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A new report from the world’s leading body on climate change says we could see catastrophic global warming by 2030, and climate scientist Michael Mann says their predictions are too conservative

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

A new report from the world’s leading body on climate change warns that in just 12 years, rising global temperatures could cause irreversible damage like mass extinctions and severe droughts. Just 12 years. The report from the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change, or the IPCC, says if temperatures keep increasing at their current rate, global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052. To avoid a disaster, the IPCC says governments must take “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Now joining us to talk about this is seminal climate scientist Michael Mann. Michael Mann is a distinguished professor and director of the Earth Science Systems Science Center at Penn State University. He’s the author of several books, perhaps most famously in 2012 The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, and most recently The Tantrum that Saved the World, a children’s book on climate change which he coauthored with Megan Herbert. Thanks for joining us today.

MICHAEL MANN: Thank you. Good to be with you.

DHARNA NOOR: So, Michael, you’ve been raising the alarm about climate change for decades. Talk about the significance of this IPCC report. The Paris climate accord years ago actually set 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels as an aspirational target, but this report makes it seem like that target is nowhere near enough.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, and In fact, even this report is overly conservative, as these IPCC reports often are. It turns out that in some ways this latest report has actually understated the amount of warming that we’ve already experienced because of the burning of fossil fuels and the increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And so arguably we are actually closer to those 1.5 degrees Celsius and 2.0 Celsius thresholds, temperature thresholds, that are discussed in the report. We’re probably closer to them than the report implies. We probably have less carbon left to burn if we are to avoid crossing those thresholds.

DHARNA NOOR: But 1.5 degrees seems like such a tiny increase. Explain the history and significance of that figure, the 1.5 degree rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels, and how much worse would 2 degrees be than that?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so 1.5 degrees Celsius warming over the time scale of a century is unprecedented. As far back as we can go, we have not seen rates of warming that large. And in fact, the level of warmth that we’ve now reached is unprecedented in tens of thousands of years. So even what might seem like a modest amount of warming can be profound from the impacts that that warming can have.

Just think about this. The warming that we’ve already experienced is more than halfway, it’s more than halfway from the warming between the last ice age and the modern pre-industrial climate. So we’ve already warmed the climate half as much as it warmed coming out of the last ice age. And that has implications for the melting of ice. We are inching ever closer to crossing key thresholds where we basically lock in the melting of large parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and potentially even the Greenland ice sheet, enough ice to give us not feet but metres of sea level rise in the centuries ahead. For every half a degree Celsius warming of the ocean surface, we increase the destructive potential of hurricanes by more than 10 per cent; closer to 15 percent. That’s a large enough signal that you can see it in the data. We can see it playing out. And when it comes to extreme weather in general, unprecedented floods and heat waves and wildfires and droughts like we have seen over the past few years, that is the face of climate change. It’s no longer subtle.

And that’s just 1.5 degrees Celsius. Every additional half a degree Celsius locks in more destructive, more extreme weather events, more melting of ice more sea level rise, and 2 degrees Celsius might be enough to basically destroy the world’s coral reefs. We’re inching ever closer to that threshold.

DHARNA NOOR: You mentioned that you thought that these IPCC scientists might have been too conservative in their estimates. And in coverage of this report of this IPCC report several outlets- the New York Times, Business Insider- are saying that we’re on track to reach 1.5 degrees by 2040, not 2030. So we’re seeing even more conservative estimates from the coverage of the report than is in the report itself. Can you talk about this a little bit?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. I think it’s sort of a bad game of telephone where, you know, parts of the report have been translated for the purpose of the summary for policymakers. And then there are press releases that have been sent out. And there’s been a lot of nuance that has been lost in translation, as it were. I also pointed out that the IPCC made a number of extremely conservative- I would argue overly conservative- decisions in how they measure the warming that has already happened. And by doing that they underestimate how close we are to these 1.5 degree Celsius and 2 degrees Celsius thresholds. And they overestimate how much carbon we have left to burn.

If you look, for example, at the Northern Hemisphere, which is where most of us live, and you ask the question when do we cross the 2 degree warming- 2 degree Celsius warming- threshold for the Northern Hemisphere if we continue with business as usual burning of fossil fuels? I showed in an article several years ago in Scientific American we crossed that threshold before 2040, in the late 2030s. So we are on the way, on our way to blowing past the 1.5 degree Celsius mark and crossing the 2 degrees Celsius threshold in a matter of, you know, depending on how you define it, it really doesn’t matter. Is it two decades, is it three decades, it hardly matters. In order to avoid crossing those thresholds we need to bring our emissions down dramatically. Arguably more dramatically than implied in this latest IPCC report.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Another report from 2016, The Truth About Climate Change, which was authored by leading climate scientists, some of whom are actually on the IPCC, said that we’ll hit 2 degrees by 2050 even if every country fulfils the Paris climate agreement. That seems like a pretty significant difference, especially because that was before Trump was elected.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot going on there. So first of all, the Paris agreement alone doesn’t stabilise warming below those dangerous levels of warming, below 2 degrees Celsius. There are credible estimates that have been done that if you tally up all of the commitments under the Paris accord- and keep in mind that many countries, including Europe and the U.S., are not quite meeting their targets at this point- but assuming every country meets its target, that only gets us halfway from where we would be headed, which would be towards 4 to 5 degrees Celsius warming of the planet; a catastrophic warming of the planet by the end of the century. The Paris agreement only gets us halfway down to the 2 degrees Celsius mark, and nowhere near that 1.5 degrees Celsius mark.

What that means is that Paris sort of gets us on the right path, that gets us on the right road. It helps us start to bend that curve of carbon emissions downward. But we’ll need to do a whole lot more work if we are going to stabilise warming below the dangerous 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees Celsius warming limits.

DHARNA NOOR: To curb climate change, the report says that we must reduce global emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and altogether by 2050. It also says that by 2050 the use of coal as an electricity source would have to drop from nearly 40 percent, which it has today, to between 1 and 7 percent. About 67 percent of our energy must come from renewable sources like wind and solar. The IPCC report really puts the pressure on governments to act, especially the Trump administration. But Trump hasn’t even responded to it at all. Given our current political climate, you could say, is it even likely that we could do any of these things? Is it possible to take these sorts of policy actions?

MICHAEL MANN: Well you know, political will is renewable. And right now in less than 30 days, in less than a month, we have a critical midterm election here in the United States where the people can make their voices heard. If we are not satisfied with a president who not only won’t act on climate change, but denies it exists, and a Republican Congress that has enabled his denialism in his delay in dealing with this problem, we have an opportunity to shift the political winds in a direction that’s more favorable for climate action.

So that’s critical. People can impact the process. People can impact the problem by voting. That is one very important way that we can act to help avert catastrophic climate change. Well, even in the absence of national leadership- we have no national leadership on this issue right now. But we do have leadership at the state level. States like California, led by Jerry Brown. The other West Coast states, the New England states, many of the mid-Atlantic states have banded together to form consortia to put a price on carbon, to incentivize renewable energy. Many of our largest businesses, many of our largest companies and corporations here in the U.S., are acting to reduce their carbon emissions. And because of that we may meet our Paris obligations even without support from the president or the Republican Congress. But as I said before, we need to not only meet those obligations, we need to improve on them substantially if we’re going to- if we’re going to avert catastrophic warming of the planet. And that’s going to require leadership at the national level. One way to try to ensure that happens is to show up at the polls and to vote out politicians who refuse to act, who deny the problem, and vote in politicians who are willing to be part of the solution.

DHARNA NOOR: I don’t want to belabor this, but you know, you mentioned that the Trump administration was denying the existence of climate change. But last month the Washington Post reported that buried in this some hundreds, hundreds of pages-long National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statement is this prediction that the world will warm by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. So essentially they said given that the world is going to warm catastrophically anyway, new policies- in this case a freezing of fuel efficiency standards- is just a drop in the bucket. So again, given this political climate when people are saying, you know, if the world is going to warm so drastically anyway, if the outcome requires such fatalism, is it worth acting in any case? How do you respond to people who say it’s too late to act?

MICHAEL MANN: Yes. So here you have two equal and opposite untruths. And It really speaks to the intellectual honesty or lack thereof when it comes to the Trump administration. They’re willing to use two completely inconsistent talking points. On the one hand climate change is a hoax, it doesn’t exist; on the other hand, oh, it’s going to be so large that there’s little we can do about it now. And what that tells you is that there is no good faith in their position on climate. They’re just looking for any argument, throwing as much mud on the wall as they can, to try to block progress to deal with this problem, because they’re basically furthering the agenda of the fossil fuel interests and the conservative donors who fund this administration and congressional Republicans today.

The reality is that there is still time to reduce our emissions by the amount necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change, but not if we continue to vote in climate change deniers and fuel lobbyists like we have in the form of the current administration and the congressional Republicans who are enabling their agenda.

DHARNA NOOR: But what about some of the Democratic leaders who are leading the way on climate change? For instance, you mentioned Jerry Brown’s administration in California as being, you know, really precedent-setting in terms of climate change; really taking the lead on climate change. But critics would say that since he became governor he’s admitted some 20,000 new oil and gas permits. So do we also need to act on the supply side versus the demand side, versus things like supporting more wind, supporting more solar, and move to really stopping the production of fossil fuels in the first place?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah. Well, you know, there’s a worthy debate to be had about the role of demand-side versus supply-side approaches to the problem. And I fear that when it comes to folks like Jerry Brown, who I consider a hero and a leader on this issue, there is the true danger of the perfect being the enemy of the good, or the very good, in this case. He has taken a leadership position at a time when we have a president and a Congress that wants to deny that there’s a problem, that wants to pull out of the Paris accord. He has taken a leadership position. He has set an example for other states to follow. He is moving ahead with an effort to put a price on carbon, to incentivize renewable energy.

So yeah, you know, there are no arguments that can be made that it would be great if we were to see maybe more action when it comes to policies on natural gas and pipelines. But you know, first we have to tackle this problem one piece at a time. And Jerry Brown has taken on a huge challenge in putting forward policies that have the potential to make the largest dent in this problem, putting a price on carbon so we level the energy playing field so renewable energy can compete compete fairly against fossil fuel energy in the marketplace. And if we do that, we know that we’re going to further accelerate this transition that is already underway away from the continued burning of these dirty fossil fuels towards a clean renewable energy future.

DHARNA NOOR: I want to ask you one more question about some specific policy implications. So it’s looking now like Jair Bolsonaro is likely to become Brazil’s next president, and Brazil is in the top 10 emitters globally. Many are predicting that he’ll lift all restrictions on logging in the Amazon. If he does that, what could the impact on climate be? How significant could that be?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, deforestation is a problem, and it contributes to our carbon emissions, as does agriculture and a whole lot of other human activities. Basically everything that we do contributes to our global carbon footprint. And we need to think carefully about our practices across the board when it comes to energy, transportation, food systems and distribution systems, buildings and infrastructure, city planning, forest management, et cetera. There’s no one magic bullet that solves this problem. But the lion’s share of our carbon emissions today comes from the burning of fossil fuels for energy and transportation. And if we can tackle that largest piece of the pie, we will make huge inroads in meeting our, you know, the Paris commitments, and getting- again, getting our carbon emissions on a path where we’re bending them downward towards zero, where they ultimately have to be in a matter of decades if we’re going to avert catastrophic warming of the planet.

We’re making some progress. We have to continue. We have to accelerate the policies that are helping out. And we have to think about all of the things that we can do in our everyday lives to try to help out. There is a role for voluntary actions, for personal responsibility in our food choices, in our energy usage, et cetera. We can all solve this problem through personal choices and by demanding accountability of our policy makers to enact policies that will accelerate this transition away from dirty fossil fuels towards renewable energy.

DHARNA NOOR: Given the need for individual action and also global action, what are you expecting from COP24 in Poland this December? Another big UN international conference on climate change.

MICHAEL MANN: It’s my hope that this latest interim report on the Paris targets, the latest IPCC report, will help frame the urgency of action. It will help frame sort of this problem that we’ve been talking about, that Paris is a good start. It gets us a foot in the door, but it doesn’t come close to solving this problem. We need to ratchet up all of those obligations that the various countries of the world made a few years ago in Paris. We need to make even more firm commitments. We need to make good on our current commitments, and that’s a challenge in itself. We have to make sure that countries are meeting their obligations under Paris, and that they’re willing to ratchet up those commitments in the next conference of the parties.

So it’s a, it’s a tall order, but it’s doable. To those people who say, who throw up their hands in defeat and say there’s just nothing we can do, that is not true. We’ve risen to the challenge before. We did it in World War II. We did it with the space program here in the U.S. We can do it here, as well.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Well, we’ll be sure to keep in touch with you as we see what happens, and as we see what actions are taken. As always, such a pleasure to have you on. Thanks.

MICHAEL MANN: My pleasure. Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dr. Michael E. Mann is a Distinguished Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, with joint appointments in the Department of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He is also director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center (ESSC).