There Is No Safe Global Warming

Photo: Getty

Safety is something we all crave. It’s human nature.

And so perhaps it’s not surprising that we’ve spent the past decade or so outlining what a “safe” level of global warming is. Language reflecting the conception of “safe” global heating abounds in scientific literature, climate negotiations, and the press. The Paris Agreement enshrined the idea that 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as pretty safe. Advocacy from small island nations and others has made a compelling case that 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) would be safer still, allowing, at least, for their continued existence. At various times, each of these levels of heating have been called a “guardrail,” “defence line,” and “buffer zone.” On one side, dangerous climate change. On the other, something we can figure out and adapt to if we play our cards right.

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Recently, the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold appears to have won out as our best bet for safety. And over the next decade, the world will decide its fate of whether it can limit heating to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial temperatures. But we don’t have to wait to find out if that level of heating is safe because the answer is right in front of us. Spoiler: It’s not.

Australia’s bushfires are a bright orange, smoke-spewing warning sign. The country just experienced its hottest year ever recorded, one where the annual average temperature edged 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The heat and accompanying drought are hallmarks of the climate crisis and key drivers of the bushfires that have charred more than 14.3 million acres this season. A quote in a 2014 story attributing then-unprecedented heat waves to climate change keeps rattling around in my head these days: Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told my then-colleague at Climate Central that Australia had “left behind the climate that they used to have.”

That makes what’s happening there an unnerving harbinger of what’s to come for the rest of us in a world that has warmed roughly 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since we began burning fossil fuels in earnest. It’s not that every region of the world will experience the same exact impacts as Australia at 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. But the flames destroying Australia show the devastating impacts of the climate crisis on humans and the natural world and how brittle our systems are in the face of those impacts.

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Consider that an estimated 480 million animals have been killed, displaced, or otherwise affected by the bushfires over the past four months in New South Wales alone. Or that thousands of people were recently trapped on beaches under smoke-drenched, blood-red skies, the sea a last refuge as fires approached. (The Australian military eventually evacuated people by boat as part of the country’s largest evacuation in history.) Or that an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire have burned so far with worse fire conditions expected to end this week, all battled by volunteer (and until recently, unpaid) firefighters.

None of this could remotely be construed as “safe” unless you’re a Big Oil chud. This is climate carnage, brought to you by fossil fuel companies that spent decades lying about the risks of their products and politicians carrying their water (or in Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s case, coal). Confronted with the overwhelming danger this relatively “small” amount of global heating poses, those same forces are doubling down on the system that got us to this place and will rocket us into a more dangerous, deadly future.

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None of this is to say we should give into climate doomerism (fuck you, Jonathan Franzen). Quite the opposite. Every degree of heating matters. So does every extra ton of carbon we chuck in the atmosphere.

The perils of our current altered climate should hasten the transition toward a no-carbon world and the “fundamental societal and systems transitions and transformations” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls for to keep the planet from warming past the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold. But as we work toward that, we also need to be clear-eyed that meeting that goal won’t necessarily make the world a “safe” place for everyone. There will still be vulnerable people who will need help, disasters will still hit, and the climate at 1.5 degrees Celsius won’t look like the one that allowed humanity to flourish. But it sure as hell is better than what’s on the other side.

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