Accelerating climate change and real mitigation

Global Warming

Remember when we still had time
If not to reverse things
Well at least not to cause worse things
And we decided not to
It was easier not to? RU Mundy

Climate change is accelerating. Rising global temperature are near if not over critical tipping points to increased, catastrophic, warming. Our global mitigation plan is ineffectual with GHG emissions still rising. Shouldn’t we be urgently considering all possible paths and policies to rapidly reduce emissions?

The extraordinary, record smashing, rise in temperature, on land and in the worlds oceans over the past year is still not completely accounted for scientifically but we do know that climate change is accelerating. The warming rate was 0.18C per decade until fifteen years ago when it surged to the present roughly 0.3C per decade. The global mean temperature has now been above the Paris Agreement guardrail of a 1.5C rise for the past year and some scientists estimate at this rate that temperature will exceed a 2C rise by 2050.

In the past decade with the Paris Agreement and the 2018 special IPCC report on what a 1.5C rise in temperature could mean, reducing emissions by at least half globally by 2030 became the mitigation imperative. (With net-zero by 2050 – which is now understood as at best secondary, at worst a now irrelevant delayer tactic.)

Climate change is a suite of dangers and all will get worse with any rise in temperature but the danger of human caused warming setting off latent feedbacks so as to greatly accelerate warming, probably irreversibly, has to be the foremost concern. Entering into our present decade we were already far over the precautionary guardrail of a 1C rise in temperature and because climate science had identified a 1.5C rise as a likely temperature where latent feedbacks such as permafrost melting, the Amazon rainforest drying out, boreal forests burning, the AMOC slowing, etc. should be expected, we were already far too close to possibly setting off feedbacks, hence the guardrail and the need to reduce emissions rapidly.

Last year the definitive but now largely forgotten Global Tipping Points report recommended an urgent adoption of a precautionary risk management framework to keep from setting off these feedbacks. A new pre-print paper by foremost climate scientist Stephen Rahmstorf: Is the Atlantic overturning circulation approaching a tipping point? advocates for a similar precautionary risk management. A 2022 paper  by climate scientists concerned that climate change was an emergency called for a new IPCC report on possible feedbacks and tipping points.

Given what is at stake and accelerating warming we must reduce emissions faster but globally mitigation has stalled with emissions continuing to rise not decline and with almost no hope of achieving the all important emission peak and rapid reduction by half needed by 2030. Climate mitigation is now life or death. Everything has to go right – politically, investment, permitting, supply chains, no nimby – an almost impossible to rationally believe condition for even long term energy transition success, especially with looming dark political clouds.  

Worse, we are not even allowed to consider mitigation policies which could effectively reduce emissions by using constraints on fossil fuel production and use.

Those that should be interested in climate change mitigation – which should be all of us but especially those who work in our country’s climate intelligentsia, in ENGOs, energy experts, policymakers – should now be aware that the energy transition is systemically ineffectual, that energy transitions have historically been additive, that growth in renewables won’t necessarily displace fossil fuels, and that there is now no way to cut emissions the imperative at least 50% by 2030 except to actually limit fossil fuel production.

Energy transitions take decades we no longer have; historically new energy sources add to instead of displacing existing sources of energy; renewables aren’t decreasing fossil fuel use, and building renewable capacity of a scale needed to displace 50% of fossil fuel use by 2030 is now delusional.  

Richard York and Shannon Bell were prescient about our energy transition and emission reduction. Not only are global emissions continuing to rise but after several decades of plateauing energy consumption in developed countries, primarily due to increasing efficiency, demand for electricity is skyrocketingDemand for electricity for data centers and for AI (as well as crypto currencies) is growing so fast that gas and coal powerplants that had been closed or scheduled to be closed are now being reopened or kept working. Fossil fuels are not going to be displaced by renewables creating electricity any time soon.

Warming is accelerating, not just from El Niño, and this means we have even less time to reduce emissions to keep from triggering potential feedbacks, a possibility that becomes more likely every day. The cascade of feedbacks used to be considered a one in twenty long tail risk but is now almost inevitable if we increase warming as projected: 2-3C.

As warming accelerates we need effective mitigation faster. Is the impending failure to reduce emissions by 2030 causing a significant rethink of mitigation in the US and globally? Is there an emergency IPCC symposium, for example, or a broad debate in legislatures and in the media on this all important topic? Are we just going to continue IRA type policies while continuing to expand fossil fuel production? 

The only major sign of awareness of our pending catastrophe and the mitigation disconnect is the torrent of opeds and articles of what I’ve labeled hopeful disinformation where the journalist, ENGO rep, energy expert or politician repeats energy transition mantras like ‘renewables are getting cheaper’ or ‘more power everyday is renewable’, etc, etc., with bromides about thinking positive and not being a doomer, being optimistic so as not to scare the kids, etc. Hopeful disinformation that just keeps us from moving to mitigation policies that could work.

It would seem that even those who understand the building danger, the timeline, and the consequences for every future generation from our use of fossil fuels today don’t want to consider mitigation policies to wind-down fossil fuels (and a powering down evolution to a new socio-economy). Too risky, too radical, too impossible nationally and globally, too big a systemic disruption – not allowed – and so they double down in wishing and hoping the energy transition path can work, will work. Despite the evidence and the increasingly precious time that is obviously being wasted not reducing emissions; despite the expanding fossil fuel production that will be burnt given increasing global demand.

Many climate mitigation experts, activists and policymakers have been trying for decades to make the energy transition work and fervently believe that it is possible; most limit their vision to policies that are allowed in continuing political and economic BAU and believe that a regulated wind-down of fossil fuel production is radical pie in the sky thinking.

But we don’t obviously have until 2050 to get to net-zero. There is now no time for an inflection point and economy wide displacement of fossil fuels. Climate change must now be regarded as an emergency, at least in developed countries that must cut their emissions the most and the fastest – an emergency that requires a radical deep systemic disruption that has to happen or there is no long term future.

Bottom line: every future generation (and all of the other species with which we share creation) are dependent upon us to properly mitigate right now and not create a hothouse earth; we are now so close to potential tipping points that this now requires as urgent an end to fossil fuel production and use as is possible. This must require emergency government nationally and international agreement, especially amongst major producer nations.

For the short term this will require powering down to a socio-economy using less than half the present developed nation energy use. Of course, building more renewable capacity would be a priority and some emissions abated use is still possible with potentially increased emission free use of fossil fuels in the future.  Although this will require massive systemic change it is possible with wartime government style leadership and support – no collapse, nobody left behind.

This is the only window left to a future; this is the only path, the only climate mitigation where our civilization survives to evolve into the future. It is the equivalent of dangerous surgery for a possibly terminal illness but this is the only real option left.

But we are refusing to even consider such an operation.

Wake up!!! is all I can say, wake up from society-wide denial. Stop with the hopeful disinformation that just keeps us from really phasing out fossil fuels. Do what we must do for future generations. Do what we must do sooner rather than too late later.

Bill Henderson is a long time climate activist and Countercurrents contributor


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