Aug 14, 2021 - Energy & Environment

How climate change kills the future

Illustration of many a window showing a wildfire through the glass, as well as another window with drought imagery, which holds another window with a photo of a hurricane

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

One of the hardest facts to grasp about climate change is this: No matter what we do now, it's almost certain to get worse in the future.

Why it matters: The time lag effect of climate change means that actions taken to reduce carbon emissions will only begin to noticeably bend the curve decades from now.

  • That gives us the power to avert the worst-case scenario for warming, but we have to come to grips with a future that will feel as if it gets worse by the year.

The big picture: Even under the most optimistic scenario for carbon emission reductions — one far more ambitious than anything the world is currently on a path for — global average temperatures are projected to keep rising until the 2050s and, while they begin to dip, still end the century higher than they are now.

  • As one meme circulating on social media goes, this year isn't the hottest summer of your life, but the coldest summer of the rest of your life.

Between the lines: Barring the invention of some kind of technology that could economically pull carbon out of the atmosphere — and we're not close to that — there is no full solution to climate change. Instead, it's a problem to be managed — whether well or badly — for the foreseeable future.

  • But that makes it very different than most of the other major challenges the world faces.
  • As terrible as the COVID-19 pandemic has been and remains, it will end one day, and both individuals and governments can take immediate actions to get immediate results. But there's no "flattening the curve" on climate change — at least not in any near-term time frame.

Context: Given all that, it shouldn't be surprising that the reaction to climate change tends to fall into three broad camps: outright denial, obliviousness, or despair.

  • According to a December survey, 40% of Americans feel helpless about climate change and 29% feel hopeless, while a separate 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than half of Americans are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their mental health.
  • The younger the respondent, the more likely they reported higher levels of climate anxiety.
  • Analysts at Morgan Stanley said in a note to investors last month that the "movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline."

Driving the news: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released on Monday contained a few silver linings amid a slew of generally bad news about the science of global warming.

  • Improved science about climate sensitivity — how much we can expect the planet to warm given a doubling of preindustrial atmospheric carbon concentration — enabled the IPCC to dial back the likelihood of the most extreme warming scenarios.

Yes, but: That same science also reduced the likelihood that we would experience the lowest levels of warming given that scenario.

  • The upshot is that we have more confidence about where climate change is poised to take us and more certainty about our ability to influence that future through actions on greenhouse gas emissions.

Thought bubble: One of my 4-year-old son's favorite books is "The Snowy Day" by Ezra Jack Keats, about a young boy's adventures out in — as the title suggests — a very snowy day.

  • Reading it to him, I can't escape the fact that growing up in an ever-warmer New York City, he will be much less likely than I was to get to enjoy his own snowy days.
  • It's a minuscule thing against the expected damage that is and will be caused by climate change — a disproportionate amount of which will be borne by people far less lucky than he is — but it personalizes for me the depressing sense that our future will be lesser.

The bottom line: Many of us have been fortunate enough to grow up in a world that in most ways — whether we appreciate it or not — has generally been getting better year by year.

  • Much of that progress will likely continue, barring the most extreme worst-case warming scenarios, but maintaining a sense of optimism about the future in the face of gradually worsening climate change and all that will come with it will be the challenge of the century.
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