By John Englander, Rising Seas Institute
A Jan. 3 article in “Inside Climate News” has stirred up a lot of optimism… and confusion. It has raised hopes that the effects of global warming (aka climate change) could stop soon.
Here’s the headline: Many scientists now say global warming could stop relatively quickly after emissions go to zero.”
“Inside Climate News” is an excellent journal and this article is easy to read. But I can give you the problem quite simply. They are reporting on an analysis by Joeri Rogelj, Ph.D., a recognized climate expert from Imperial College (London) and quote him as saying:
“It is our best understanding that, if we bring down CO2 to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two,” he said. “There will be very little to no additional warming. Our best estimate is zero.”
Sounds great. Let’s do it! But let’s review the problem:
- Due to burning enormous quantities of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas), we are adding more and more giga-tons of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere each year, described as Greenhouse Gases. This is the collective result of generating electricity, industry, and transportation of all forms.
- Over the last century or two of the “Industrial era,” the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has gone from 280 ppm (parts per million) to 414 ppm, and increasing every year by increasing amounts. Due to Covid-19, the RATE of increase this year has temporarily slowed. Still, we added to the level of greenhouse gases in 2020.
- As a result of a century or so of “emissions,” global average temperature is already about one degree C (almost two degrees F) warmer than it has been in millions of years.
- Most of the excess heat is stored in the oceans, in fact 93%.
- The warming temperature has many effects from melting the floating Arctic sea ice, increasing rainfall, more drought, huge increases in wildfires, changing weather patterns….and melting the ice sheets and glaciers, raising sea level.
So, back to the headline and the quote from Dr. Roegelj. He is saying that within a “few decades” of getting carbon dioxide emissions down to zero, that there will be no additional warming.
The problem is that there is no plan to achieve zero emissions. Even the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement only set a goal to stop the additional warming at two degrees Celsius, another degree warmer than we are presently at. Nearly all experts think that achieving that goal will be daunting. And as the headline and quote implies there is a lag time of decades for the warming to stop, even after the greenhouse gas emissions are brought to zero.
Even if we can find a way to do that, at the warmer temperature, there will be much more damage to endure.
Again, the Paris Agreement merely agreed to set a goal but was silent on how to achieve it. It left it to each nation to figure out how to achieve the goal. To use a familiar analogy: setting a goal to lose weight is easy. Deciding on a realistic plan to achieve the goal is necessary. Implementing and sticking to the plan is difficult.
The simple fact is that no major nation has yet figured out how to reach the goal of zero emissions, or even to reduce emissions by any considerable amount. In the first two decades of this century, we have put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than in any time in recorded history.
Electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines are terrific, but they do not get us anywhere near zero emissions. This “Inside Climate News” article creates a very unrealistic expectation, suggesting that we can relax, that the solution is in sight.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
John Englander is an oceanographer and author of “High Tide On Main Street.” He is also President of the Rising Seas Institute, a new nonprofit think tank and policy center. This piece was adapted from his blog, John’s Blog.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.