Climate scientist: “It’s already worse than what I imagined”

By Sofia Andrade | July 27, 2021

dead tree sand duneImage courtesy Katja/Pixabay

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Slate. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

By all accounts, the climate crisis is already here. Deadly heat domes across the Pacific Northwest, a petroleum pipeline leak in the middle of the ocean that set the Gulf of Mexico on fire, and the devastating collapse of a Florida condominium in the past few weeks alone have proven that the world is changing in response to how we have changed it.

No one should be surprised by this. For decades, scientists have been ringing the alarm bell about anthropogenic climate change. Over 30 years ago, NASA scientist James Hansen told the US Congress that the “greenhouse effect is here.” And long before then, in the 1800s, scientists like Svante Arrhenius calculated that doubling the amount of carbon dioxide that was in the atmosphere in 1895 would lead to global warming of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures. “That wasn’t too far off,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaking on his own behalf. It was just that Arrhenius’s timeframe for how quickly humans would emit those gasses was way off, Kalmus added: “It only took about 125 years for that increase in carbon dioxide fraction that he thought would take 3,000 years. He grossly underestimated the rate of emissions from burning fossil fuels that we actually did.”

Arrhenius’s original prediction represents a lot of the current problems faced by climate change models. Understanding where we are on the climate change timeline requires multiple steps—we need to know how much greenhouse gas has been emitted, how much those greenhouse gases have increased the global temperature, and then finally, we need to take one last step that even Arrhenius never took—we need to understand how those changes in global temperature will affect the climate we experience. It’s this last bit that is trickiest—we know the current proportion of carbon in our atmosphere (currently around 420 parts per million), what we don’t know is how to accurately predict all the consequences of the temperature increase caused by that extra carbon.

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“The scientific community has done a really good job projecting when we would get to 1.2 degrees Celsius, which is about where we are now,” Kalmus said. “The community hasn’t done as good of a job projecting how bad climate impacts would be at 1.2 degrees Celsius.”

Indeed, from heat domes to wildfires to rapidly melting ice sheets, a lot of the very real effects of the climate crisis that we are seeing seem far worse—or far from—what was predicted. So in this summer in which it feels impossible to look at the news without seeing a climate catastrophe of some kind, I asked several climate scientists how the constant onslaught of tragedy affects where they put us on the climate timeline. What they had to say was not particularly reassuring.

“It’s already worse than what I imagined. I feel like the heat dome event in the Pacific Northwest moved up my sense of where we are at by about a decade, or even more,” said Kalmus. “I think a lot of my colleagues probably feel the same.”

In many ways, the climate crisis has “moved now from an abstract concern to a very real one,” according to Lise Van Susteren, an expert on climate grief and mental health as it intersects with climate change. “It’s not a storm that lasts 36 hours. It’s not the aftermath of a flood. We’re being cooked to death.”

According to Van Susteren, this magnification of the climate crisis—which is in turn amplified by the growing conversation around climate—has meant that more and more people are becoming concerned with the existential threat that the climate crisis poses. Indeed, the mental health effects of the climate crisis on the communities facing it are vast and varied: anxiety, grief, and “pre-traumatic stress disorder” (Van Susteren’s term), to name a few. And yet, real action still remains limited.

Jennifer Atkinson, a professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, agrees. “It’s no longer a kind of vague concern about things happening in the future, it’s the realization that the world is unraveling around us right now. And the loss is piling up every day,” she said. “It’s also the despair and outrage that the suffering and loss didn’t have to happen.”

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The extreme uncertainty of the climate crisis—as proven by the fact that even the best predictions failed to account for the worst of the effects—has its own unsettling effect. “I think the fact that it’s kind of happening faster and in a different way than we anticipated just exaggerates that sense of kind of confusion and loss of kind of intellectual stability” that leads to things like climate grief, according to Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio.

Part of the reason it’s been so hard to predict these effects in the first place is because they are “complicated, non-linear processes,” as Kalmus calls them. Scientists have to account for hundreds of variables, which means predictions are often far from perfect. Models for the melting of ice sheets in the Arctic, for example, are actually more optimistic than what’s currently happening in places like Greenland and Antarctica, because those models haven’t taken into account the other processes that could accelerate melting (water can creep in under the ice sheets, causing them to slip off into the ocean more quickly, for example). “The models, in this case, have proven overly conservative, not including some important real world processes,” Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist and the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said about the ice sheet predictions.

In other words, even as we watch the effects already happening, we still have to contend with how they will multiple and exacerbate one another. “We have a lot to learn about specifics about how climate breakdown and how it’s going to affect civilization,” Kalmus added. “I think there’s still a lot we don’t know there.”

Beyond what we can already see, anyway.

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John-Paul Higgerson
John-Paul Higgerson
2 years ago

A very powerful article that clearly emphasizes what regular readers of the Bulletin have been fearing and preparing for. Time truly is running out.
Thank you to Sophia and Bulletin.

Peace and love to all.

Stephen Rouse
Stephen Rouse
2 years ago

Great piece, Sofia. In 1989, I was editor of a university newspaper and like you, I interviewed various organizations for a similar piece. A spokesperson from Friends of the Earth cautioned that we had only a couple of decades at most to cut back on our carbon emissions or the “train would go off the end of the cliff”. I’ve had an enduring sense of eco-anxiety since then, especially as there has been little progress on that front. As your commentators state, the crisis is now all around us and as boiling frogs, we’re realizing the train is passing us… Read more »

Mike P.
Mike P.
2 years ago

There is no direct relationship between the Florida condo collapse and climate change. Structures are designed with pretty substantial safety factors to account for a lot of variability. That variability includes changes to the water table, soil properties, etc. this is not anything new. The type of variability that structures are designed for is far, far in excess of the type of changes that we have seen from climate change so far, on the whole. As far as water table goes, seasonal variability (over the course of 1 year) could be substantially greater than the comparatively very slow, long term… Read more »

2 years ago

The climate crises is now an existential catastrophe unfolding much more quickly than any scientists predicted. The IPCC and associated scientists make their reports palatable to the politicians, who they serve and are owned by. Scientists work off grants and tenure at Universities. They are not free to communicate the truth. Abrupt exponential climate change will cause the total collapse of civilization within 5 years, possibly sooner. You would think the US President would be in front of the American People every week or every day on this critical issue. Yet, just like the movie “Don’t Look Up”, the politicians… Read more »