Climate change is many things — a moral issue, a question of intergenerational justice, an economic threat, and now a daily and terrifying reality.
But it’s also a math problem, a point I’ve been trying to make for awhile now. Let’s run some new numbers.
First: 11,000, as in the number of scientists who just signed a manifesto that declares the world’s people face “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” unless there are major transformations to global society. “We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency,” the manifesto, released earlier this month, states. “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems.”
Is that straightforward enough?
These are not scientists warning about something that will happen — these are scientists rushing out of their labs in their white coats and waving their arms and trying to do what they can to bring us to our senses. “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.” Eleven thousand, by the way, is another way of saying essentially all scientists who study this field — the tiny cadre of deniers shrinks annually, and is not being replenished by young climatologists.
Second number: 120 percent, as in the plans by the world’s governments to produce 120 percent more coal and gas and oil by 2030 than the planet can burn and have even half a hope of meeting the Paris climate targets. The new report, which emerged last week from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), is one of the most important pieces of research in years. What it means is, the world is producing endlessly more coal and oil and gas than safety allows.
Scientists have a fairly exact idea of how much carbon dioxide we can still emit and stay south of the red lines we’ve drawn (red lines, it should be pointed out, that we haven’t crossed yet even though we’ve already lost most of the sea ice in the Arctic, intensified the world’s patterns of drought and flood and fire, and turned the ocean 30 percent more acidic. We’re already in great trouble). That estimate of how much we can still sort of afford to burn represents our “carbon budget,” and it’s not very large (it’s not very large because when scientists issued their first dire warnings 30 years ago we paid no attention). Meeting that budget would require — well, it would require budgeting. That’s kind of what the world’s nations did in Paris, when they set out targets and made pledges. Sadly, the pledges didn’t meet the targets: no nation committed to cutting the use of fossil fuels fast enough to dramatically slow down the warming. If you want to use a dieting metaphor, we were unwilling to rein in our appetites in any significant way.
But of course there’s another way at this problem. Along with reducing demand, you could also work to reduce supply. If we didn’t have more coal and oil and gas than we could burn, we would, ipso facto, be more likely to stay on our diet. Sadly, the world’s governments have never made any serious attempt to restrict the production of coal and oil and gas — instead, they’ve offered endless subsidies to spur the endless overproduction of fossil fuels…