So, what do we do now that we know we are probably screwed?

Stephen Mulkey
8 min readJul 10, 2019
Ocean City, MD, USA. Facing rapid sea level rise.

“The IPCC report demonstrates that it is still possible to keep the climate relatively safe, provided we muster an unprecedented level of cooperation, extraordinary speed, and heroic scale of action.”
— Mario Molina. 2018. IPCC Nobel Laureate

Science does not blink. The special report issued by the IPCC in October 2018 is unequivocal in its warnings. We are out of time to take action to reduce fossil fuel emissions. We must engage in steep and immediate reductions in emissions if we are to keep the global average temperature from exceeding 2˚C by the early part of the second half of this century. The popular discourse about how many years we may have remaining to take this action is immaterial to whether we might achieve this. Given the current administration’s aggressive repression of science and the denial of the need to address this gravest threat to civilization since we wandered out of Africa, it is very unlikely that we will mount such a massive global effort with the necessary urgency.

But, certainly despair is premature. There are now many countries, mostly small ones, that are committed to zero carbon emissions in the near term. Despite political resistance by utilities and the fossil fuel lobby, renewable energy is developing rapidly in Europe and some states of the US. Innovation in grid management and power storage have removed the often ridiculous arguments that renewables are unreliable because wind and sunlight are intermittent. My colleagues point to progress in the largely commercial renewable energy sector and declare that we will be mostly carbon free by 2050.

Terrific, but “mostly” doesn’t cut it, and mid-century is too late. There is a 30 to 40-year time lag in the Earth System after fossil emissions cease in which positive feedbacks and ocean heat transfers continue. Thus, continuing impacts are nonnegotiable. As McKibben has said, “winning slowly is the same as losing.”

Staying at or below 2˚C warming during this century does not guarantee that we will avoid damaging climate change. The putative guardrail of 2˚C was agreed on at the Copenhagen 15th Conference of the Parties as a last-ditch compromise to salvage a positive outcome of this disastrous meeting of nations. There is no scientific basis for the notion that this…

Stephen Mulkey

Environmental scientist and educator; forest and climate change ecologist.