2018/10/10: it’s not that the news about climate has changed, but that the scientific community is finally discarding caution in describing the implications of its own finding.
They have also, thankfully, offered a practical suggestion, proposing the imposition of a carbon tax many, many times higher than those currently in use or being considered — they propose a tax of up to $5,000 per ton of carbon dioxide by 2030, growing to $27,000 per ton by 2100. Today, the average price of carbon across 42 major economies is just $8 per ton. The new Nobel laureate in economics, William Nordhaus, made his name by almost inventing the economic study of climate change, and his preferred carbon tax is $40 per ton — which would probably land us at about 3.5 degrees of warming. He considers that grotesque level “optimal.”
But a carbon tax is only a spark to action, not action itself. And the action needed is at a scale and a speed almost unimaginable to most of us. The IPCC report called it unprecedented. Other activists often see one precedent, in all of human history, citing the model of how the United States prepared for World War II, and calling for a global mobilization of that kind — all of the world’s rivalrous societies and nationalistic governments and self-interested industries organized around the common pursuit of a stable and comfortable climate as though warming was an existential threat.
It is. And the World War II mobilization metaphor is not hyperbole.
A few weeks ago, as the IPCC report loomed, I had lunch with a prominent climate scientist who’d been involved in earlier reports and has done considerable work on local preparedness as well. I asked if he thought New York would eventually build a sea wall or surge barrier to protect the city from sea-level rise and flooding. Yes, he said, Manhattan will be protected, at any cost. But major infrastructure projects like these take decades — typically about 30 years. Even if we began building today, he said, the barrier would not be finished in time to save Howard Beach and other parts of southern Queens and Brooklyn. Soon enough, he said, you’ll see the city adjust accordingly — halting new infrastructure projects there, eventually pulling back from even quotidian maintenance like sewer repairs and generally signaling to current residents that they will not be able to leave behind their homes, when they die, to their children. And of course a sea wall to protect New York only encloses the narrows of New York Harbor, leaving all of Long Island exposed.
This is just the threat from sea level, and just one (very rich) metropolitan area. The world is much bigger than that, but so is climate change. It is also very fast, with more than half the carbon humanity has ever emitted into the atmosphere having come in just the last 25 years, since Al Gore published his first book on climate change. Monday’s IPCC may seem like a dramatic departure, and it is. But there is going to be much more like it coming. So long as we continue to squander what little time we have, the news will only get worse from here.