We Could Have a Healthy Climate — Why Target Two Degrees?

By Peter Fiekowsky. This article first appeared in Brain Science and Climate Change


Two degrees or zero degrees increase.
Which climate future would you choose to give to our children?

Goals matter

Leaders use specific goals to align collective action to achieve a desired outcome. Given human ingenuity, a well designed challenging goal pulls for its own fulfillment. This has been the basis for leadership and management for decades, if not millennia.

For decades, our climate leadership has been pointing us to a goal of no more than a two degree increase, roughly three times more warming than we have now. With a heroic concerted effort the recent Paris climate summit achieved remarkable results to get us close to that goal.

You probably know about today’s 1000 year storms, floods, droughts and 60 million refugees escaping lands with failing crops.  Picture three times worse in your mind. It’s hard to imagine–is that what you want? Is that what we want?

Why are we not collectively targeting what we want? What is it we want? Is it physically possible?

Most experts agree that the our climate goal optimistically should be restoring the climate to close to what it was during the development of civilization, especially the last few hundred years for which we have good records. There are many ways to quantify that goal; One of the best is the restoration of the polar ice cap–it’s simple to visualize and measure and corresponds with stable sea level and previously normal weather patterns. Call that a healthy climate.

We could achieve a healthy climate.

A geologist friend recently told me, “I’m not a climate expert, but all you need to restore the ice caps is a couple large volcanoes. That happens over and over through geologic history.”

Realistically it’s not that simple. The UN tells us we’d have to invest 1% of global GDP in clean energy production, mainly wind and solar, and the National Academy of Sciences tells us we’d have to invest another 1-2% of GDP into carbon dioxide removal, and we’d have to cool the planet with refinements of the methods that volcanoes have used for eons. Given that we now spend 6% of global GDP on fossil fuels, we could afford this and still come out way ahead.

Why two degrees?

If we could achieve a healthy climate, then why are our experts and leaders leading us to a two degree climate disaster? Is it a conspiracy, or is it something else, maybe outdated science?

Over the last few years, when I propose to climate experts and leaders that we could achieve a healthy climate if we wanted, almost to a person they get upset with me and say, “We can’t discuss that. If people thought it might be doable, then we would fail to convince the climate deniers to take action. We need a climate Pearl Harbor to trigger WWII scale action.”

What if that is not true? What if people, and society, actually act on doable, inspiring goals? Was President Kennedy an effective leader when he declared that we could land a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade? Kennedy could have threatened us with disaster if we didn’t keep up with the Soviets, but he didn’t do that. Maybe Kennedy knew something about the science of leadership and action that our climate scientists are now ready to learn too.

Time to change our tune

We can achieve a healthy climate by 2050, as measured by restoring the ice caps to their 1990 size, and it would cost less each year than we now spend on fossil fuel. I give calculation details here. Even if we fail, and restore the ice caps by 2060 or 2070, that outcome is surely better than the two degrees that we are girding for now.

Tell President Obama that you want a healthy climate.