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What is the real time frame for a no-return climate crisis situation? And what will actually happen when that deadline hits?
— Sam Gagnon, New York
We often hear that we have just over a decade to turn greenhouse gas emissions around and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
A reference to the year 2030 comes from a report the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released last year. But that same report also talks about another year: 2050.
There's been some confusion about what we have to do — and by when — to avoid catastrophe, and people really want to know, especially young people.
“Family planning has started to seem kind of pointless, because if the consequences are coming as soon and will be as dire as everyone makes it out to be, then I don't think I want to bring kids into this world,” wrote Sam Gagnon, 24, who recently moved from Minneapolis to New York City.
Here’s what we know from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, especially the 2018 report that gets cited so often.
"The message that's had the greatest impact from our report was the one where we said we have to act soon, and we have to make very deep cuts in emissions,” said Diana Liverman, a professor at the University of Arizona who was one of about 90 scientists who wrote and reviewed the report.
Liverman, who spoke last month at a conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, said the panel did mention in its report a need to cut emissions in half by 2030, but “that was sort of an arbitrary point that we picked."
“The more important message is that we need to be net zero by 2050 — that we need to have emissions taken out of the atmosphere at the same rate we're putting them in,” she said.
Net zero by 2050, scientists have said, is the key to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. And, by the way, we've already warmed by 1 degree C and are well on our way to 1.5.
Why does that 1.5 degree marker matter?
The report said a 1.5 degree global temperature rise is the point where major things start to happen — sea level rise, extreme heat and major changes in precipitation can cause ecosystem collapse and could force some species into extinction. Some of those changes could be irreversible.
But Liverman and many other scientists caution against drawing "end-of-the-world" conclusions about 1.5 degrees of warming — or even 2 degrees of warming. Both are scenarios we should be contemplating as real possibilities at this point, they said.
"I've had a lot of people ask me, including the media, whether the 2030 date is the apocalypse. And I've said, ‘No, that is not what we said,’” Liverman said. “The differences between 1.5 and 2, they're serious, but they're not apocalyptic."
Penn State University scientist Richard Alley agreed.
"We in the IPCC have bent over backwards not to tell anyone what to do and never to say it's too late," he said.
Alley and Mike Hulme of the University of Cambridge have both served on the UN's climate change panel in the past and also participated in the Gustavus conference.
Hulme said the “artificial deadlines” that are often repeated aren’t very helpful.
“Because it's never too late to do the right thing. There's no end point, you know. This is a constant dimension of the human experience and life,” he said. “Whatever happens to the climate, we will still be thinking about what it is to be a virtuous human being, even if the world is four degrees warmer."
So, once we understand what the science is saying and not saying, we ask the harder question that is rooted in people’s values: What do we do about it?
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