A 5-Minute Synopsis of Climate Crisis

What follows is the script of remarks I gave last week during a Zoom panel for fellow alumni (and current scholars) of the Morehead-Cain program at UNC (with slides included).

I’m honored to join this accomplished group of panelists, and especially honored to have been nominated by them for the straightforward task of summarizing climate crisis in five minutes.

The impacts of climate crisis are being disproportionately suffered by poor people, communities of color, and in the Global South. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous, Black, and youth climate champions are often at the forefront of climate action globally. Especially given the problematic bases of the fortunes of our benefactors, I hope to attend many future Morehead-Cain climate events featuring more diverse and representative speakers.

Climate crisis is the culmination of 500 years of capitalist development rooted in slavery and genocide. Often, focus is directed narrowly towards global heating and sea-level rise, but climate change is only one of a number of planetary boundaries our current economic system threatens to rupture, just as there are a number of key human needs that this system leaves unmet. This is why we must reject false solutions – like geoengineering – that fail to account for the complex interconnections of the challenges we face, and work towards actual solutions – like a Green New Deal in the US – that center those most harmed by long histories of extraction and violence.

By 1990, the science was largely settled on human-caused global climate change, and yet, 60% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have occurred in the last 30 years. This has everything to do with the power of the fossil-fuel industry and its climate denial apparatus. On that note – although I’m not a fan of military metaphors with respect to climate or the pandemic – I encourage everyone to read Michael Mann’s excellent new book, The New Climate War.

Pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 concentrations were steady around 280 ppm. In fact, concentrations had been range-constrained roughly between 2 and 300 ppm for nearly a million years until the post-World War II combustion binge. The current concentration is roughly 415 ppm, which is why it is so urgent that we get to net-zero emissions as quickly as possible.

Most of us don’t think in gigatonnes, but from the start of last year the remaining carbon budget to stay below 2ºC of heating was less than 600 of them. At our current burn rate, we would exceed that budget by the end of 2030, but even 2º of heating would be catastrophic. We’ve seen the fires, droughts, superstorms, derechos, and all the rest at slightly more than 1 degree of heating today, which is why we need to fight to keep the heating to 1.5ºC or less. One example of the significance of that half degree, drawn from the IPCC’s 2018 Special Report: At 1.5º, we lose 70-90% of coral reefs; at 2º, we lose effectively all of them. Meanwhile, business-as-usual scenarios have us on pace for at least 3-4º C of heating. To stay below 1.5º, there is a roughly seven-year window at our current burn rate, which, again, is why we need to reach net-zero ASAP.

In a US context, there are five main sources of GHG emissions: Transportation, power generation, industry, buildings, and agriculture. Of the total, perhaps 10% of emissions are from hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation. That means 90% of the emissions are relatively easy to decarbonize given current technologies – only political will has been lacking, and I hope you’ll ask yourself how you can contribute to reducing emissions at scale in one or more of these sectors.

“Nature is healing” was a popular 2020 meme; however, according to a recent Nature Climate Change article, there will be essentially no long-term impact of pandemic-driven emissions reductions on global heating.

However, that same article concludes that a green-stimulus approach to pandemic recovery can significantly reduce heating between now and 2050.

I believe Bernie Sanders was trending after the inauguration largely because, although he lost the political battle, he won the war of ideas. Ironically, Joe Biden takes office with the most progressive presidential platform in at least 50 years, with climate crisis front and center in his agenda.

In short, we have the technology; there has been a massive shift in popular, political, corporate, and financial consensus on the urgency of climate crisis; and the arrival of the Biden-Harris Administration offers us a once-in-a-civilization opportunity for timely climate action. Additionally, as Bill pointed out, modeling now suggests that locked-in heating was being overestimated; if emissions go to net-zero, the heating will largely cease.

Accomplishing this is our work for the next 30 years.

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