Dyer: Finding a little hope on global warming

4 min read
Most of these men and women are suffering from quiet desperation, because they know what’s going to happen and can’t seem to change it. They feel obliged to sound optimistic, but give them a half-hour to talk about it and the sadness and despair start to show.

It was all in service of a book on how to survive global warming (now out) and a video series on the same topic (yet to come), and there were many moments when I shared their despair. Yet after all those interviews, I have come away with some hope for the future.

Don’t get carried away with that notion. We’re still in the deepest trouble imaginable. But it has got a bit better: five years ago everybody was still pretending we were going to fix all this just by cutting our greenhouse gas emissions.

It was a complete fantasy. Global emissions have not fallen in one single year since scientists first sounded the alarm in 1988, but the climate orthodoxy insisted we could hold the warming down below +1.5 degrees C until the end of the century by emissions cuts alone.

Most climate scientists loyally followed that line as long as they could – mustn’t discourage the troops – but that time is past. In fact, the average global temperature has already exceeded that +1.5° target for an entire year.

It may fall back a bit once the current El Niño warming ends. (That’s a natural cycle that dumps some extra heat into the system about once every three to seven years.) But we’ll be back up to +1.5° for good by 2030, so what can we do now?

The lost time hasn’t been entirely wasted. Solar and wind power have grown faster than anybody dared hope 10 years ago (though not yet fast enough to start cutting into the 82 per cent share of energy produced from fossil fuels).

But most importantly, a generation of inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs foresaw there would be a big demand for new approaches to curbing the warming once the public realized the urgency.

A profusion of those new ideas and technologies is now spilling out onto the market, and if enough of them fulfil their promise, we still might get through this century without runaway global warming wrecking our future. But only on one condition.

We’re already in the danger zone. Somewhere between 1.5 and 3.0 degrees hotter, most climate scientists believe, we will cross various “tipping points” that trigger “feedbacks”: extra warming from non-human sources.

For example, parts of the Arctic are warming four times faster than the rest of the planet because the sea ice and snow cover on land are melting. We caused the warming, so that’s our fault, but we could stop the melting if we stopped our emissions.

However, that melting exposes dark rock and open water that absorb sunlight instead of reflecting it back into space. This causes more warming, which is also ultimately our fault – but it’s not under our control. We can’t turn it off.

There are about a dozen feedbacks like that. We don’t know exactly when they will kick in, but scientists think we’ll trip them all at various points between here and +3 degrees C. That is ‘runaway’ territory, so we have to hold the temperature down while we work on our emissions even if that means doing it artificially.

The good news is there are promising ideas for how to hold it down, because they will probably be needed. It will be a long, hard slog, but we are not yet doomed.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England, and author of a new book about climate change, Intervention Earth: Life-Saving Ideas from the World’s Climate Engineers. This is the first of two columns on the subject.

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