The tipping point and the cost of delay
Time is of the essence for climate action. The 2018 Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear that we have a limited window of opportunity—about 12 years—to take effective action if we want to divert the most damaging and irreversible effects of climate change. This is the source of the urgency behind the notion of a 10-year “moon shot” style effort to bring maximum resources and ingenuity to the problem of climate change.
The IPCC Special Report predicts that the global temperature rise will be 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial conditions by sometime between 2030 and 2052 if the current rate of warming continues. The report further projects global warming of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, even if all of the nations that signed the Paris Climate Accord reach their agreed-to GHG reduction commitments. In order to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we need to set a more stringent goal of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius warming by 2100, a goal the report’s authors believe is achievable if we can muster the will to reduce global GHG emissions by 45% by 2030, and to net-zero by 2050. That means achieving 70-85% of electricity production through renewable resources by 2050, supplemented by nuclear energy, with a smaller portion (8%) generated from natural gas and a phase-out of coal. We need to ramp up programs to improve energy efficiency in transportation and buildings, make agriculture and industry less polluting, and invent new technologies to remove existing CO2 from the atmosphere.
A few key concepts can help us understand why time is getting short. One is the idea of the “tipping point,” a term with meanings relevant to physics, epidemiology, sociology, psychology and demographics. In the climate context, the Cambridge Dictionary defines the tipping point as “the time at which a change or effect cannot be stopped.” Most climate experts agree that we are very close to the tipping point for global warming.
“Forcings” and “feedback” are two additional concepts that help us understand the mechanisms of climate change. Forcings are phenomena external to the natural climate cycle that affect the cycle—the clearest example being the human-generated GHG emissions that are pushing the earth’s climate toward warming. Feedback describes the way such a change in temperature, initiated by an external forcing, can trigger an internal process within the climate system. A potent example of feedback concerns Arctic ice and permafrost. As the Arctic ice melts, it could trigger a rapid melting of the permafrost, which would cause a rapid release of the large amounts of methane stored there. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, the effect would dramatically accelerate the warming process, which would in turn cause additional methane release.
Finally, it’s important to understand that the longer we wait, the higher the cost will be. Business people routinely calculate the cost of delay in bringing a new product to market or making a timely investment. In 2014, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors analyzed cost of delay for climate action and identified two areas of significant cost: First, delay costs us more in terms of the economic damages from the effects of climate change: droughts, wildfires, flooding, sea level rise, extinctions, crop failure, forced migration and all of the human miseries that accompany these disasters. Secondly, the longer we delay, the more it will cost to reduce emissions in the future, because CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere. The council concluded that we can save money by adopting policies now that accelerate the transition to a non-carbon economy, which will incentivize beneficial development and deter bad investments in technologies that will be the stranded assets of the future. “Just as businesses and individuals guard against severe financial risks by purchasing various forms of insurance,” wrote the Council, “policymakers can take actions now that reduce the chances of triggering the most severe climate events. And, unlike conventional insurance policies, climate policy that serves as climate insurance is an investment that also leads to cleaner air, energy security, and benefits that are difficult to monetize like biological diversity.”