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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attends the Women's March on Jan. 19 in New York City. Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images.

Prominent climate scientists are pushing back against the view, promoted by media coverage of recent science reports as well as climate advocates, that we have only 12 years to act on global warming or face an existential threat to humanity.

Why it matters: This do-or-die framing has found a powerful advocate in Democratic freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said on Monday that millennials understand that we only have 12 years or "the world is going to end." She is pushing a broad policy proposal to address climate change, known as the Green New Deal.

The big picture: During the past year, several scientific reports have been released that underscore the urgency of slashing emissions of greenhouse gases to avoid facing severe consequences from global warming.

A particularly influential report was published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018. It found that global warming could still be held to 1.5°C, or 2.7°F, of warming relative to preindustrial levels, especially if:

  • Net human-caused carbon dioxide emissions decline by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and reach "net zero" by roughly mid-century.

The catch: While there were only 12 years left till 2030 when the IPCC report came out, the reality is that we have a diverse array of choices before us in terms of how soon to make emissions cuts and how significant and costly they are, top climate scientists told Axios. Their comments were about the framing of a rigid 12-year timetable in general, not specifically in reaction to Ocasio-Cortez's remarks.

What we're hearing: "12 years isn't a deadline, and climate change isn't a cliff we fall off — it's a slope we slide down," said Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA. "We don't have 12 years to prevent climate change — we have no time.  It's already here. And even under a business-as-usual scenario, the world isn't going to end in exactly twelve years." 

  • In reference to Ocasio-Cortez's comments, Marvel said: "She's right that decisions we make in the next decade will determine how bad climate change gets — we can't prevent bad things, but we have the power to avoid the worst-case scenario."

Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University, told Axios that the idea that there is only a finite amount of time to fix climate change is the wrong way to look at the problem. She summed up the IPCC's 1.5-degree report this way: "Every action matters. Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters. Every choice matters."

  • Hayhoe says she worries that deadlines will make people treat climate change more cavalierly to start, since 12 years can seem like a long time.

The rhetoric used by Ocasio-Cortez and many others in favor of bold action suggests that either scientists or the media, or both, got the IPCC report wrong.

Andrea Dutton, a paleoclimate researcher at the University of Florida, said the 12-year deadline became attractive for media headlines in spite a lack of support from the IPCC report itself:

"For some reason the media latched onto the 12 years (2030), presumably because they thought that it helped to get across the message of how quickly we are approaching this and hence how urgently we need action. Unfortunately, this has led to a complete mischaracterization of what the report said."

Reality check: "All the time-limited frames are bullshit," Gavin Schmidt, who leads NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, told Axios in an email. "Nothing special happens when the 'carbon budget' runs out or we pass whatever temperature target you care about, instead the costs of emissions steadily rise," he said. The IPCC report, for example, found the impacts worsen considerably beyond 1.5°C of warming.

  • "The thing to push back against is the implicit framing that there is some magic global mean temperature or total emissions that separate 'fine' from 'catastrophic'. There just isn't," Schmidt said.

The bottom line: Even if hard deadlines are scientifically flawed, they can be effective when it comes to activism. The 12-year timeframe, in particular, has been widely adopted by proponents of climate action.

  • "We can quibble about the phraseology, whether it's existential or cataclysmic" impacts that we'll face without taking action in the next 12 years, Ocasio-Cortez spokesman Corbin Trent told Axios. But, he says, the reality is: "We're seeing lots of [climate change-related] problems that are already impacting lives."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Health

California surpasses 50,000 COVID-19 deaths

A man prepares a funeral arrangement in in Los Angeles, California, Feb. 12. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

California's death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 50,000 on Wednesday, per Johns Hopkins data.

The big picture: It's the first state to record more than 50,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

4 hours ago - Technology

Facebook bans Myanmar military

A protester holds a placard with a three-finger salute in front of a military tank parked aside the street in front of the Central Bank building during a demonstration in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Aung Kyaw Htet/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Facebook said on Wednesday it would ban the rest of the Myanmar military from its platform.

The big picture: It comes some three weeks after the military overthrew the civilian government in a coup and detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi, causing massive protests to erupt throughout the country. Military leaders have been using internet blackouts to try to maintain power in light of the coup.

It's harder to fill the Cabinet

Data: Chamberlain, 2020, "United States of America Cabinet Appointments Dataset" Chart: Will Chase/Axios

It's harder now for presidents to win Senate confirmation for their Cabinet picks, an Axios data analysis of votes for and against nominees found.

Why it matters: It's not just Neera Tanden. The trend is a product of growing polarization, rougher political discourse and slimming Senate majorities, experts say. It means some of the nation's most vital federal agencies go without a leader and the legislative authority that comes with one.