“We Didn’t Realize How Soon It’s Going to Come”

Is there anything that can actually stop the impending disaster detailed in the scary new climate report?

Visitors walk past collapsing, melting ice.
Visitors walk past collapsing, melting ice at the foot of the Pasterze Glacier on Aug. 27, 2016, in Austria. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Coral Davenport, who covers energy and the environment for the New York Times. She recently wrote a story for the paper about a new report from the United Nations that says we face more dangers from climate change than even many pessimists had until recently assumed. Below is an edited excerpt from the show. In it, we discuss what the report means for the planet’s future, how other countries are trying to prevent climate change, and the ways in which global warming deniers have adapted their rhetoric in light of new evidence.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: What’s your biggest takeaway from the report?

Coral Davenport: So the way the U.N. report works is, under the 2015 Paris Agreement, which was signed by nearly every country in the world and aimed at curbing global warming, there was a target. There was a goal that was understood by scientists and governments at the time, in 2015, to be the tipping point past which the world is going to go into the most severe, irreversible, damaging impacts of climate change. It was understood that if the world’s atmosphere warms up past 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, that was understood to be the tipping point that we want to avoid.

However, at the time of the signing of the Paris Agreement, a bunch of heads of small island nations—countries that are already seeing the impacts of rising sea levels, water loss, severe coastal inundation—said, “You know, we wonder if maybe some stuff might be happening before that.” And under the Paris Agreement, world leaders commissioned scientists to look at what happens earlier than 3.6 degrees: what happens at 2.7 degrees, which wasn’t really known. And that’s the result of this report.

And so it turns out, what they found out is a lot of the things that we thought were going to happen at 3.6 degrees, several decades out, are actually going to happen at 2.7 degrees and are going to hit pretty soon, by 2040: severe coastal inundation, major droughts, crop and food losses, severe wildfires, food shortages. It will be a lot worse at 3.6 degrees, but this is stuff that we didn’t realize how soon it’s going to come. This is the first report that looks at that level of warming, and is able to place, sort of pin, 2040 as the year it’s going to happen. We haven’t seen that precision. And this tells us stuff that we didn’t even know three years ago. It’s very, very new.

The report talks about ways to keep this from happening but says there’s a lack of political will. If there was political will, what could really change the course we’re on in such a short amount of time?

The report found that it is technically possible to avert this outcome, this 2.7 degrees of warming by 2040. It said that governments would need to take action within the next year or two. The action would need to start immediately. We would need to see a sharp drop-off of emissions by 2030, so within the next 12 years. The No. 1 thing that would need to happen, the central policy, is a price or tax on carbon dioxide emissions. And we would need to see this implemented by all major economies.

Does the report break down the degree to which the things that you talk about are going to hit wealthy countries, like the United States, or countries in Northern Europe, versus other places? How bad will this be in countries that have more money, and tend to be the ones making the decisions?

The report finds specifically, and I’m reading a direct quotation, “The economic damages of climate change in the USA, as a result of the 2.7 degrees of warming, are expected to be large.” It finds that the U.S. would lose about 1.2 percent of GDP for every 1.8 degree of warming. And we’ve actually already experienced, it found, 1.8 degrees of warming since about the 1850s, but those degrees are going to start going up a lot faster.

It gave a list of nine countries that are home to about 50 million people who will be exposed to very economically damaging, and physically damaging, harmful impacts of coastal flooding by 2040. So those countries are the U.S., along with China, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. So the U.S. gets grouped with some other developing countries, partly because it has a lot of coastline where people live and where there’s a lot of economic activity.

Your piece notes, “The report also finds that, in the likelihood that governments fail to avert 2.7 degrees of warming, another scenario is possible: The world could overshoot that target, heat up by more than 3.6 degrees, and then through a combination of lowering emissions and deploying carbon capture technology, bring the temperature back down below the 2.7-degree threshold. In that scenario, some damage would be irreversible, the report found. All coral reefs would die. However, the sea ice that would disappear in the hotter scenario would return once temperatures had cooled off.” What exactly does this mean?

So in order to avoid that 2.7 degrees of warming, the report finds that essentially the entire world economy would have to undergo a radical transition at a scale that has never been seen in human history. We would have to see radical changes of our energy systems, how we get electricity, transportation systems, agriculture, basic urban systems, and that all of this would have to be implemented within a year or two. Again, technically possible; politically, highly improbable.

The scientists, I think, decided to look at this other possibility. They said, “OK. Well, given the political reality on the ground, and the likelihood that we will not see the entire world economy turn around on a dime in the next two years, what are some other options, here?” And one is, we continue, sort of business as usual. We do shoot past that 2.7 degrees. We enter that post-2.7-degree world. We start to see some of these severe impacts.

They thought: That is more likely to be the time when governments would feel compelled, when politicians might feel compelled to take action. After it’s already hit, after we’re already living in a world of extreme droughts, and water shortages, and stronger storms, and more coastal inundations. What if that’s the thing that compels governments to take action?

And so if governments do take action then, you know, in 10 or 20 years, and move to aggressively start reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and move to implement technology that actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, carbon capture technology, then it would be possible to pull greenhouse gasses out of the air and lower the amount that are going in, so that in the following decades, the atmospheric temperature would actually go back down. And so the scientists looked at what that would look like. And they said in some cases, you go past a certain amount of temperature, and some things on the planet just get so scorched, they don’t come back. And one of them is coral reefs. If you move past, if you go past that temperature, they found that coral reefs, we would see mass mortality, probably all coral reefs dying. And once that happens, you lose them. They don’t come back.

But one thing that would come back is sea ice. In the scenario in which we move past 2.7 degrees, towards 3.6 degrees, we would start seeing such a mass melting of sea ice. We would probably have one summer every 10 years, with no sea ice at all. We would have, you know, major melting of polar ice sheets. But what the report found, what the scientists found is that as the atmosphere starts to cool off again, that ice would return. And it would build back up. That is something that you can heat up, and then go back down. You can actually bring back the sea ice. So it was interesting. And they put a lot of detail into that outcome, because I think that the scientists saw that as something that may be the most possible of the different outcomes.

This is one of the things about political will, that something bad is going to have to happen. I don’t say this as a defense of inaction, but worse things are going to have to happen for anyone to take action. And I suppose it’s good that the scientists are thinking about this stuff, since it is the most likely scenario. I mean, you don’t want to fall into fatalism, but it is where we are.

It is, it is. I don’t think that piece of the assignment was explicit. I think, you know, the world leaders said, “Just look at what it takes to do 2.7 degrees.” And I think the scientists were like, “Let’s look at this way of getting there,” because scientists also do live in, you know, they don’t live just in the world of the technically possible. They also live in a world of politics, and they understand that what they’re saying has to happen in the real world.

I read a bunch of stories about this report, and sprinkled throughout them are comments from places like the World Coal Association, some of the Koch brothers networks, places that are opposed to taking large action of the type that these scientists are recommending. But it felt like some of their statements were a little bit more muted than they were maybe five or 10 years ago, as if they know they’ve won the battle in some way, and so perhaps they don’t need to go after the science in the same way, just because the politics are already so impossible for their adversaries. Or am I reading too much into these statements?

I do see less attacks on the science. I don’t know if that comes from these organizations feeling like they’ve won, so much as it is, you know … This report comes from a group of scientists that have won a Nobel Prize, specifically for the rigor and clarity of their work. The scientific consensus on the basic, established way that global warming works is actually, there’s greater scientific consensus on that than there is on whether or not smoking is linked to lung cancer. The former president of the National Academy of Sciences told me that. It becomes harder and harder to attack the basic science the more that we see.

An organization like the World Coal Association represents companies that have to operate in the real world. They’re not a political organization. They can’t really say, “That’s not true.” So I think that’s kind of more of the reason that we don’t see … You know, the president of Americans for Prosperity has said, “You know, we don’t attack the science. We’re not questioning the science.”

On the other hand, it’s absolutely true, and these groups are correct in making the point that the policies called for by this group, you know, very high carbon taxes, implemented almost immediately, would be very economically disruptive. They would raise the price of gasoline. They would put coal miners out of work. There’s no question that the kind of policies called for, and the speed at which they would need to be implemented, would be disruptive and would have economic losers. And I think that the critics of these policies are right in pointing that out. It’s accurate. And so I think they can make a strong case by just saying, you know, pointing to the impact of the policies without attacking the science.

To what degree is the lack of political will about specific political issues going on in individual countries, and to what degree is it that countries just want to see other countries making firmer commitments and following through on them, before they are willing to follow through on them themselves?

Well, a lot of countries, a lot of the world’s major economies are applying these policies. China is moving forward with a national price on carbon. The entire EU has a carbon price.
Canada is moving forward with a carbon price. They’re certainly not at the level that the economists who contributed to this report called for. But, you know, the biggest policy that this report calls for is a price on carbon. And we are seeing many major economies moving forward with the first policy steps in implementing that.

I think in the U.S., the world’s largest economy and the place where the idea of a price on carbon was invented, it’s just considered to be politically toxic, even for Democrats, to embrace a price on carbon or a tax on carbon. I think it’s considered to be a one-way ticket to losing your job, if you’re a lawmaker. Whereas, I think, in a lot of other countries, there’s debate. The debate in other countries is, you know, how high should the price on carbon be?

Are there countries that have set a price on carbon that, if adopted as the universal standard, the scientists in this report think would prevent the things they’re talking about?

The EU has had a price on carbon for more than 10 years. It hasn’t worked very well, partly because the prices that they’ve set have been extremely low. So it hasn’t been particularly effective at lowering emissions. So I would say, I mean, right now, you know, China is just in the very early stages of their carbon pricing program. I think the question for China is how good is their carbon accounting? In order for a carbon pricing program to work, you have to be sure that all the tons of carbon that are being taxed are accounted for. And I think that there are a lot of questions about how well China counts and reports its emissions.

In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for a national carbon price to take effect by the end of this year. We are seeing push-back from some of the Canadian provinces. The province of Ontario looks unlikely to implement its own carbon price. I think there’s going to be kind of a national fight there. So again, the difference is that in these other major economies, you’re seeing debate over, “How do we make this work? How does it work? How can we make it work well?” Again, as opposed to in the U.S., where there’s just kind of nothing to work with.