Last week news stories came out that said that global human carbon emissions may have peaked, essentially implying that we could already be over the hump and on the way to solving climate change—while other news stories that same day and in that same publication noted that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations jumped by a record amount in 2016. These stories exemplify the emotional roller coaster that often comes with following climate change news. How can we reconcile the ebbs and flows between hopeful and apocalyptic climate stories?
The answer lies in considering the timeframe around a piece of climate news. For example, the seeming contradiction in the two news reports is explained by the monster El Niño event of 2016 that intensified droughts and consequently weakened the ability of vegetation to absorb carbon dioxide—showing that while human carbon pollution is responsible for the long-term rise in atmospheric concentrations, there is still ample short-term natural variation.
To give a second example: In a recent story, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund was quoted saying: “If we don't do anything about climate change now, in 50 years' time we will be toasted, roasted and grilled.” While that is an alarming statement, it focuses on a potential scenario in which half-a-century from now we have failed to change the course of our climate policies.
It’s important to remember, however, that with the international Paris climate accords, nearly every nation in the world agreed to begin the process to alter that worst-case course.
Another recent story noted that there’s a large gap between the Paris climate goals and the emissions cuts we’ve achieved so far. But the agreement was signed a mere two years ago, and global carbon emissions appear close to peaking. (They must peak by around 2020 to give us a realistic chance to meet the Paris targets). Moreover, it was agreed that countries must strengthen their emissions pledges during five-year reviews to meet the Paris goals, which means it’s hardly fair to pass judgment at this date. True, it’s too early yet to know if the world’s nations will indeed be able to follow through with such ambitious plans, but there are positive signs. For example, China had pledged to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030, but it appears to already be approaching that goal 10-to-15 years ahead of schedule. That’s a significant development, so it bears repeating: China may reach its carbon reduction goals 10-to-15 years ahead of schedule.
On the other hand, the climate news coming out of the United States under the Trump administration seems constantly grim. However, the United States is just one country, and even there we see some good long-term news. Despite the administration’s efforts to maximize coal burning and the associated carbon pollution, coal is rapidly being phased out of the American power grid for purely economic reasons; quite simply, wind, solar, and natural gas are cheaper options.
Ultimately, the wildly fluctuating tone in climate change news stems from the fact that we now stand at a critical point in human history. To avoid causing exceptionally damaging climate changes, we must take aggressive steps now to cut human carbon pollution, and those actions must continually accelerate in the coming decades. The future climate will depend on the path we choose now and in the foreseeable future. Today’s scientists and journalists are trying to read the tea leaves to determine which path we’re taking, which leads to a see-sawing between "there’s hope" and "we’re doomed" stories.
It’s easy to over-interpret the latest piece of climate news. We’re facing an existential threat, and we want to know if we’re taking the necessary steps to mitigate that threat. On top of the uncertainty created by unpredictable human behavior, there’s the uncertainty in the physical climate itself. We don’t know when Earth’s natural carbon storage systems will become saturated by human emissions, or when carbon bombs stored beneath the oceans and permafrost might be released, or just how fast ice shelves will collapse and raise sea levels.
But our own behavior is the only thing we can control. The faster we succeed in cutting carbon pollution, the safer the future climate will be. There is no point at which that statement becomes untrue. Even if we fail to meet the Paris climate target of keeping global warming less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, 2.5C would be less harmful than 3C, which in turn wouldn’t be as bad as 3.5C, and so on. While it’s useful to stay informed about the climate path we seem to be taking, it’s also important to stay focused on the invariable fact that we need to keep accelerating our efforts to cut carbon pollution. It’s easy to over-interpret a single report or piece of data, but our future climate path can always change based on the choices we make today and tomorrow and every day thereafter. We should try to avoid being distracted by the day’s news and instead stay focused on making as many correct choices as possible.