“Toasted, roasted and grilled” or already over the hump?

Last week news stories came out that said that global human carbon emissions may have peaked, essentially implying that we could already be over the hump and on the way to solving climate change—while other news stories that same day and in that same publication noted that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations jumped by a record amount in 2016These stories exemplify the emotional roller coaster that often comes with following climate change news. How can we reconcile the ebbs and flows between hopeful and apocalyptic climate stories?

The answer lies in considering the timeframe around a piece of climate news. For example, the seeming contradiction in the two news reports is explained by the monsterEl Niño event of 2016 that intensified droughts and consequently weakened the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon dioxide—showing that while human carbon pollution is responsible for the long-term rise in atmospheric concentrations, there is still ample short-term natural variation.

To give a second example: In a recent story, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund was quoted saying: “If we don't do anything about climate change now, in 50 years' time we will be toasted, roasted and grilled.” While that is an alarming statement, it focuses on a potential scenario in which half-a-century from now we have failed to change the course of our climate policies.

It’s important to remember, however, that with the international Paris climate accords, nearly every nation in the world agreed to begin the process to alter that worst-case course.

Another recent story noted that there’s a large gap between the Paris climate goals and the emissions cuts we’ve achieved so far. But the agreement was signed a mere two years ago, and global carbon emissions appear close to peaking. (They must peak by around 2020 to give us a realistic chance to meet the Paris targets). Moreover, it was agreed that countries must strengthen their emissions pledges during five-year reviews to meet the Paris goals, which means it’s hardly fair to pass judgment at this date. True, it’s too early yet to know if the world’s nations will indeed be able to follow through with such ambitious plans, but there are positive signs. For example, China had pledged to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030, but it appears to already be approaching that goal 10-to-15 years ahead of schedule. That’s a significant development, so it bears repeating: China may reach its carbon reduction goals 10-to-15 years ahead of schedule.

On the other hand, the climate news coming out of the United States under the Trump administration seems constantly grim. However, the United States is just one country, and even there we see some good long-term news. Despite the administration’s efforts to maximize coal burning and the associated carbon pollution, coal is rapidly being phased out of the American power grid for purely economic reasons; quite simply, wind, solar, and natural gas are cheaper options.

Ultimately, the wildly fluctuating tone in climate change news stems from the fact that we now stand at a critical point in human history. To avoid causing exceptionally damaging climate changes, we must take aggressive steps now to cut human carbon pollution, and those actions must continually accelerate in the coming decades. The future climate will depend on the path we choose now and in the foreseeable future. Today’s scientists and journalists are trying to read the tea leaves to determine which path we’re taking, which leads to a see-sawing between "there’s hope" and "we’re doomed" stories.

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Posted by dana1981 on Thursday, 9 November, 2017

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