Ever since the dawn of human civilization, we've been playing a high-stakes game against Mother Nature. The game: the survival and advancement of civilization. We've done very well at this game over the past century. Humanity has seen tremendous increases in health, life expectancy, and standard of living. Much of the credit for our successful scores against Mother Nature goes to cheap energy afforded by burning Earth's abundant fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas.) But we've grown complacent against our foe. In our enthusiastic push to reduce poverty and advance standards of living, we've ignored the greater game: survival. We've ignored the rules of the game: basic physics. If one increases levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide by 42%, melts away half of the summertime sea ice in the Arctic, changes the reflectivity of the surface by replacing up to half of Earth's land area with crops and cities, puts massive clouds of sunlight-reflecting and sunlight-absorbing soot and pollution into the air, and opens up a huge ozone hole in the Antarctic--as humans have done since in recent decades--physics demands that the weather and climate must change significantly. Since civilization is adapted to the old climate, any shift to a new one will be expensive, destabilizing, and deadly.
Like a game of football, the battle for civilization's survival has Mother Nature stacking the line against us with beefy linemen. Each year that carbon dioxide increases another part per million (ppm), it's like giving Mother Nature's linemen an injection of steroids. They add another pound of bulk, get another millimeter taller, another split second faster. We blew past the "safe" level of CO2, 350 ppm, back in 1988, when Mother Nature had 350-pound linemen. Now in 2013, with 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the air, the opposing linemen are 400-pound behemoths. These increasingly fearsome opponents have been blitzing our team with tremendous ferocity of late, causing huge losses. There were eleven billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. in 2012--a number surpassed only by the fourteen such disasters the year before. We had the hottest year on record in 2012, and largest drought since the 1930s Dust Bowl. The previous year, 2011, saw the greatest floods on record on America's three biggest rivers. While some of these losses could have happened if Mother Nature had had her old 280-pound linemen--like in the late 1800s--450 pound linemen are much more likely to tear into the backfield and create huge losses. Heat waves, floods, and droughts are the sort of extreme weather events that climate change can make more intense and frequent.
Figure 1. On a hot day at Georgetown University, President Barack Obama removes his jacket before speaking about climate change on Tuesday, June 25, 2013. AP Photo.
Lined up against Mother Nature's increasingly imposing linemen has been a team afraid to rise to the challenge. Our quarterback, President Obama, has merely been handing off the ball--running "safe" plays into the line that gain little or no yardage. We've had only one first down since Obama took office--a major increase in fuel efficiency for cars--and the game is already getting late into the second half. Mother Nature has been running up the score against us. A lot of the fans in the stadium have tuned out the game, focusing instead on fights in the stands or getting beer at the concession stand. Many of the commentators have not been reporting the score, or claiming that the rules are different than what they really are. But this game is deadly serious. We must limit global warming to 2°C (3.6°F)--the generally accepted threshold for "dangerous" civilization-destabilizing climate change. We're already one-third of the way there. The fact that we are seeing increasingly wild weather extremes at that level of warming is not good. We are experiencing the outer spiral bands of the coming climate change storm, and it is too late to avoid major damage. But it is not too late to avoid catastrophic damage. Our current policies have us on track to warm the planet by 5°C (9°F) by 2100, a level that would cause Category 5-level devastation to human civilization. We must do everything possible to avoid that future. The measures that Obama proposed in his speech are significant steps that will help. The directive to the EPA to move forward to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants--the source of 40% of our nation's CO2--is particularly significant. It's great to see our quarterback showing the guts to make some riskier plays, and try and make a first down. And it's great to see the team take measures to beef up our linemen against Mother Nature's bigger line, by putting money into climate resiliency and defending our coasts against higher storm surges. But if we hope to score a lot of points, win the game, and keep global warming under 2°C, much stronger action--both in the U.S. and internationally--is needed. Nature does not care about what is politically possible. All it cares about is physics. Fundamentally, what are the levels of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide? How much sunlight is arriving at the surface? We badly need all of the major carbon-polluting nations to agree on and implement very aggressive efforts to cut heat-trapping gas levels within the next 5 - 10 years, or I fear we will have to start throwing the equivalent of "Hail Mary" passes to win the game--high-risk efforts to geo-engineer the climate to slow down climate change. The cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action. The International Energy Agency says that in order to keep global warming below 2°C, "Delaying stronger climate action until 2020 would avoid $1.5 trillion in low-carbon investments up to that point, but an additional $5 trillion would then need to be invested through to 2035 to get back on track."
I am optimistic that we prevail and keep a livable climate. President Obama reminded everyone today of the tremendous power of American business and ingenuity, and I strongly believe those qualities will be instrumental in helping us meet the greatest challenge of our generation--climate change.
Wunderground's climate change blogger Dr. Ricky Rood offers his take on Obama's speech.
The President’s Climate Action Plan
Short Fact Sheet.