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Shawn Vestal: Just like the return of triple-digit heat, the climate emergency is here

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 10, 2021

Included in the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill unveiled in the U.S. Senate is money dedicated to fighting and preventing wildfire, such as the massive Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, pictured last Wednesday.  (Bootleg Fire Incident Command)
Included in the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill unveiled in the U.S. Senate is money dedicated to fighting and preventing wildfire, such as the massive Bootleg fire in southern Oregon, pictured last Wednesday. (Bootleg Fire Incident Command)

If you’re discouraged about the return of triple-digit temperatures this week, wait until you hear about the long-term picture.

The latest United Nations report on climate change contains a hard conclusion: We have fiddled so long while the planet warmed that we can no longer arrest the current rise in global temperatures in the next 30 years or so.

We can, and we must, take action – large-scale action, at the governmental and global scale – to prevent even worse catastrophes later in the century.

But in the near term, it seems, we’ve made our bed.

Get ready to lie in it.

It’s something to think about as we glide again toward another 100-degree weekend. The previous heat wave that bore down on the Pacific Northwest – killing hundreds, driving widespread wildfires, overloading the power system, wreaking havoc with crops and wildlife, brutalizing outdoor workers and the homeless – will become a more frequent occurrence under the scenarios laid out in the report. Extreme weather of all kinds, from droughts and heat waves to monsoons and tropical cyclones, will become more common all around the planet, affecting the lives of billions of people.

In the next couple of decades, the report says, the planet is expected to warm at a faster rate than it has so far – and the rate of warming so far has been “unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years,” the report says. What happens next will depend on how quickly we begin to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions to reach net-zero, but even in the best-case scenario, some changes are irreversible, the report says.

“Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered,” it says.

The emergency is not coming. It’s here.

The sliver of good news is that it’s still possible to try and prevent even worse scenarios thereafter, though it will take the kind of massive, coordinated effort to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions that has been too slow in coming and to which there still remains an obdurate political resistance. It’s important that individuals take action, and many of us can be better about that, but it’s crucial for there to be large, collective changes that will require political will.

The report arrives, after all, even as we are being plunged back into the coronavirus pandemic by a vaccine-refusal movement built upon the same soft sand as climate change denial: scientific illiteracy, culture-war stubbornness, selfishness, misinformation, and grossly irresponsible political actors, doing their best to work against the public good.

There is a deep and natural desire among many to focus on hope, and where to inspire positive change. This report, and the historical context in which it arrives, strains hope. How hopeful can we be that we will get serious at last about the climate emergency, even as we watch the case numbers of a preventable, highly contagious disease climb once again? How hopeful can we be that the science will penetrate the chambers of policy-makers, where so many work on behalf of polluters and deny the facts in front of our faces?

The report, released Monday, is the latest alarm from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its conclusions are based on more than 14,000 separate studies, and reflect a consensus reflecting scientific communities in 195 countries.

It is far from the first dire warning. Far from the first suggestion that it may be, in some sense, too late. These IPCC reports have been sounding the alarm for years now, and they represent a simply massive consensus among the scientific community about what is happening and what it predicts will happen.

The details are sobering, though they are mostly not unfamiliar if you’ve been following the direction of the science.

At the baseline, humans have warmed the planet by about 1.1 degrees Celsius, or roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, and the main cause is the burning of fossil fuels for energy.

In the next couple of decades, that’s expected to rise another 1.5 degrees Celsius – about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit – depending on greenhouse gas emissions.

The report’s authors say we can begin to stop the rise there and offset the worst possible outcomes later in this century by beginning immediately to restrict emissions on a path toward net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Whether we can do that remains to be seen. In the meantime, welcome to the emergency.

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