A recent commentary by German researcher Oliver Geden urging climate scientists to “stop watering down their work” is generating a lot of heat in the climate community, with Vox columnist David Roberts stopped short of accusing researchers of their own form of climate denial.
“There has always been an odd tenor to discussions among climate scientists, policy wonks, and politicians, a passive-aggressive quality, and I think it can be traced to the fact that everyone involved has to dance around the obvious truth, at risk of losing their status and influence,” Roberts writes.
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“The obvious truth about global warming is this: barring miracles, humanity is in for some awful shit.”
With atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations now above 400 parts per million, he says, “holding temperature down under 2°C—the widely agreed upon target—would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.”
Conventional scenarios leading to a 2ºC outcome rely on carbon capture and storage methods that aren’t yet proven, Roberts adds, combined with “policy regimes that are positively utopian: a rising price on carbon, harmonized across every country in the world; the availability, maturation, and rapid deployment of every known low-carbon technology; all bets paying off, for 50 years straight. It would be quite a run of luck.”
Roberts’ more detailed analysis is an important read—as is the critique that popped up a day later from consultant Jonathan Koomey. Roberts “falls prey to a particularly common pitfall, that of assuming that we can accurately assess feasibility decades hence,” Koomey argues. “This mistake is particularly problematic for assessments of political feasibility, because political reality can be remade literally overnight by pivotal events.”
Chinese coal use unexpectedly (but happily) dropped nearly 8% last month, just as the U.S. needed only six months to “retool from making millions of cars per year to building war machines in 6 months” after entering the Second World War, Koomey notes. “Context matters, and what seems infeasible today based on judgments about political will can become feasible tomorrow.”
Koomey rephrases Roberts’ opening premise: “We can avoid some awful shit if we just get our act together, and the only thing standing in the way is our willingness to face the reality of the climate problem.”
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