NEW YORK – There is nothing rational about opposition to teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was just named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Critics are entitled to their subjective opinions that some other person had more impact or that some other problem is more pressing, and U.S. President Donald Trump can, predictably, mock the choice, but Thunberg is well aligned with mainstream science and with climate-savvy economists.
Despite years of hate mail, disinformation campaigns and ridicule, the mainstream science community has made a strong position even stronger, thanks to more data from the atmosphere, the ground, the oceans and ice cores, as well as better computer models. And now they’re observing the unfolding of long-predicted global changes in real time. Al Gore had been right all along to scare people in his 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Thunberg is adding anger to the emotional mix as she pushes for an end to our long history of foisting the problem off on future generations.
Her cause isn’t just a moral crusade. There’s a scientific case for making some economic sacrifice now. It stems from the fact that atmospheric carbon won’t just dissipate like the smog over Los Angeles. Excess carbon dioxide is going to linger in the atmosphere and oceans for thousands of years.
The physics of the situation show that even if we were to start to cut our rate of emissions today, the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere would keep rising like water in a clogged bathtub — and that drain appears to be getting even more clogged. Recent calculations show we’d need to cut emissions to about half of 2010 levels rate by 2050, and get near-zero net emissions by 2100, to avoid potentially catastrophic warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more.
Scientists misunderstood how badly the rest of the world misunderstood the problem. A 2008 paper by MIT professors John Sterman and Linda Booth Sweeney showed that even MIT students were, for the most part, unaware of the cumulative nature of greenhouse gases.
When the researchers surveyed a mix of graduate students and members of the general public, they found most people wrongly assumed global temperatures would stabilize once we stabilize the rate of emissions, and that the temperature might even fall if this rate were reduced.
Worse still, the effect of adding greenhouse gases isn’t linear. Climate change is rife with tipping points, feedback loops and hard-to-predict outcomes.
Some economists are coming around to the nature of the problem, however. Richard Alley, a climate researcher at Penn State University, pointed me to an article written by economists for the journal Science, arguing that they’d previously low-balled the cost future generations would pay for our unabated climate change. They made a case that it’s a problem best tackled now.
There are times when pushing problems to future generations can be cost-effective. If you don’t try to solve an expensive problem today, the money you save has time to grow, and people in the future will be richer and better able to afford a solution.
Colonizing Mars will be easier in a richer future, as will deflecting asteroids and disposing of nuclear waste. It’s possible an asteroid will wipe us out this century, but it probably won’t, and so future generations will forgive us for not spending trillions to avoid an asteroid collision now.
But beneficial procrastination doesn’t always apply. It didn’t apply to the ozone hole crisis of the 20th century, which scientists now say would have been catastrophic if not for speedy action following an international agreement called the Montreal Protocol.
And it doesn’t apply to the effectively irreversible buildup of carbon emissions. In recent years it’s become well-understood that global warming isn’t a gentle process. Our altered, increasingly heat-trapping atmosphere will make extreme events worse — heat waves will be deadlier, hurricanes wetter and droughts more prolonged.
Instead of a category 3 storm you might get a category 4, and instead of facing a billion dollars in damage you’ll face $100 billion, says Kevin Trenberth, a climatologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, who has been studying the connection between warming and extreme events. It’s a problem that’s not handled well by economists, he says.
Climate scientists were urging action decades ago, and they attribute some of the delay to a disinformation and defamation campaign that peaked about 10 years ago with hackers stealing climate scientists’ personal emails and conservative media outlets distorting those messages to make it look like they’d done bad science and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
Gavin Schmidt, now director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that a decade ago, he was being sued by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which was trying to force him to disclose personal email messages. “People are shocked at what’s going on now,” says Schmidt, as their television screens bring news of deadly heat spells in Europe and apocalyptic footage of floods and fires in the United States. It’s not because scientists didn’t warn them, he says, “but because people basically don’t listen to scientists.”
Thunberg did listen. And now other people are listening to her.
So there’s nothing childish about 16-year-old Thunberg’s campaign, except perhaps for the way some have used it to create a distracting game of generational warfare. Some adults have rolled their eyes at Thunberg’s youth and conviction; Trump, for one, suggested she go see a movie with friends.
Some younger people, including some of Thunberg’s fans, have blamed “boomers” for the climate crisis, overlooking the fact that it was decades of work by scientists now in their 60s and 70s that uncovered the problem in the first place.
Let’s put aside the finger-pointing, and let Time’s choice be a reminder that the problem isn’t going to solve itself. There’s more carbon entering the atmosphere every day. The bathtub is filling up.
Science writer Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.