By Eduardo Porter
Climate change is not an event in your children’s future. It is bearing down upon you now. And there is nothing you — or anyone else — can do to prevent the hit.
Over the next quarter-century, heat-related death rates will probably double in the southeastern states. Crop losses that used to happen only once every 20 years because of cataclysmic weather will occur five times as often.
This is our future even if every person on the planet abruptly stopped burning coal, gas, oil, wood or anything else containing carbon today and we hooked the world economy onto the wind and the sun tomorrow. The change is baked in, caused by CO2 spewed into the air long ago.
This stark future is rendered vividly in a comprehensive report released on Tuesday by the Risky Business Project, a coalition of political and business luminaries representing widely different political views — including the former Treasury secretaries George P. Shultz, Robert E. Rubin and Henry M. Paulson Jr. — that is intended to raise awareness about the impending perils of a changing climate.
The report is aimed squarely at corporate America, offering the kind of risk modeling a financial firm might make to assess the probable impact of a changing climate on an investment portfolio whose “assets” included farming, housing, labor productivity and crime.
Together with the latest assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reported in April, last month’s National Climate Assessment and the new rules proposed by the Obama administration to combat carbon pollution from power plants, it contributes to a new picture of climate change. And it is not pretty, puncturing the hopes held by some of the most uncompromising environmentalists and the most compromising politicians that humanity can still prevent climactic upheaval if we only start replacing fossil fuels today.
For starters, it seems clear by now that the world’s temperature will almost certainly rise more than two degrees Celsius — or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — above the average of the late 19th century, a ceiling that the world’s leaders have repeatedly promised never to breach and a point at which climate-related risks rise even more sharply.
One prominent energy economist told me, speaking anonymously to avoid looking too gloomy, that the world would be “extraordinarily unlikely” to stay below the two-degree ceiling. Every country would need to decarbonize at the same pace that France did during its nuclear renaissance in the 1980s and keep up the pace for decades. Then we would have to start taking CO2 out of the air.
Second, despite the rising awareness of the risks caused by our unrestrained consumption of fossil fuels, there is no evidence that we plan to break the habit and leave a substantial portion of the Earth’s oil, gas and coal in the ground.
“We are swinging to fossil fuels in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a few years ago,” said Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’ve made substantial progress in renewables, but there’s been even more innovation in fossil fuels. Incentives to invest in low-carbon energy are going down.”
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