“Agricultural conditions will be significantly altered, environmental and economic systems potentially disrupted, and political institutions stressed,” they predicted in a report published in September, 1983.
After decades of negligent procrastination by leaders and malicious corporate obfuscations on climate change we’re now witnessing many of their predictions become a reality to an uncannily prescient degree.
Titled “Can we delay greenhouse warming”, the report estimated temperatures would hit 2 °C higher than before the Industrial Revolution by 2050. If our current trajectory continues with only small levels of mitigation as it has for the last four decades, we’re still on track.
“Substantial increases in global warming may occur sooner than most of us would like to believe,” the report stated.
The scale of the impacts so far this year have certainly been a shock, even for those of us paying attention. Record after record continues to be smashed, from the intense heat in our skies and oceans altering atmospheric currents leading to the staggeringly fierce fires and floods and loss of ice from Earth’s north and south poles, decimating countless wildlife from fish to penguins.
All this is at just 1.1 °C degrees of warming. Delays in Earth’s complicated biophysical system means another 0.4 °C is already locked in.
If we hit 2 °C as predicted, we’ll likely have to endure consequences of a collapsed Atlantic ocean circulation, extinction of coral ecosystems, and a loss of nutrition in our food as well as further yield decreases.
Even 40 years ago it was clear we couldn’t simply innovate our way out, with the EPA pointing out CO2 scrubbers were not a viable mitigation strategy. Despite continuing to use up a massive proportion of mitigation funding in the decades since, there’s still no breakout advance in this area. Geoengineering also remains too much of an uncertain risk, making much vaunted techno fixes as fictitious as ever.
Relying on a technological fix is still “tantamount to ‘Electrifying the Titanic’, as if this would melt the icebergs,” University of British Columbia ecologist William Rees recently argued in a review of our current situation.
Instead, even back in the 1980s research suggested ecology-based strategies like growing forests, now broadened to rewilding, held the most promise outside the energy sector. The science supporting rewilding has only grown, but the window is fast closing for this solution too. All while we allow the exact opposite to occur: the continued decimation of forests in both wealthy and developing countries.
The EPA’s report concluded banning coal and oil was the most effective way to prevent the oncoming disasters, which also remains true. If we’d successfully weaned ourselves off fossil fuels by the year 2000, warming by 2100 would have halved from 5 °C to 2.5 °C, they estimated. The report accurately predicted why this would not be politically or economically feasible, including corporate greed and lack of cooperation between nations.
Despite this missed opportunity it’s still not too late to reduce future impacts, as every fraction of a degree will save lives.
Thankfully our small mitigation efforts so far have at least made the EPA’s 5 °C by 2100 prediction unlikely, but our current path still could lead to over 4 °C, which we absolutely do not want to leave our future children or grandchildren to face.
This will mean obliterating the lives of a billion people, not to mention all the entire species we’ll take down with us.
“A soberness and sense of urgency should underlie our response to a greenhouse warming,” the EPA report concluded, and this remains truer now than ever.