We miscalculated our climate tipping points: This decade is critical
Despite the knowledge that the planet is rapidly warming, efforts to respond to the crisis have been far too slow. A growing risk factor now emerging is that the timeline for some of the direst impacts of climate change could be overly optimistic. Cascading effects in the natural world — from the savannization of the Amazon to the release of permafrost methane in Siberia — could very well speed up projections much earlier than predicted.
There is also a certain level of hubris emerging within some policy and scientific circles, assuming humanity can stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis by betting on carbon-capture technologies or risking unknown consequences from geoengineering. Policymakers should begin talking about the here and now, with concrete reductions in emissions each year.
The phase-out of fossil fuels is moving in the opposite direction and represents an existential threat to the planet. Without greater ambition, without serious bipartisan efforts to address the most critical issue of the century, we are leaving behind an unthinkable legacy. We cannot let the planet become uninhabitable for future generations.
The crux of the problem is both technical and heavily influenced by politics, as the economics have changed dramatically in favor of renewable energy. Climate science, while not exact, helps to shed a spotlight on troubling trends that should influence and help guide U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Scientists have attempted to bridge their expertise and knowledge to inform policy for more than three decades, but we may soon find we are approaching a point of no return.
Some scientists are shifting gears, considering civil disobedience and political efforts to urge greater action. Why risk the impartiality of science, with what has been considered a problem for economists or urban planners to solve? Because our time for meaningful action has been slated for just a few short years this decade. According to the latest United in Science report, there is a 48 percent chance that the average annual temperature will surpass targets laid out in the Paris Agreement, at least temporarily, within the next five years.
The concept of abrupt climate change initiated by so-called tipping points could become far more prominent in our lexicon. Warming trends are already occurring at rates that scientists previously thought would not happen until mid-century. Take, for example, major heat waves, drought and wildfires in Europe; or in Pakistan, where massive flooding has left a third of the population submerged. Recent studies have also shown that the speed at which ice melt and other physical trends are occurring in the Arctic and Antarctic is much faster than previously known.
This is stunning to scientists who assumed slower, linear change and it should represent an important wake-up call. Without a greater emphasis on civic engagement and informing the public on the potential outcomes facing our planet, it is all too probable that we will not react quickly enough — in terms of mitigation, but also adaptation. But there is still hope.
As much as climate change represents a series of challenges for our economy and reflects polarized views about what to do about it, the international elements of the problem can represent newfound opportunities for the United States. The relevance of Latin American countries and the Western hemisphere more broadly is often overshadowed by long-term trends associated with displacement and migration.
Continued warming and extreme drought in countries along Central America’s Dry Corridor, which extends from southern Mexico to northern Panama, has devastated local agricultural communities and pushed people to emigrate. Mexico’s continued focus on securing its energy independence through fossil fuels will only exacerbate these trends.
Globally, the Russian war in Ukraine has upended long-term climate goals for shortsightedness in trying to address skyrocketing energy prices fueling high inflation. However, at the same time, several countries in the hemisphere have ambitious targets, are rapidly scaling up renewable energy and green hydrogen development and making significant contributions toward conservation. Most importantly, several Latin American nations hold many of the critical minerals and inputs needed for industries that can help hasten the energy transition back home.
The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has been touted as an important step in the right direction. With nearly $370 billion in spending and tax credits, it will help guide action in the future, including within the auto industry, which currently represents more than a quarter of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
The international dimensions are also commendable, as the legislation could help strengthen trade relationships and economic opportunities in the Western hemisphere by creating more sustainable supply chains based in the Americas. In the coming years, the IRA will require that critical minerals such as lithium, which is necessary for energy storage and electrification, either be sourced domestically, obtained from recycled components, or be imported from countries that hold a free-trade agreement with the United States, such as Australia, Chile, Peru, Mexico and Canada.
Nevertheless, the IRA legislation is lacking the full level of ambition our country needs to truly transform its economy on a more ecologically sustainable trajectory. Targeted investments and subsidies, the creation of carbon border taxes, alongside federal job training can all help, but without a clear, politically viable pathway forward, addressing the climate crisis will continue to be cast as a partisan issue, despite some consensus among voters of both parties in recent years. There is a growing political risk that the existing pressures on American democracy could either polarize us and our response to this important challenge further or reflect a new sense of unity to bring the country together.
Getting to the latter possibility is not entirely out of reach. It begins with everyday people that decide which policies and issues are important to them. As upcoming elections take place throughout the country, our environment and the long-term implications of “business as usual” should be front and center. Voters should be well aware of the consequences of inaction, not simply for our own domestic challenges and the threat that a warming planet represents, but also to instill a new sense of U.S. leadership on the world stage.
Without significant movement to curtail emissions in the short-term, our future may look catastrophically worse, with little remedy after the fact — leaving both our planet and our legacy as its stewards far beyond repair.
Paul Andrew Mayewski, Ph.D. is the director and professor at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. Anders Beal is an associate in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The views expressed are those of the authors.