29 October 2023
Never Mind the Climate, Watch the Wars
By Gwynne Dyer
With practically all the media bandwidth for non-local news taken up by two tribal territorial struggles that would not have seemed out of place in the 15th century AD – or indeed the 15th century BC – you may have missed the latest release from the International Energy Agency (IEA).
That would be a pity, because it’s a lot more important than Gaza and Donetsk. The IEA’s annual ‘World Energy Outlook’ is the best one-stop guide to where we are now in the attempt to keep global warming below a disastrous level.
It says that we are still in the game, with a slim chance of holding the warming below a catastrophic level (+1.5°Celsius) through the rest of the century. (It was at +1.2°C last year.) Good news – but it has to be read with a lot of riders and codicils.
First, don’t treat these small numbers like minor changes in the outdoor temperature on a spring day. Think of them like big jumps in the temperature of a feverish child. At +1.5°C she has a mild fever, at +3.0°C she’s ‘burning up’, at +4.5°C she’s dying.
Secondly, remember that the average warming for the past thirty years has been +0.2°C per decade. Up to now none of our attempts to switch to ‘clean’ energy have slowed that even a bit: lots of new ‘clean’ energy like wind and solar, but overall demand grew apace and the share of fossil fuel in the total stayed at 80%.
Now, finally, the IEA says the global share of fossil fuels may be starting to drop a little – but only a little. We will probably have a foretaste of climate hell in 2024, when the El Niño oscillation temporarily drives the average global temperature up to +1.5°C for a year or two, but after that it will drop back again for a while.
It will be back up to +1.5°C for good by the mid-2030s, but then, says the ‘World Energy Outlook’, we might be able to hold it there for the long term if we do everything just right. That would be wonderful news – but you have to read the small print.
The IEA has a ‘Net Zero 2050′ scenario in which we would indeed accomplish that miracle, but to get on track for that would require tripling our clean power production and doubling our investment in energy efficiency (insulation, heat pumps, etc.) by 2030.
Then there is the ‘Announced Pledges Scenario’ (something like ‘I pledge to start cutting back on my drinking once my marriage and my work situation improve’). If all those promises were kept in full and on time, the world would warm to +1.7°C.
And finally there’s the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS), also known as ‘the present’. With current policies, including all emissions cuts that are programmed and legally enforceable, we go to +2.4°C. But that is tantamount to ‘runaway’, because by then we will have crossed all the ‘tipping points’ and we are heading for +4°C or +5°C.
The tipping points, also known as ‘feedbacks’, are what happens when the warming we have caused with our emissions triggers natural processes (which we can’t turn off) that cause further warming on their own. An example would be the permafrost melting and emitting carbon dioxide and methane.
There are fifteen known tipping points, like land mines buried on our path on the way up from +1.5°C to +3.0°C. We’ll only find out exactly where they are when we trigger them, but if we go that route that’s probably how our civilisation ends.
We have no data on the future, but we do know that when the planet climbed out of the last major glaciation 11,550 years ago, there was a sudden 5°C jump in the average global temperature.
Only one degree of that rise was due to the ‘Milankovitch cycles’ – tiny changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. The other four degrees were due to ‘feedbacks’ in the Earth’s own climate system.
Could that happen again? We supply1.5 degrees C of warming, and feedbacks supply the rest? Yes, and we can even identify the likeliest candidates to be tipping points on the next five-degree jump.
So you would think that all human energies would currently be focused on avoiding this potential calamity, including those of Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians. Especially the Israelis and Palestinians, whose disputed homeland would become uninhabitable by the end of the century in most ‘runaway’ scenarios.
Not so, of course. The human race is what it is, easily distracted from long-term issues by whatever is loud and immediate.
That was what our hunter-gatherer ancestors were like, and it served them well enough. It’s taking us a long time to outgrow that heritage. Maybe too long.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“First…80%”)