In March, the United Nations released a massive climate change report. The biggest takeaway: Global warming will soon pass the oft-mentioned target of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Honestly, as a climate journalist, that totally freaked me out.
That “1.5 C” number comes up a lot in climate change conversations. That’s because, around 1.5 C, the climate starts hitting points of no return. Like, almost all the coral reefs die. Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland get scary wobbly. Permafrost starts to thaw faster than a popsicle on a hot sidewalk. Rising seas drown island nations.
But the UN scientists were pretty clear: 1.5 C is coming.
“Almost irrespective of our emissions choices in the near term, we will probably reach 1.5 degrees in the first half of the next decade,” said Irish climate scientist Peter Thorne, one of the lead authors on the UN report.
The real question, he said, is whether we overshoot 1.5 C by a little bit and come back down, “Or whether we go blasting through one and a half degrees, go through even two degrees and keep on going.”
Why is overshooting 1.5 C inevitable? Physics. There’s a nearly linear relationship between the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the average global temperature. More CO2 in the sky means a warmer world. It’s like pouring water into a bucket — keep pouring it in, eventually the bucket overflows.
Our carbon bucket will overflow in about nine years; by the early-to-mid-2030s, we’ll be living in a post-1.5 C world. Unless we quickly cut carbon emissions to zero. Last I checked, that’s not happening.
I think that 1.5 C has moved from “ambitious goal” to “magical thinking.” And the scientists are telling themselves a story to stave off despair.
After this report came out, something weird happened. Unlike the blunt Dr. Thorne, most climate scientists (and journalists) didn’t change how they publicly spoke about 1.5 C. Admitting defeat could risk “demotivation” said Pascal Lamy, the commissioner of the Climate Overshoot Commission. Scientists kept saying things like: “We need to act now to stay below 1.5” or “it’s getting harder, but still technically possible.”
Technically possible? Like, if aliens appear with magic tools that fix climate change?
I felt like I was being gaslit by climate scientists. I wanted to know what was going on. So, I called Kristina Dahl, the principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
She told me that staying under 1.5 C is now “largely unrealistic.”
But, she added, “like other climate scientists, I'm not ready to say that we have to give up on this goal.”
I asked her why. Why wouldn’t she just give it to me straight? And she told me a story that I found revelatory. Here it is, slightly edited:
I've got two kids, and mornings are busy. And there are mornings when you are running behind and you leave the house knowing that your kid is probably going to be late for school.
Now, there is some potential that your car has been replaced by a faster, better car. There's some potential that you will hit no traffic on the way to school. But, these are things you've never seen happen before, so they're very unlikely, right?
But I still have to behave as if I can get my kid to school — within the limits of safety, of course. I can take the fastest route. I can try to be in the fastest lane on the highway. It's better for him to be 1 minute late, than to be 10 minutes late or an hour late.
And so the goal stays the same because you recognize that there is value in meeting that goal. And you still have to do your best to get there.
She’s making two good points. First, with climate change, every tenth of a degree matters. The lower we end up, the better. And second, if you want to achieve something big, you start with an ambitious goal.
But I think that 1.5 C has moved from “ambitious goal” to “magical thinking.” And the scientists are telling themselves a story to stave off despair.
There’s something else going on, too: Scientists are shielding the public. They say: “We don’t want people to give up,” or “We don’t want the island nations to feel abandoned,” or “We don’t want people to lose hope.”
This is paternalism. (Or maybe maternalism?) Scientists are telling us a story to protect us from despair.
If my son and his friends think the coral reefs will be OK, the reefs are doomed. If he knows the truth, maybe he’ll become a biologist who tries to save them.
I do it, too. The other day I was telling my 13-year-old son about the near-certain death of most of the world's coral reefs when his eyes welled with tears. So, I stopped. I told him that the coral reefs will be OK — even though I know that’s not true. And I know lying is the wrong thing to do.
The facts of the climate crisis are truly terrifying. The reality of what we’re facing keeps me up at night. But I don’t think staving off the very warranted despair is helping anybody. So, I’m here to tell climate scientists — and my fellow climate journalists — to knock it off.
I think climate scientists (and journalists) are underestimating people. If you treat people like children who can’t handle the truth, they will behave like children. Like teenagers, actually, wasting time like it’s in endless supply. Yes, there are plenty of people who prefer denial. But I bet just as many want the truth, painful as it is. We deserve a shot at rising to the occasion.
Climate experts talk a lot about “cathedral thinking.” It’s the idea of working towards long term goals — like a medieval cathedral. These goals require vision, shared commitment, and decades, even centuries, of planning. The planners and builders don’t live to see the end product, but future generations reap the rewards.
It’s an inspiring idea. Something maybe only humans could divine. But here’s the thing: cathedral thinking also requires a firm grasp of facts. A cathedral built on fantasy won’t stand for long.
If my son and his friends think the coral reefs will be OK, the reefs are doomed. If he knows the truth, maybe he’ll become a biologist who tries to save them. When people know what they’re up against, many will be sad — I’m sad! — but then they can prepare.
That’s the only way we’ll make it.
This segment aired on November 9, 2023.