The Conservatism of Climate Estimates

The oceans are heating 40 percent faster than previously thought — read one writer’s take on the limitations of climate reports and their implications in the changing political atmosphere.

Cole Stallone, Deputy Opinion Editor

The beginning of 2019 in climate politics was defined by one phrase — faster than previously thought.” Many have been caught off guard by data from earlier in January that showed the ocean was warming at a faster rate than scientists previously believed. Several reports followed this, making similar claims about different areas of the climate. These trends reveal the dangers of climate estimations, which are inherently conservative due to being determined on an international level. In response, we must follow the recommendations strictly; these are the absolute minimum standards as supported by the vast majority of scientific evidence. We must also be willing to explore more radical and comprehensive climate action. As the climate crisis grows more dire, these solutions will become necessary to meet the challenges that lay ahead. 

Reports from Antarctica show ice is melting at a rate significantly higher than expected, which could cause higher sea levels that result in dramatic consequences globally. Similarly, research out of Greenland shows that ice from the island is melting into the Atlantic at a rate four times quicker than previously expected. The impact that these events have on the climate cannot be overstated. The result of melting ice is the release of methane, a toxic greenhouse gas that traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane, after 20 years, can be 84 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide; over a hundred years, it can still be 28 times as dangerous.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is arguably the highest international authority on the climate crisis. The UN releases periodic assessment reports on the current state of the climate. The most recent report was released in 2014, and another one isn’t expected until 2022. The data and arguments in this report presented most of the scientific evidence used to formulate the Paris Agreement in 2015. By virtue of being a diverse international body, the results are inherently conservative; only information that all participating members could agree on was included. Therefore, the conclusions reached in this report are literally the most conservative estimations of the international body.

That being said, at the time of this report’s release, the state of climate politics was generally looking positive. Over the course of his administration, President Barack Obama oversaw large investments into renewable energy, greater fuel efficiency and overall, progress was made towards the creation of international solutions to climate change. Most importantly, as a part of the Paris Agreement, it was agreed that the global average temperature should remain well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels. The election of Donald Trump drastically changed the political atmosphere. Despite reports in October to the contrary, a December climate report from the Department of Energy shows that greenhouse gas emissions have increased over the course of Trump’s administration. These findings sharply contrast the recommendations of the IPCC and highlight the danger of adopting conservative measures as the standard.

In addition to the irregular assessment reports, the IPCC can release special reports on specific topics at the request of governments. The most recent publication — the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius — emphasizes the benefits of maintaining the global temperature at a level below 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, while acknowledging the difficulties of accomplishing such a task. This is a notable pivot from its previous position, changing 2 degrees Celsius from the acceptable standard to the bare minimum. The conservatism of the assessment reports applies to special reports so that logically, the measurement of 1.5 degrees Celsius is most likely closer to the standard we should strive for as opposed to 2 degrees Celsius.

In the political context of President Donald Trump, whose environmental policy is already creating lasting damage, our institutions are working against us. Fuel efficiency has decreased; coal, oil and gas production have increased and endangered species have had key protections removed. The result of Trump’s policies has been the increased pollution of our air and water as well as the suppression of scientific research.

At the core of the climate crisis is the improper maintenance of the ecosystem. The environmental damages that continue to occur cannot be fixed with minor repairs. Short-term solutions focused on mitigation and economic stimulus are promising for the near future, but the data demands urgency. When our climate and our politics begin to degrade, radical solutions need to be explored.

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, print edition. Email Cole Stallone at [email protected]

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