Today’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report landed with a thud. It says, basically, that we’re screwed unless we take immediate action to reduce our burning of fossil fuels and the concomitant release into the atmosphere of carbon, methane, and other greenhouse gases. That’s the bad news. But there’s also good climate news, which almost no media outlets are reporting.
This good news appeared Friday in a Washington Post story reporting that warming can be slowed much faster than previously thought, as long as we drastically and immediately cut emissions. Previously, the best science showed that 25 to 30 years of warming is “baked in” based on gases we’ve already put into the atmosphere. The idea was that the climate is a big thing to turn around, and, like slowing an aircraft carrier, there would be a lag between cutting emissions and slower warming. But, research shows that isn’t true. According to Michael Mann, one of the world’s top climate scientists, if we “stop emitting carbon right now…the oceans start to take up carbon more rapidly.” The lag effect isn’t decades, but “more like three to five years.”
The conclusions are obvious and empowering: What we do now can have an almost immediate impact. Rather than some long-distant future, where we might slow the warming after many of us are dead, we can effect change now. Right now. (Okay, three to five years, but you get my point.)
This isn’t new news. I spotted it in last week’s Washington Post story, but 60 Minutes interviewed Mann in October 2020, where he shared the research. The Guardian has also covered his report. Maybe it got lost in the pre-election hype or maybe the media gets more clicks with apocalyptic reporting, but this is the most exciting climate news I’ve heard since I first learn about global warming 30 years ago. Why aren’t more people talking about it? Why aren’t each and every one of us sending this to our elected representatives and all of our friends?
Many of my days are spent bouncing between climate-related sadness, frustration, feelings of powerlessness, and then rationalization, justification, and/or whistling past the graveyard. Climate impact infuses almost every decision I make, and still, my heart aches that I’m not doing enough. Poor Justin (Housman): Every week he has to talk me off some climate ledge. He reminds me that we’re doing a lot. He reminds me that our actions are a drop in the bucket. He reminds me that the idea of a personal carbon footprint was a dark, manipulative effort by the oil and gas industry to shift perceived responsibility onto consumers.
All that’s true. But what’s also true is that every action by every person counts. While the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions come from industry, who do you think creates the demand for that industry? Who do you think makes it possible for all those airplanes to be in the sky, for all those UPS trucks to be on the road, for all the cows in those giant feedlots? It is our individual consumptive demands writ large.
Our actions matter. They’ve always mattered. But this research by Michael Mann and his colleagues should help us snap out of our complacency, inertia, depression, cynicism, and feelings of powerlessness. Even if Treehugger argues that Mann is putting a positive spin on old data, I say that it adds hope to what often seems hopeless. I’m not naive, I understand the magnitude of the problem, but I believe that this news should empower us to change whatever we can, to pressure industry and the corporations we patronize to change whatever they can (for a list of top corporate hypocrites, go here), to put the heat on our elected representatives, no matter how divided our country or frustrated we are with politics, and to do it now.
Photo by Sander Lenaerts