The Planet

A Stunning New Paper Says We Have More Time To Prevent Climate Apocalypse Than We Thought

by James Gaines

September 20, 2017

After a summer full of historic weather events, including multiple “500-year” hurricanes and devastating wildfires, climate activists finally got some good news on Sept. 18. A paper from Oxford University, published in Nature Geosciences, suggests that the Earth will be able to meet the Paris Agreement’s aggressive goal of keeping the global temperature change under 2 degrees Celsius. Plus, with sustained, immediate action, we might even be able to meet an incredibly ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius goal.

The paper is a huge update, and it’s not inconceivable that it may affect climate policy in cities and nations across the globe. But if you don’t have time to sift through the whole thing, here are six quick things you need to know about happened.

1. So what exactly changed?

Previous findings suggested that if we wanted to prevent a climate catastrophe by keeping the Earth’s temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius (more on that below), we could only release about 245 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This might seem like a lot, but given how much we produce every year, estimates have suggested we’ll hit the devastating 2 degrees Celsius mark as early as 2050.

This new analysis, however, suggests that the point of no return might instead actually be closer to 880 billion tonnes — so we’ll have more time to transition away from fossil fuels. About 20 years, according to estimates.

This is good news, but the pressure is not off.

2. What’s the deal with 1.5 degrees Celsius?

In 2015, more than a hundred world leaders met in Paris to figure out what we should do about global climate change. As part of that meeting, the participant nations agreed to a framework of rules to try to limit how much the Earth would warm, aiming to stop it at either 2 degrees Celsius or, if possible, the much more ambitious goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

3. Were previous scientists wrong?

The numbers did change, but the facts and methods previously used are still valid. This is just how science works — repeating and re-examining our estimates until the most accurate one possible is found. And it’s important to remember this is one study out of a large multitude. The numbers may be revised again once there is more data.

4. Is climate change still a big deal?

Yes, of course. Temperatures in 2015 were already about 1 degree Celsius above what they were in the middle of the 20th century, and we are continuing to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Climate change has been linked to stronger hurricanes, rising sea levels, and the spread of diseases, among other things. So it’s still happening and still a big deal.

5. But this is good news? 

Yes! It means we have more time to get our act together and limit warming. The more we can limit the overall warming of the planet, the less extreme the changes we will see.

6. So what now?

“This is good news, but the pressure is not off,” study co-author Joeri Rogelj told phys.org. (If we can indulge in a sports metaphor, a football team whose game suddenly goes into overtime shouldn’t get lazy.) Instead, the authors say this should re-affirm that we have the power to do something and that countries should double down on phasing out coal power and investing in trees and other technology that captures carbon dioxide.

It’s rare to get good news about climate change, but this is one of those times. This new study shows that with powerful, immediate action, we really could make things better.

For some ideas about how cities, states, and nations could do so, check out the book “Drawdown” by Paul Hawken or visit The Solutions Project.

Share image by Tech. Sgt. Josef Cole/U.S. Air Force.

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A Stunning New Paper Says We Have More Time To Prevent Climate Apocalypse Than We Thought