Adapted from the article written by Shannon Osaka
Originally published by The Washington Post (Mon, 30 Oct, 2023)
Escalating rhetoric comes as new study shows there’s just six years left to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius at current CO2 emissions rate.
On Monday, scientists released a paper showing that the world’s “carbon budget” — the amount of greenhouse gas emissions the world can still emit without boosting global temperatures more than 1.5 degrees Celsius — has shrunk by a third. The world only has 6 years left at current emissions levels before racing past that temperature limit.
“There are no technical scenarios globally available in the scientific literature that would support that that is actually possible, or can even describe how that would be possible,” Joeri Rogelj, a climate scientist at Imperial College London, told reporters in a call.
Tim Lenton, one of the co-authors on Ripple’s most recent paper and a professor of earth system science at the University of Exeter, said that 2023 has been filled with temperatures so far beyond the norm that “they’re very hard to rationalize.” “This isn’t fitting a simple statistical model,” he said.
Lenton said he isn’t afraid to use terms like “emergency” or “climate and ecological crisis.” “If you say ‘urgent’ to a politician … that isn’t really enough,” he said.
The language has spilled into academic publications as well. As recently as 2015, only 32 papers in the Web of Science research database included the term “climate emergency.” In 2022, 862 papers contained the phrase.
It wasn’t always this way. In the 2000s and even early 2010s, most scientists shied away making any statements that could be seen as “political” in nature. Jacquelyn Gill, a professor of climate science and paleoecology at the University of Maine, said that when she was doing her PhD in the late 2000s, senior academics warned her against deviating at all from the science when interacting with the media or the public.
“We were actively told if we start to talk about solutions, if we start to talk about the policy implications of our work, we will have abandoned our supposed ‘scientific neutrality,’” Gill said. “And then people will not trust us anymore on the science.”
Susan Joy Hassol, a science communication expert who has worked with climate researchers for years, says that even a decade ago, climate scientists were uncertain what their role was in communicating the dangers of rising temperatures. “I think at least some of them felt that scientists communicate through IPCC reports,” Hassol said, referring to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “‘We do our science, we publish, we put together these reports, and it’s kind of up to other people to listen.’”
Now, she said that has changed. “We have reached this stage of crisis,” she said.
It isn’t just the fact that emissions still aren’t going down — or that policy hasn’t responded quickly enough to the challenge. (Carbon dioxide emissions related to energy use have continued to climb, even following the brief downturn of the covid-19 pandemic.) As the impacts of climate change escalate, scientists say that their language has changed to meet the moment.
When it comes to terms like “climate emergency,” Gill says, “it’s a little bit of strategy and a lot of honesty.” While climate scientists are still discussing whether warming is accelerating, she added, “it’s clear the impacts are becoming more noticeable and in-your-face.”
Hassol said that the shift is simple. In the 2000s, she said, climate change wasn’t yet at the level of an emergency. She recalls a 2009 report called the Copenhagen Diagnosis, which analyzed climate science to date and made suggestions for how to reach net-zero carbon emissions. If world governments had acted swiftly, the world would have only had to cut emissions by a bit over 3 percent per year. “We called that the bunny slope,” Hassol recalled.
If, on the other hand, governments didn’t start the transition until 2020, cuts would have to be much steeper — up to 9 percent per year. “We called that the double-black diamond,” she said. Despite the brief respite in CO2 emissions during the pandemic, humanity’s trajectory has veered closer to the double-black diamond path.
At the same time, many scientists realize that even the best communication in the world isn’t enough to overcome the inertia of a fossil-fuel based system — and the resistance of various oil and gas companies.
“The problem is not that scientists haven’t been communicating clearly enough,” Hassol said. “We communicated pretty darn clearly. Anyone who wanted to hear the message — it was there.”