Note: This story was originally published on Medium on March 22, 2016
2015 was an important year. It will prove to be one of the most important years of the 21st century. We may not know it now, but in the next century we’ll look back on 2015 as the year everything changed.
2015 was a year of relentless heat waves; it was a year of unprecedented droughts and powerful monsoons. It was a year of unstoppable forest fires, of record strength hurricanes, and impassable winter storms. 2015 was a year of mass die-offs, of aborted migrations, of delayed seasons, and early budding. 2015 was the year no one was left unaffected by climate change.
Here’s why: 2015 shattered records for global mean temperatures. It was the warmest year we’ve had for as long as we’ve been recording temperatures. It’s also the year we’ve crossed over the 1 degree Celsius threshold, meaning that the global average temperatures are now a full degree Celsius above global temperatures before the industrial revolution. And the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now passed 400 parts per million (ppm).
These three facts have far reaching implications. 2015 gave us a few glimpses into the near future that we’re rocketing towards.
But some of us are more threatened by these changes than others. The most threatened are the frontline communities that suffered heavily in 2015 — the ones that are most vulnerable to climate change: the 1,100+ residents who died as a result of the deadly heat waves across India and Pakistan; the agrarian communities across Sub-Saharan Africa that have been devastated by drought; and those fishing communities that have forced to leave their livelihoods as sea levels rise and coastlines disappear.
These communities are the ones you’ll soon come to know as “climate refugees.”
Earth’s climates are changing.
Frogs in a Boiling Pot
2015 was a record breaker. The extreme temperatures we saw in 2015 have been described by NASA as “anomalous.” But that doesn’t mean 2015 can — or should — be considered a fluke. In fact, it isn’t a fluke, it’s the manifestation of a long-term trend. 2015 broke the record for hottest year, but guess which year held that record? 2014. Yes, the globe is warming. The surface of the Earth is warming. Over the last thirty years, the surface of the Earth has warmed between 0.1 and 0.2 degrees Celsius; and global average temperatures have risen 1 full degree Celsius since records began during the Industrial Revolution over a hundred years ago.
More troubling is that the oceans are warming, too. All of the oceans on Earth experienced record temperatures in 2015. That’s troubling because the oceans are our great regulators, and their warming indicate outside forces are at work. The oceans don’t have heat waves, for example, and their warming isn’t part of some nature cycle. Their temperatures are steady, less variable, consistent — and they are consistently getting warmer. This is referred to as “heat sink.”
“The rate at which heat goes into the ocean is really a measure of the radiated imbalance of the whole planet,” according to Gavin Schmidt, of NASA. “That’s a very useful validation of the theories we have for why the planet is warming the way it is. It tells us very quickly that this is an external force on the system, and that it’s not a natural pattern of internal radiating of the ocean.”
There’s no question what the source of that heating is. It’s carbon in the atmosphere, and specifically, it’s carbon dioxide. “The eventual warming of the planet is actually quite closely controlled by the total carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere,” Schmidt said. “Carbon dioxide is long lived in the atmosphere, [and] the perturbations of an emission exist for hundreds of thousands of years. We haven’t quite caught up with what we’ve already done, and we’re continuing to do more.”
El Nino and La Nina
Don’t let anyone convince you 2015 was record year because of El Nino. It would have been a record year without El Nino. El Nino is a weather phenomenon that affects climates in the Western Hemisphere every few years. It’s an incredibly complex phenomenon, causing the planet to go through phases of intense warm weather conditions — El Nino years — and then entering into phases of cooling conditions, known as La Nina.
Over the past few years, we’ve been in a period of La Nina. Climate denialists used this opportunity to claim climate change had somehow stopped itself, despite the continued increases of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. Smug calls of bad science on climate change culminated in a Senator throwing a theatrical curveball, in the form of an actual snowball, across the Senate floor in 2015, while the region suffered one of what would be many record-breaking snowstorms in 2015.
“If this was just an El Nino year it would be like the other El Nino years,” Schmidt said. “The reason this is such a warm record year is because of the long term underlying trend.”
Our Collective Climate Bank Account
In reality, the Earth continued to warm during those five years between the last El Nino effect in 2010 and present day. “There’s no evidence that the long term trend has slowed, paused, hiatus’d at any point in the last few decades,” said Schmidt. Global warming didn’t stop, its effects were only transformed.
Think of Earth’s climate as a bank account. We’ve been writing checks since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. While surface temperatures warmed at a slower rate than what we’ve witnessed in the past decades, the warming was still taking place. Now, we’re seeing those carbon checks being cashed, and it’s not good for us. The future will be unpleasantly warm. We’ll see a period of super-heating, according to some experts. An entire spat of 2015s, year after year after year.
It starts in 2016. With a strong El Nino in effect, 2016 will likely be even hotter than 2015 was. “We’re predicting that because 2016 is starting with a very strong El Nino, it will kind of build during the year,” Schmidt said. Put succinctly by Thomas Karl, of NOAA: “If you’re going to be betting, you’d bet that 2016 will be warmer than 2015.”
We’re nearly four months into the new year, and the temperatures in 2016 have been so high scientists have categorized them as “sci-fi.”
“We’re really looking at a long term trend, and this year was just a symptom of that long term trend,” said Schmidt. “This trend will be continuing because the factors that are causing this long term trend are continuing to accelerate — and that’s mainly the increase in burning fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide emissions that go with that.”
Life on a Hot Planet
What will life look like on a hotter planet? More extremes: more heat waves, more droughts, more record precipitations. These are the types of weather events that have been linked to increasing global surface temperatures. There will be other implications, too: melting ice sheets means sea levels will rise; warmer winters will throw wildlife out of whack; periods of drought will put pressure on our food supply chains, to name a few.
These are facts; this is the new world reality we’ve crossed over into.
“It’s not really an ‘if this trend will continue’. It will continue,” Schmidt said. “It’s happening because the dominate force right now is the increase in carbon dioxide that’s produced from deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels.”
There are factors here that we can’t predict, of course, such as what happens to ecosystems when the global temperatures rise, or how fast sea levels will rise. Those are cause for more concern.
“It’s just as important to be concerned about the rate that things change,” said Karl. “We have a difficult time establishing what we call ‘transient climate sensitivity’. What will the global temperatures be with a certain amount of emission? When carbon dioxide gets close to being doubled, what’s the global temperature change? How quickly will we get there?”
Those questions are important because “it makes it much more difficult to adapt to a rapidly changing climate than something that’s happening more slowly,” he said.
2 Degrees Celsius Isn’t a ‘Magic Number’
The leaders of the world came together in December 2015 — the warmest December on record — to try to reach some sort of consensus on how to proceed, how to further cut back emissions, how to make things right again. The resulting deal centered around hopes of preventing the global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial levels.
That target serves more or less as an arbitrary boundary. “We’re already seeing the impacts of global warming at 1 degree Celsius,” Schmidt said. “Two degrees or 1.5 degrees — those aren’t magic numbers, nothing particularly special happens at those numbers. We’re going to see more and clearer impacts as we warm.”
In other words, there is no safe zone. We’ve crossed the 1 degree mark, we’ve crossed the 400 ppm milestone for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “That can’t be turned around instantly,” Schmidt said. “A sustained effort would be required to shift emissions away from carbon dioxide, and there has to be a sustained conversation and discourse and monitoring the situation from everybody for this problem to get under control. That’s not something that’s just going to be done in one year or two years.”
There’s no more kicking the can — 2015 was the year we ran out of road. Now we must act. “If you look at the pathways that people have suggested for scenarios that would keep us below 2 degrees or below 1.5 degrees, those are pathways that require emissions to be cut pretty much starting now, at historically unprecedented rates,” Schmidt said. “Sustained reductions in emissions to about an 80% cut within the next 30 years would probably do it, but that’s a very ambitious target.”
And that’s not the only problem. There’s also the issue of financing. After the Paris deal, the total global available financing for climate change mitigation was estimated to be between $350 and $650 million, according to the UN. That isn’t enough. According to a report from the International Energy Agency, even if all the countries that have promised funds make good on those promises, the resulting $13.5 trillion worth of investments still wouldn’t be enough to curb global warming by 2 degrees Celsius over the next 15 years.
Standard and Poor has since stated it counts total promised investments at $16.5 trillion. That’s still not enough, according to a recent note from its Global Credit Report. “Since current national emission reduction commitments in the NDCs [nationally determined contributions] are unlikely to be sufficient to restrict the temperature rise to even 2 degrees, it remains to be seen just how individual countries will now respond and how far they are prepared to go,” it said.
One of the reasons consensus was even reached at the Paris negotiations was because the accord itself didn’t bind any one nation by law to do anything. While the agreement is legally binding, the negotiators spent a good 21 hours combing through the documents to make sure no one was legally obliged to do anything beyond agree.
Now, the fate of the globe rests in our hands. “It depends on our long term ability to maintain focus on this issue,” Schmidt said.
‘This Is Too Important for Partisan Politics’
Don’t get me wrong. The deal that came out of Paris was still historic. It was the best attempt we’ve ever had at tackling this problem as a unified, global community.
The Paris accord was a starting gun, not a finish line. Nations around the world now are tasked with making the promises of Paris a reality. And there are already leaders: Germany, Sweden, and China to start.
The US is a leader, too. It ranks 2nd in installed wind power capacity (behind China), and ranks 5th in installed solar PV capacity (behind Germany, China and others). And there’s lots of room to grow. The US is the second largest contributor to CO2 emissions, and renewable energy makes up about 13% of our total energy consumption.
In the US, the reality of climate change is still under debate. The term “global warming” became so politically charged that it’s no longer used in political discourse on the subject in the US, and partisan politics are threatening to impede the country’s commitments to emission reductions.
US President Barack Obama pledged $500 million to the Paris cause for the new year, but any funds the President promises are subject to Congressional approval, and President Obama currently faces an inert Congress, with both House and Senate majorities held by a very antagonist Republican Party. The president’s Clean Power Plan, which outlines how states can reduce emissions and reach targets by 2030, was temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court through a 5–4 vote along party lines. The block is just one of a string of incidents of Republican party members opposing or blocking renewable energy initiatives in the US.
“Climate change is so important to every single citizen of this world. It should no longer be an ideological issue, it should be a competitiveness issue,” said UNFCCC head Christiana Figueres, the powerhouse behind the Paris accord, earlier this year. “If the US wants to be competitive in a global decarbonized economy, it has to change…This, honestly, is too important to be about partisan politics.”
The only thing standing between us and success in the onerous tasks of curbing global emissions and reversing the damage we’ve already done to the planet is political will. It isn’t technology, it isn’t science, it isn’t funding. It’s the ability to maintain focus on this issue in the long term. Success will depend on determination at all levels of government, business, and citizenship.
I’ll leave you with the concluding remarks from former NASA scientist and so-called father of climate change awareness James Hansen, in a paper written in 2008:
“Present policies suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20–25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”
You can read his full paper here.