18 September 2014

Climate: Is This the Best We Can Do?

Suppose that you went to the dentist with a toothache. But instead of filling the cavity, the dentist merely told you to brush your teeth more often.

Without a repair, a tooth not only hurts: it won’t survive long enough to benefit from better brushing. Once you’ve got a problem, what you need is a quick fix, then a redoubling of preventive measures.

Our current approach to global warming is also all prevention and no fix. We persist in framing the climate problem in the same way as we did before 1976, which is when major climate shifts began.

Prevention is no longer the appropriate way to look at this problem, not when we’ve already accumulated a 43 percent excess of carbon dioxide in the air. The overheating from it has been exaggerating the usual causes of extreme weather episodes.

But we’re doing something about it, right? Yet reducing emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks does not reduce the carbon dioxide accumulation, not any more than a drop in the interest rate will reduce the balance of your savings account. It’s like confusing the annual budget deficit with the accumulated national debt. And it's the carbon dioxide accumulation that causes overheating.

In the continental U.S., it now looks as if we are going to overheat 2°C (3.6°F) by 2028 . Remember that year. It’s when today’s toddlers finish high school and contemplate their future—or lack thereof.

That 2°C (3.6°F) frontier is when we have about twice as much overheating as today. There will be many more extreme weather events than in recent years.

What to do? Miraculously converting to low emissions tomorrow, worldwide, would only delay the U.S. reaching that frontier by nine years, to 2037. At our current level of effort, we’ll be lucky to get an extra nine weeks.

There is a hazard to long-term thinking. To reap long-term benefits, you first have to survive the short-term risks–and they often require a different approach than prevention does.

Yet all we hear about climate action, even from the good guys, will merely slow down the worsening of climate. These “climate solutions” will neither stop climate change nor reverse the trends. But almost no one ever mentions that.

Is this the best we can do?

The climate problem has outgrown its original frame, with its conveniently distant dates and a patchwork quilt of climate actions promoted as "every little bit counts." Emissions reduction, though still essential for the long term, is now insufficient for decently surviving the near term. It’s too little, too late.

Emissions reduction is also insufficiently sure-fire, given what’s at stake. We now have an unmanageable situation promising major systems shutdowns, rather like terminal kidney failure used to proceed. With dialysis to clean up the blood, however, it was made into a manageable disease, enabling a near-normal life.

We must now make our climate problem into a manageable disease using a strategy analogous to dialysis. Otherwise, there is an unacceptable risk of civilization collapsing. In the past, such disorganization usually caused a human population crash.

William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin
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