Such hefty sums attracted those given to that particular skill-set and temperament.

Tocqueville said that USAnians with the most education and intelligence were left with two choices. They could join limited intellectual circles to explore the weighty and complex problems facing society, or they could use their superior talents to amass vast fortunes in the private sector (such as becoming scalpers). Tocqueville said that he did not know of any country where there was “less independence of mind, and true freedom of discussion, than in America.” [Joshua Kaplan “Political Theory: The Classic Texts and their Continuing Relevance,” The Modern Scholar. 14 lectures (2005).]

When will these perpetual children come to grips with climate change? Perhaps it will come sifting through the ashes of their million-dollar mortgaged houses and lifetimes of keepsakes, or mucking through what is left of those after a biblical flood goes where none has gone before — perhaps then? Or perhaps, as good children, they will just go back to the Matrix and await the next FEMA check.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
— Morphius, The Matrix (1999)

It occurs to us that one of the flaws in climate messaging has to do with numbers. As Bill McKibben famously told Rolling Stone, “And as far as I know, there’s never been a big political campaign built around a scientific data point.” News flash: there still hasn’t. McKibben tried to make that number be 350, as in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, “above which we can’t have a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted."

Unfortunately, by the time he said that, consumer culture had already blown through 350. Oops. That barrier fell in 1990, about the same time he wrote The End of History and we wrote Climate In Crisis. Today we are passing through 410, and moving up that sooty scale nearly twice as fast as we were in 1990.

It is hard to kick for a goal when the goal is behind you.

1975: The year the hockey stick met the blade.
In the UN climate conferences a new number is used — the number 2. That is a nice round number. At first it seems very non-threatening. It refers to an IPCC report’s consensus conclusion that exceeding a 2-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature starting from the 1940 baseline would be “dangerous” and should be avoided. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the focus has shifted briefly to the more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees, if possible.

Regrettably that will not be possible. We are already a full degree above baseline and given the lag time between emissions and warming effect, 1.5 degrees is already in the rear-view and we are now passing 2.

Think of it like you are approaching an intersection in your car and the traffic light turns from green to yellow. You could brake or accelerate to make it through. You decide to step on the gas. Now you are committed. Even if you change your mind and suddenly hit the brakes you won’t stop the car before it is into the crossing, so the only way now is to keep going. We are in that pattern with 2 degrees. We hit the gas a few years ago and there is no stopping now. We will get to 2 degrees, even if nuclear war ended civilization tomorrow.

The authors of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, “Well below 2 °C: 
Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes,” Yangyang Xu of Texas A&M and Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps, propose we classify any warming beyond 3 degrees as “catastrophic,” and beyond 5 degrees as “unknown.”

Xu and Ramanathan calculate a 50 percent probability that surface warming will catch up with legacy emissions enough to cross the dangerous threshold by mid-century, and a 5 percent probability of hitting 3 degrees by then. Would you get on an airplane if you thought there was a 5 percent chance that it was going to crash?

On present trajectory, the PNAS paper gives 50–50 odds we will be in catastrophic territory by the end of the century, and a 5 percent probability of being fully in the unknown. Recall for a moment we are not even to the “dangerous” level yet. If you live in Houston, San Juan, Santa Rosa, or Santa Claus’s North Pole workshop, baby you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A majority of USAnians, according a recent Yale survey, don’t see the climate issue as all that important. They are evenly divided on whether it will harm some places within the United States, but only 40% think they personally will be impacted.

Climate scientist Michael Mann, author of the famous “hockey stick” image some 30 years ago, complains that science literacy is too low in the US for most citizens to even gauge the danger. Long true of politicians and reporters, today even those who should know better — like weathermen and school teachers — are criminally ignorant. Mann says:
People will often ask, ‘What’s the tipping point?’ or ‘How much warming before we hit the tipping point?’ The answer is there is no one tipping point. That’s not how it works. Its not binary. We don’t go off a cliff. A much better analogy is we’re walking out onto a minefield. The farther we walk out into that minefield the greater likelihood we set off the explosives.


We are inclined now to conclude the problem really is with the numbers. Did we really imagine people would feel threatened by the number 2? Especially the generations raised on Sesame Street?

As we wrote 28 years ago in Climate in Crisis, in an average day most people on the planet experience more than a 2 degree change in temperature in the first few hours after the sun rises or sets — it is not scary to us. We often experience a change in temperature of more than 2 degrees as we enter or leave a modern office building or bank. How then can most people relate to 2 degrees, or 6 degrees, as an existential threat? The difference is between the global average and your personal skin, but we can relate to our skin, not to global averages.

To get a one degree increase, you have to heat a lot of ocean water and a lot of atmosphere. It took 18,000 years for the Earth to warm 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) from the last Ice Age to the present, about one half degree every thousand years. One degree in a single century is a substantially faster rate of warming, 20 times faster than the average.
At the end of the 21st century the Earth may be warmer than it is now by as much as another 9 degrees (5°C). That would be warmer than it has been in 1,000,000 years.
— Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do

 Fires, floods, hurricanes and submerged cities are more likely to activate dormant flight or fight responses deep in our reptilian brains. There must, at some point, come recognition of the soup we are slowly marinating in. 

Xu and Ramanathan recommend a “three-lever strategy” to limit warming: reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a net of zero; reducing emissions of short-lived but potent “super pollutants” such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons; and extracting and sequestering greenhouse gases from the air. 
Ultimately, we must thin the CO2 greenhouse blanket by removing the CO2 that is already in the atmosphere. Given the near-term risk of exceeding the dangerous to catastrophic thresholds, the timing for pulling these levers is a crucial issue. Ideally, these levers should be pulled immediately by 2020.
To limit warming to 2 degrees, we will need drawdown by some 1 trillion tons of CO2 equivalents before 2100 and bend the warming curve to a cooling trend. As we have written here, geoengineering can’t do that, but Natural Climate Solutions can.

If that doesn’t happen soon, it may be too late to avoid catastrophe. Or whatever comes after that.


Ian Graham said…
hey, I'm the first commenter again today! We were wondering how many readers you have of this blog:? any idea roughly? you are seeding a lot of minds with important ideas, you and many others but it still is not getting us to the threshold of urgency action and sacrifice.
Even the way you ended this essay, as a conditional statement predicated on drawdown not happening 'soon' then, we 'may' be too late.
I am well enough informed to know how existential the consequences are, and even I translate that as 'we still have enough time and the dire prediction could still be a false alarm.
Even the minefield analogy doesn't quite work, cuz if it's a minefield we're in, we just stay put and nothing goes off, but the climate bomb is 'going off' bit by bit each day.
James R. Martin said…
“To limit warming to 2 degrees, we will need drawdown by some 1 trillion tons of CO2 equivalents before 2100 and bend the warming curve to a cooling trend. As we have written here, geoengineering can’t do that, but Natural Climate Solutions can.”

And this would require two basic types of engagement. (1) Utilizing known and recently developed natural means of increasing carbon sequestration (e.g, climate eco forestry, and (2) preserving and protecting those systems which have long been performing this function — e.g., forests.

Unfortunately, tropical rainforests are still being deforested rapidly. Most of this deforestation is motivated by cattle grazing, and much of the rest by soy production (which itself is mainly used to feed cattle round the world).

And yet there is no visible sign of a movement to end beef imports to fast food joints, etc. — which are serving “rainforest burgers” by the millions daily. Did anyone cry Boycott?

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