How to Stop This Comet.
I convinced my husband to watch Don’t Look Up with me a couple of weeks ago. At the time, I thought we were the last people on Earth to watch the film, but its staying power in the top-watched list tells me more folks are finding it every day. I know the reviews are… variable. But I, for one, loved it.¹ I think everyone knows this since it’s in the promo material: the premise is that a comet is headed toward the Earth. Most folks also know that the comet is a metaphor for climate change. I’m not going to spoil the end of the movie in this post.²
A movie is so much better when you don’t know what’s coming.
In life, though, success comes from anticipating what’s coming correctly and meeting the moment.
To me, the film was about exactly that: what keeps us from being able to meet a moment with ingenuity and resolve?
For as long as I have studied climate change science (let’s start that clock in the mid-90s for me), we have worried that part of the problem with meeting the moment was that there wasn’t really a moment, per se. Instead, there was a long slog with multiple inflection points along the way that were difficult to predict.
So, when do we reach the point of no return?
The Earth is forgiving, as I’ve talked about before at length, but we are a powerful species. We just keep changing things with our brute force.
Author Jonathan Katz joked on Twitter, “We’ve spent so long explaining the difference between climate and weather that they’re now the same thing again.” Those of us in the environment and climate game have tired of explaining to someone that just because it’s currently cold/dry/wet/insert-other-weather-here, that doesn’t mean the overall climate isn’t changing. The point Katz is getting at is that more each year, our weather resembles our changing climate these days.
Not unlike the comet in Don’t Look Up, we knew this was coming. For decades, climate scientists have tried everything short of Jennifer Lawrence’s character’s screaming into the camera as they tried to warn people that we were irrevocably changing the Earth’s climate.
The people who develop climate models are wicked smart. I got to study with some of them at the University of Maryland. It turns out, they are also accurate.
A December 2019 study by Hausfather et al. compared predictions from 17 climate models and found that 14 of the models predicted warming that reflected actual conditions for those predicted years.³ In fact, they found that simpler models, like those developed in the 1970s, were as accurate at predicting future surface temperature as more complex models developed more recently. In fact, a James Hansen-led modeling project from 1981 had the highest accuracy among the 17 studied.
The Weather is Actually Changing
Just this week, on January 11th, an article came out in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences showing that ocean temperatures in 2021 were higher than they’ve been since record-keeping began in 1958.⁴ Lest you think that 2021 is an anomaly in the trend — any year could be the warmest year, right? — Cheng et al. charted ocean temperature over the time period. Suffice it to say that 2021 is definitely not an anomaly in the trend.
The research team relied on two robust international data sets. The article also emphasizes the Earth systems connections to warmer ocean temperatures:
- Warmer water physically takes up more space, leading to sea-level rise.
- Warmer oceans also “supercharge” weather systems, since warm air rises. This leads to more hurricanes, more powerful hurricanes, increased rainfall in storms, and thus more flooding.
- Ocean and coastal ecosystems rely on temperature ranges and seasonal fluctuations. Warmer oceans threaten coral reef ecosystems and also fisheries that humans rely on for food.
The Washington Post picked up the article and reported, “The unusual December tornadoes that struck several states can also be traced to the warm waters. In December, record warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico created an atmosphere more reminiscent of spring than winter. As such, two tornado outbreaks occurred in the southern and central United States in the same week.”
The New York Times contributed to this conversation in its August 2021 article about rainfall changes in the U.S. over the past 30 years. The article emphasizes that changes in precipitation depend on where you live.⁵
Georgia, where I live, has been a tough place to model, and climate predictions for our state have varied as a result. Generally, predictions are that the state will get rainier, but there is uncertainty. The Times’ map shows this uncertainty along the southeastern side of the Appalachian Mountains: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia all show areas that have been wetter and drier than average over the past 30 years. (Not sure what’s going on with Florida! Interesting question for some of my climatologist friends and colleagues…)
I was curious about how the NYTimes’ map plays out in my town. Because MAN has it seemed rainy over the past few years. So I grabbed National Weather Service precipitation data for the past 25 years and saw that, sure enough, rainfall in the Atlanta area has increased on average. Or as Jonathan Katz might say, my perception of climate (through my experience of weather) has reflected the change in climate in my area.
So What is Our Strategy for Stopping This Comet?
Unlike the astrophysicists in Don’t Look Up, climate scientists don’t have one shot at killing this climate comet. We have several, every day. But also unlike the astrophysicists, we don’t have a clear and specific target… or do we?
- Life on Earth as we know it thrived with global carbon levels between 280 and 350 ppm.⁶
- Climate science has agreed that exceeding 430 ppm likely puts us past a tipping point.⁶
- We are currently around 414 ppm and still climbing.⁷
Surpassing that tipping point would multiply the impacts we’re already seeing from warming oceans, accelerating the effects on food and agriculture, livable conditions, and would do more harm to the natural ecosystems that were here long before us helping to moderate the planet’s Goldilocks conditions.
There’s Some Good News!
One advantage of knowing that models of the climate are reasonably correct is that we have better confidence that we understand the levers that operate the Earth’s climate. (Again: it’s not rocket science, for good and bad!)
McKinsey recently studied carbon-reduction strategies across more than 4500 companies with reported emission reduction strategies and progress.⁸ Their 2021 report found that there are three keys to making substantial progress:
- Set ambitious targets: Companies that set very ambitious targets worked harder and made more progress. They found this to be true even in sectors where reducing carbon emissions is very challenging, like resource extraction.
- Think holistically: Companies that made sure to address all kinds of carbon emissions and carbon footprints made better progress. In the sustainability world, types of carbon emissions are split into three categories. First, there are those you directly emit through company actions, like actually burning fuel at facilities and in company vehicles. Second, there are carbon emissions from utilities you purchase, like those associated with your power bills. Third, there are all of the other emission sources, like employee commuting, distribution, business travel, and even emissions due to company investments.
We still have much to learn about how the Earth systems are influencing regional and local weather patterns. We are living it, not just studying it.
Let’s keep figuring out what works, why, and how to replicate the success.
Katie Butler is the founder and principal researcher at GeoLiteracy, LLC. GeoLiteracy helps leaders get better environmental results from their projects and programs. www.geoliteracyproject.com
References and Notes:
(1) Now, I’m not known for my excellent taste in movies. (Point Break 2015, anyone? “A young FBI agent infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists.” How could you not be entertained? For the second time? But, alas, the VAST majority of people were not.)
(2) I am going to give you a short youtube playlist of climate crisis songs, though! I am a GenXer. I had to do it. And, yes, it does include R.E.M…. Not sorry: https://youtu.be/pQu892GGbts
Enjoy the videos and music you love, upload original content, and share it all with friends, family, and the world on…
(3) Hausfather, Zeke, Henri F. Drake, Tristan Abbott, and Gavin A. Schmidt. “Evaluating the Performance of Past Climate Model Projections.” Geophysical Research Letters 47, no. 1 (2020): e2019GL085378. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL085378.
(4) Cheng, Lijing, John Abraham, Kevin E. Trenberth, John Fasullo, Tim Boyer, Michael E. Mann, Jiang Zhu, et al. “Another Record: Ocean Warming Continues through 2021 despite La Niña Conditions.” Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, January 11, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00376-022-1461-3.
(5) Bhatia, Aatish, and Nadja Popovich. “These Maps Tell the Story of Two Americas: One Parched, One Soaked.” The New York Times, August 24, 2021, sec. Climate. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/08/24/climate/warmer-wetter-world.html.
(6) MIT Climate Portal. “What Is the Ideal Level of Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere for Human Life?” Accessed January 12, 2022. https://climate.mit.edu/ask-mit/what-ideal-level-carbon-dioxide-atmosphere-human-life.
(7) “United Nations SDG Indicators.” Accessed January 12, 2022. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021/goal-13/.
(8) “Banchik et al. — On Target How to Succeed with Carbon- Reduction i.Pdf.” Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/business%20functions/strategy%20and%20corporate%20finance/our%20insights/on%20target%20how%20to%20succeed%20with%20carbon%20reduction%20initiatives/on-target-how-to-succeed-with-carbon-reduction-initiatives.pdf?shouldIndex=false.