The ‘Forever Legacy’ of decisions we are making (and not making now) to decarbonize

Excerpt from Yale360 by Daniel Kammen and Rob Wilder

What badly needs to be brought home to the public is the massive inertia in the climate system, which means changes in temperature and sea level will go on and on long past the year 2100.  For example, about 20,000 years ago, rising temperatures due to cyclical, non-human-caused swings in the climate were bringing earth out of the last Ice Age. Even after CO2 concentrations plateaued, global temperatures continued to increase, leveling off roughly at today’s levels about 11,000 years ago. Yet sea levels, which were several hundred feet lower than today at the peak of the last Ice Age because so much of the planet’s water was locked up in ice, continued to steadily climb for another 8,000 years, before roughly reaching their current state about 3,000 years ago. 

Although we will unquestionably have a less hospitable climate in 2100 than today, that will be nothing compared to what might lie in store in 2200 and beyond. Yes, in 2100, sea levels might be three or more feet higher than today, which will be bad for low-lying nations like Bangladesh and U.S. states like Florida. But if greenhouse gas emissions continue at roughly today’s levels for another century, that may mean that sea levels 500 years from now would be nearly 50 feet higher as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt. That would mean losing large swaths of coastal areas worldwide. This is not alarmism; this is where the science takes us. 

Given current and projected greenhouse gas emissions, we are looking at nothing less than creating a “forever legacy,” imposing monumental changes on the planet that can’t be readily unwound in a timeframe meaningful to our species.

We are, at best, now thinking decades into the future, while pressing our foot hard on a CO2 accelerator that virtually guarantees climate chaos for millennia to come. That’s why the issue of considering the long-term costs we might be imposing on the planet is every bit as much a moral issue as a scientific one: Because of our collective failure to rapidly decarbonize the global economy and slash CO2 emissions, we are poised to leave future generations a grim legacy of climate upheaval.

So what is the way out? If there were a simple path, we’d already be following it. Opponents of strong action to curb greenhouse gas emissions say that this is alarmism, highly uncertain, and that to aggressively pursue a low-CO2 path would be onerous and cause widespread economic damage. Most countries are either, by default, choosing inaction or are moving far too slowly to make deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. But as renewable energy experts, we believe climate change presents opportunities: for cleaner air, new industries, job growth, and stronger economies.

Many solutions are well-known and are readily at hand. The first step might be enacting simple and transparent carbon taxes that begin to reflect true current and long-term costs of dumping CO2 into the atmosphere — costs that are in no way factored into the present-day global economy. It would be much smarter to tax “bads” like climate-changing greenhouse gases, than “goods” like work and productivity. That is what truly conservative, pro-growth, pro-jobs policies ought to look like.

Then there is carbon accounting across the public sector — including with the companies that want to do business with the government — and divestment of fossil fuel assets on the part of pension funds and financial institutions, as well as entities in the private, non-profit, and educational sectors. This is already happening in Northern Europe as renewables are simply growing much more attractive than dirty fossil fuels. And we need initial government support for clean-energy industries, as well as long-term funding for research and development on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and battery technologies.

We could also invest in technologies like “direct air capture” that might eventually employ millions of devices to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. But counting on “silver bullet” solutions to save us is not a sound strategy. These technologies use energy to operate themselves, and the scale of the challenge is immense, which is why we must immediately take concrete steps to drastically lower global emissions.

There is some reason for hope. Numerous European Union countries including Germany, and several U.S. states such as California, are making steady progress toward decarbonizing their economies. China is doing a lot more lately, though far, far more is needed. Sizeable segments of the private sector — including tech giants like Google, Apple, and Microsoft — are choosing clean energy solutions. But without large-scale coordinated action on many levels across government, academia, and the private sector, our efforts to drastically cut emissions will fall far short of what chemistry and physics demand. The atmosphere and climate do not respond to hopes or aspirations.

It’s not easy for humans to look far into the future; we are accustomed to thinking that every mistake can be undone and that the earth is unchanging. But the stakes with climate change are uniquely so high, and the damages to the planet and society so enormous, that scientists, the press, politicians, and the public need to peer a few centuries down the road and imagine what kind of world we will be leaving to our descendants.

Rob Wilder is member emeritus of the Director’s Council at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. He is a Fulbright Senior Specialist and Chairs the Advisory Committee for WilderHill Clean Energy Index (ECO). MOREABOUT ROB WILDER →

Dan Kammen is a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley where he chairs the Energy and Resources Group, and is a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. MOREABOUT DAN KAMMEN →