Despite their own predictions of dire potential impacts from climate change, a panel of climate specialists at a major meeting of geoscientists and space scientists this week rejected a gloom and doom attitude. Instead, they called for a sharp focus on ways to achieve the goals of the 2015 Paris climate accord despite steep obstacles.
“We’re really at a point where I think most people would say 1.5 degrees is already pretty much impossible. But, of course, we have to continue on fighting,” said panelist Stefan Rahmstorf on Tuesday at the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) 2017 Fall Meeting in New Orleans, La. The theme of the panel discussion and a follow-up session at the meeting was climate solutions.
There’s no time to further debate the issue before taking action, said Rahmstorf, head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. That’s because “the window of opportunity for actually limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees is actually falling shut on us as we speak,” said Rahmstorf. He added that even if the 2°C target is missed, people need to keep taking action and not give up because “I’d imagine that humanity then would be in a much more desperate struggle to prevent 3 degrees of warming.”
The Paris agreement aims to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.
Rejecting Doom and Despair
Michael Mann, another panelist and a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, urged pushing back against growing and potentially paralyzing “doomism and despair.”
“If you truly believe that there is nothing we can do to prevent dangerous climate change, it can lead us down the same path as outright climate change denial,” he said. “Maybe we miss the 1.5°C exit, maybe we miss the 2°C exit. That doesn’t mean you continue down that highway. You still get off at the next possible exit.”
Panelist Sarah Myhre, a postdoctoral scholar from the University of Washington in Seattle, talked about the need to “humanize” science and to be concerned not only about the impacts of climate change on future generations but also about climate-related problems affecting people today.
Looking at Solutions
There is “still time to act to prevent dangerous climate change,” Mann told the panel audience. Solutions include “the clean energy revolution,” which could also provide substantial economic benefits.
Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences also at Penn State and on the panel, agreed that efficient policies and responses to address the climate issue could improve the environment and economy. There are a lot of people in this world who like both the environment and the economy, Alley noted. “If you fall into either of these categories, there’s still hope,” he said.
However, climate solutions “aren’t just windmills and solar panels,” said another speaker, professor of geology James Byrne at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. Many solutions will be complex and varied and possibly differ in time and across different political, economic, and social boundaries, he suggested.
To promote more talking about solutions among scientific researchers, Byrne told Eos that he is helping to coordinate a new initiative by some scientists who are AGU members to explore the topic. Byrne said at the panel discussion that the initiative could lead to a climate solutions conference next summer.
Some Good News in a Challenging Environment
At the panel discussion, David Titley, a Penn State meteorology professor and director of its Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk, said that scientists can make some headway against climate change in the United States even as the Trump administration plans to pull out of the Paris accord and takes other measures to slow action to limit the climate threat.
He noted that the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law on Tuesday requires the secretary of defense to prepare a report about the impact of climate change on military installations. The law states that it is the sense of Congress “that climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.”
“There was almost nobody a year ago, especially postelection, who could have guessed this outcome,” said Titley, former oceanographer of the U.S. Navy and a retired rear admiral. “That’s one example of some good news that really gets lost in most of the silliness that’s going on right now.”
Fielding an Effective Offense
Pointing to the upcoming midterm elections and using a football analogy, Mann said that there could be more progress if those concerned about climate change could play offense instead of defense.
“We’re playing defense, and the defense is wearing down, inevitably. What we’re seeing is a rolling back of all of the environmental protections of the past half century,” he said. “We need to get our offense back on the field.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer