The Trump administration has officially admitted what few conservatives dare: Climate change is real. Not only is it real, it’s really bad, says the government’s new 500-page environmental impact statement on its proposed loosening of vehicle emissions rules. If nothing is done to limit the amount of carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere, it says, the planet will warm a shocking seven degrees by the end of this century. That means many of the people alive today will witness a rapid decline in conditions, and the generation of children born in this century will see unfathomable environmental destruction—and soon.
A major climate report, issued on October 8 by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), details an accelerated timeline for a litany of catastrophic impacts of climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the report says, the atmosphere will warm up by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels by 2040. The report was written and edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who analyzed more than 6,000 scientific studies.
Scientists have long said a two-degree rise would be catastrophic, bringing about the worst-case scenarios of heat waves, drought, flooding of coastal areas, the collapse of agricultural systems, final destruction of the ocean reefs and other sea life, and pandemics. The Paris Climate Agreement has a goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. But the Trump administration is OK with this—so much so that it sees no reason to even attempt to stop it.
In addition to withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, Trump is pushing for increased coal burning. Eliminating coal is a key part of keeping carbon emissions at a manageable level.
“This report makes it clear: There is no way to mitigate climate change without getting rid of coal,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke University and an author of the report.
The U.S. policy is buried in the Draft Environmental Statement the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued to justify why it is freezing Obama-era fuel-efficiency rules for cars and light trucks. The argument? We are doomed anyway, so let’s keep polluting. According to the administration’s own estimates, the vehicle rule would put 8 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere this century, more than a year’s worth of total U.S. emissions, the government estimates. The report also notes that if the world takes no action to curb emissions, current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would rise from 410 parts per million to 789 ppm by 2100.
“The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society. And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it,” said Michael MacCracken, who served as a senior scientist at the U.S. Global Change Research Program from 1993 to 2002.
Even some conservatives are alarmed. Christine Todd Whitman, who served as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the George W. Bush administration, says that the Obama-era rules are within our technological ability to achieve. “From undermining and ignoring established science, to rolling back lifesaving public health protections, it's become abundantly clear that this administration has no intention of upholding the core mission of the EPA,” she said. “What's worse, even the EPA's own Scientific Advisory Board is questioning the ‘adequacy’ of scientific justifications used to roll back the clean car standards, particularly what this move could mean for climate change, air pollution, as well as impacts on Americans' health and safety. This rollback also ignores thousands of pages of research showing that the current standards are achievable, protect public health and reduce air pollution. The EPA should make decisions based on science — not willfully ignoring the work of scientists.”
The Trump administration says to do something “would require substantial increases in technology innovation and adoption compared to today’s levels and would require the economy and the vehicle fleet to move away from the use of fossil fuels, which is not currently technologically feasible or economically feasible.”
Some societies argue otherwise: Sweden has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2045, through government initiatives that invest in green energy and technologies. Germany is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. In 2017, the UK saw its carbon emissions drop to levels last seen in 1890, due to decreases in fossil fuel use. Bhutan is not just carbon net-zero, it’s a carbon sink, making it net-negative — it alleviates more carbon emissions than the amount its own society creates by protecting its forests and planting new trees.
There’s also the fact that the effects of climate change are also not economically feasible. The authors of the UN report estimate that climate change will cost $54 trillion in this century as the planet warms 2.7 degrees, and $69 trillion as it reaches 3.6 degrees. Governments will struggle to deal with destructive storms, food shortages, political unrest, mass migration of human populations, disease, and other effects of climate change. This assumes that governments will remain intact amid such deteriorating conditions.
Scientists say there is still hope for the planet—if we act fast. The UN scientists say that it is technically possible to achieve the rapid changes required to avoid 2.7 degrees of warming. Greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent by 2050. Renewable energy such as wind and solar, which provide about 20 percent of the world’s electricity, would have to increase to 67 percent. However, it is politically unlikely that any of this will happen.
According to a new study published in the journal Earth System Dynamics, humanity is reaching a tipping point beyond which it will become almost impossible to keep Earth's temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius. That study calculates that if the world's governments don't initiate a transition to clean energy sources by 2035, there will be no hope.
"In our study we show that there are strict deadlines for taking climate action," Henk Dijkstra, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and one of the study authors, said. "We conclude that very little time is left before the Paris targets [to limit global warming] become infeasible."
Shindell notes that keeping warming below 1.5 degrees will require the world’s carbon dioxide emissions to drop by 40% within the next 12 years. And by 2050, nations should have zero net emissions. This means no more gas engines, no coal-fired power plants, and increased use of biofuels and renewable energies.
Another thing that would help would be to halt the rapid deforestation of the planet, particularly of the rainforests, which act as “lungs” and filter carbon dioxide. By protecting and restoring forests, the world would achieve 18% of the emissions mitigation needed by 2030 to avoid runaway climate change. “We must protect and maintain healthy forests to avoid dangerous climate change and to ensure the world’s forests continue to provide services critical for the well-being of the planet and ourselves,” said a statement from a group of 40 scientists from five countries. Brazil, which contains the last vast stretches of rainforests, which are critical to the planet’s health, is on the verge of electing a Trump-style far-right extremist president, Jair Bolsonaro, a climate change denier who has vowed to exit the Paris agreement and cut down the rainforests.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the Trump administration has thrown its resources into uplifting the inefficient, carbon-producing coal industry and encouraging oil and gas operations to release greater amount of methane into the atmosphere. It has hurt solar. Since taking office, Trump has led a push to dismantle a continuous list of rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gases and protecting clean air, water, species, and human health.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned leaders gathered in New York in the recent United Nations gathering that, “If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change . . . Our future is at stake.”
If that sounds dramatic, keep in mind that scientists have been warning us about climate change for decades, and not only have their predictions come true so far, but those predictions were so conservative that the negative effects have been coming faster than predicted. Arctic ice has been melting faster and sea levels have been rising higher than anticipated.
"There is a cultural tradition in science, especially climate science, to not want to be alarmist," said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.
In which case, it’s entirely possible the point of no return has already been passed.