The Real Climate Catastrophe

Gavin Schmidt
November 17, 2016

Earth’s climate is changing very rapidly, and we urgently need to find and implement solutions to the challenges posed by global warming.

Earth’s climate is changing very rapidly, with severe impacts looming on the horizon, yet we continue to stand around instead of finding and implementing solutions to the challenges posed by global warming.

Climate scientists have been warning of the risks inherent in human-caused global warming since the 1980s. At first, this consisted of only a few pioneering voices like Jim Hansen from NASA and Wally Broecker from Columbia University. More recently, with the advent of reports from the National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and scientific professional societies, the chorus has grown much louder.

Predictions of change made in the 1980s and 1990s have already been borne out: global warming, Arctic sea ice loss, more intense rainfall, accelerated sea level rise, eco-zones shifting upward and poleward. Current predictions suggest even more of the same in the decades to come if emissions continue to rise at the anticipated rate.

This places scientists in an odd position. Intellectually, there is nothing better than seeing ones predictions come true. But scientists are also citizens, and the risks associated with these predictions are so severe that very few — if any — scientists would be happy to see more of these outcomes occurring in real life.

This is not the first time scientists have been in this type of contradictory position. In 1986, Sherwood Rowland, who won the Nobel Prize for his part in the discovery of the chemistry of ozone depletion, made clear the dilemma, stating; “What is the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Indeed, it was not enough for Rowland to stand around, unconcerned with reducing ozone-depleting substances, notably chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), nor is it enough for many climate scientists to be unconcerned with reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

As with Rowland’s situation, personal actions in reducing individual impacts were not sufficient to make a substantial difference to the global problem. Solutions commensurate with the size of the challenge need a range of efforts at many levels. Individual, yes — but also at the community, city, state and national levels. But there is also a key role for the private sector in finding solutions, and here there is also an analogy with the ozone depletion problem. It was DuPont, Imperial Chemical Industries and other chemical manufacturers that led efforts to find substitutes for CFCs in the 1980s; they ultimately found opportunities to use the regulations and targets to develop new lines of business.

Today, there are similar, multiple roles for the private sector in developing new technologies, energy generation, greater efficiency, better organization and better accounting for carbon emissions as part of their standard business metrics.

It is often said that you can’t fix what you can’t measure. When the private sector builds in the carbon footprint of their activities, it can help identify inefficiencies and potential emissions targets, as well as assess the potential future liability for a real or shadow carbon-pricing mechanism. By reporting these numbers, companies also gain from having a more transparent environmental profile, and that can directly impact their attractiveness to environmentally conscious investors.

We’ve reached a point where knowledge has sufficiently framed the problem of human-caused global warming to inspire action in the private and public sectors. We’ve also reached a point where many predictions of change have begun to come true: rising sea levels, more frequent and intense storms, threats to food security.

While scientists continue to refine the risks and consequences of plausible emission trajectories, individuals, investors, companies and governments can actively build a future economy that is both more resilient and more sustainable. Because none of us are being forced to stand around waiting for these predictions to come true.

— Gavin Schmidt is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS).