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A Different Type of Conundrum... A Different Kind of Denial

One of my favorite comedy scenes in a movie (and I bet some of you will agree) is in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail", when a Knight tries to block the entourage of another Knight from passing through a forest. Once the Knights engage in combat, the one trying to block the path keeps losing limbs and at one point, exclaims "it's only a flesh wound!"

The gatekeeper Knight is obviously in serious denial.

When it comes to climate change, for years everyone has focused on climate science denial, as in denial that climate change is happening, or denial that the science of climate change is settled.

That is not the climate denial I want to focus on.

According to polls, that type of denial is shrinking among Americans (and it hasn't existed for a long time elsewhere around the globe). Not only do surveys show rising awareness of climate change, and support for action, but the concept of climate change is now commonplace in the way we all talk about things, even if we use words and phrases other than "climate change" or "global warming." In the media, the concept has become matter of fact.

What I am concerned about instead is a different type of climate denial - the idea that we do not have to act now, and instead can wait.

As I am sure you know, the insidious threat of the climate change problem is emissions that accumulate over time. Unlike other emissions we have dealt with before, greenhouse gas emissions concentrations build up over time because they remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time - long as in hundreds of years.

To get this point across when speaking on climate change, I ask the audience if it remembers or knows about the story of acid rain. The majority raise their hand. In the 1960's and 70's, acid rain may have been the highest profile environmental problem we had. It referred to the problem of old dirty coal plants in the Midwest putting out sulfur dioxide (SOx) emissions that did not stay in the atmosphere very long. Much to the contrary - the SOx fell out very quickly as precipitation over the Northeastern U.S. Once we understood and acknowledged the problem (which resulted in a political battle nonetheless), utilities were forced to install scrubbers on the stacks in the Midwest and the acid rain stopped.

But climate change is not like acid rain. We can't turn on a dime when we decide that we have felt enough impact from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on our climate, our weather, our economy, and, of course, on us such that we are ready to act. With GHGs, we have to act before the worst impacts occur, or else those impacts and those to follow will be unavoidable - they will already be baked in due to the GHG concentrations already in the atmosphere.

Last night, (today in Korea) I watched the press conference at which the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Report that was requested by all of the countries that signed the Paris Accord. The task given the IPCC was to assess whether or not the world would be able to keep global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (don't forget the Fahrenheit number is always higher). Well, the IPCC has given its answer. Here are the big take-aways. To meet the goal of keeping global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius --

  • World greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 - just 15 months from now.
  • Emissions in 2030 would also need to be about 50% less than 2010 levels.
  • The difference in impacts between 1.5 and 2 degrees are significant - it could be make-or-break for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, for example, which would flood every coastal city on Earth should it collapse.
  • We'd need to reach net zero emissions by mid-century, and negative emissions thereafter, using carbon removal technologies.  

But current emissions projections show the world is on track to actually increase emissions through 2030.

So how in the world do we go about tackling this?

I think the first thing we have to do is address that other type of denial - not denial of climate change itself but denial of the climate change timetable we are on. Given the IPCC Report, we have little time in which to act - both big and small.

Yet we seem not to have incorporated the threat of climate change into the ways we live, do business, and make policy. We make incremental gains in use of renewable energy and feel good about it. We become satisfied in setting goals for reducing or eliminating emissions, even when the timelines for reaching the goals may be farther out in the future than they need to be. We talk about how new technologies will surely come to the rescue, especially ones that remove carbon from the atmosphere, even when from what I know and read, we are not even close to having such technology at the scale needed, if it exists at all.

I am searching for an analogy to our present situation from past history. Is it WWII where there was no choice but for the world to put everything else on hold and join together to fight fascism? That was a time of rationing to divert materials to the needs of the front. It was a time when people were encouraged to plant Victory gardens in their yards and grow food for themselves as well as for the war effort. It was a time when you could not buy a new car because none were made. GM, Ford and all other assembly lines were making military vehicles.

Is there some other potential analogy that I am not thinking of?

If there isn't then we have to realize that we are in uncharted waters, and there is no precedent for our situation. We have to realize that we need to identify the kind of things - big and small - that we can do as individuals and groups. Some of these will be a one-time type of action, some will be ones that have to be done only every so often (e.g. elections). Some will have to be weekly and daily, even if they only yield very small results each time. They don't all have to relate to energy, my usual topic.

For example, the IEA said in a report last week that a sharp increase in greenhouse gas emissions from the petrochemical industry - which includes plastic, fertilizer and pharmaceutical companies - threatens to erode climate benefits from reductions in other sectors. The IEA said in releasing the Report that when we look at the years to come, the petrochemical sector is by far the largest driver of global oil demand growth, much higher than cars, much higher than trucks, aviation, and shipping,

I am not going to list the things we can do to decrease emissions - there are plenty out there that you can find. But to be on the list, they have to meet one of three general criteria:

  1. It reduces GHG Emissions from existing sources as much as possible.
  2. It prevents any new GHG emissions (i.e. Zero Emissions)
  3. It withdraws GHG from the atmosphere

OK...I know...not everything can be so black and white and literal. We have no choice in some of the actions we take in terms of it being a zero emissions choice. But just as we all hopefully try to each day follow a common set of principles for how we live our lives, it is time for us to all have a common aspirational goal of preventing serious impacts of climate change.

If the IPCC Report and the many other reports that have come out in the past two years are any indication - and I think they are - we have a real fight on our hands. Let's join together and try to win. Losing is not going to be any fun.

Dan Delurey's picture

Thank Dan for the Post!

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