Let's Avoid Living Dangerously

The Showtime documentary series that began airing last night, “Years of Living Dangerously,” is a powerful reminder of why we need to act now to address climate change. More hurricanes, floods, droughts, intense storms, food scarcity—it’s all there in detail.  Expertly done, with graphic images and insightful commentary, the episode makes an impression and hopefully will prompt people to take this crisis more seriously, and to action to reduce the carbon pollution that’s causing the problem.

But being honest here, research has shown that when people are presented with a whole bunch of seriously bad news on a massive scale, they can shut down. What this series is missing so far is an equal emphasis on the things we can do to help right this wrong.

That’s why it was somewhat heartening to read some relatively good news in the morning papers. Yesterday the world’s most authoritative body on climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), issued a very influential report, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change .“

And while there’s a bunch of bad news in there, there’s also some cause for optimism. “Many Pathways to Substantial Emissions Reductions are Available,” one of the press release headlines reads.

As the New York Times noted; “… the experts found a silver lining: Not only is there still time to head off the worst, but the political will to do so seems to be rising around the world.” This is true with the world’s two largest emitters of carbon pollution, China and the United States, both of whom are taking actions to reduce emissions that are more aggressive than what they have been willing to commit to in an international treaty.

(The IPCC is composed of hundreds of scientists and experts, and its findings are endorsed by the UN and over 100 nations, including the US. Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change, is the third of three Working Group reports, which, along with a Synthesis Report due in October 2014, constitute the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report on climate change.)

But don’t get me wrong, the IPCC report says in no uncertain terms that we need to act now (over the next 15 years) and act aggressively if we are to have a chance of staving off the worst potential catastrophic climate impacts. Emissions grew more quickly between 2000 and 2010 than in each of the three previous decades-- despite a growing number of policies to reduce climate change.

As the Working Group’s authors and many others have noted, to stave off the worst impacts of climate change, we must avoid a 2 degree Celsius temperature increase over preindustrial levels. If we don’t, potentially catastrophic sea level rise and other large-scale impacts will likely occur. To avoid the 2 degree C increase, we have to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent below with 2010 levels by mid-century, and to near-zero by the end of this century, the report says.

“The core task of climate change mitigation is decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from the growth of economies and population,” Youba Sokona of Mali, one of the lead authors of the report said yesterday. “Through providing energy access and reducing local air pollution, many mitigation measures can contribute to sustainable development.”

Or as the report puts it (in a wonky fashion):

Climate policy intersects with other societal goals creating the possibility of co‐benefits or adverse side‐effects. These intersections, if well‐managed, can strengthen the basis for undertaking climate action. Mitigation and adaptation can positively or negatively influence the achievement of other societal goals, such as those related to human health, food security, biodiversity, local environmental quality, energy access, livelihoods, and equitable sustainable development; and vice versa, policies toward other societal goals can influence the achievement of mitigation and adaptation objectives. These influences can be substantial, although sometimes difficult to quantify, especially in welfare terms. This multi‐objective perspective is important in part because it helps to identify areas where support for policies that advance multiple goals will be robust.


The Obama Administration has already issued aggressive standards for vehicles and is in the process of issuing standards for new and existing power plants. Vehicles and power plants are the largest sources of carbon pollution in the United States. NRDC has a groundbreaking strategy for reducing emissions from existing power plants in an equitable and economically viable way.

President Obama has also placed an emphasis on preparing for the impacts of climate change.

The need is clear.

Yesterday’s IPCC report was the third in a series of three. The first one, issued in September, found a certainty of 95 percent or greater that humans were the main cause of global warming. The second determined that profound climate impacts were already being felt around the world, and were likely to get much worse. All three of these studies make a comprehensively compelling case for increased pressure on world leaders to secure an ambitious new global climate treaty. That treaty is supposed to be completed in late 2015 and take effect in 2020.

If we are to avoid living dangerously and having our children live in even more dangerous times, we need to act now and act aggressively.