Scientists Agree: Climate Change Is Gonna Get Worse and We Still Have to Stop It

There isn't a scenario that will stop the earth from heating up for at least the next 50 years, but we can still limit the damage we cause.

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A new report released by the 200 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Monday states very clearly that things are going to change. They're going to change quite drastically and life on this planet is going to get worse and considerably hotter, for at least the next half-century. This will also happen in ways that are severely damaging to the earth's ecosystems that have existed for millions of years. They're going to hurt us, as things that live here—at least if you plan on living any time after, um, right now. Lastly, these consequences are the direct result of man-made carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions.

You may write this off as the day's latest doom infodump. There's no shortage of those lately. However, these are hard truths and we humans have to do some tricky stuff that's been put off for way too long. Most things about it won't be fun, but at least there are still things we can do within our time that can still help. Some of these things we've started doing already but they aren't magic bullets at this dire stage of climate damage, when the atmosphere has its highest levels of carbon dioxide in 2 million years. "This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, said in a statement. 

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And all of this should matter very much to you, a reader of a car website that routinely covers the industrywide shift toward electric vehicles, including the ways some car companies seem to be hedging on that promise or seeing where "the market" goes. Because it's worth asking this: Even if the car industry goes primarily electric in the coming years and decades, will that be enough to stem the very worst effects of global warming? Not all of them, mind you; we're already there. The conversation now turns to avoid the worst of many bad outcomes.

Reporting facts—like the fact that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere—isn't political, even if you think climate change is a contentious issue. This is more like the weather forecast for the next century. In the same way that we see if there will be a storm tomorrow by looking at the wind patterns today, the IPCC report is based on approaches around physical sciences, looking at the concentrations of gases in the earth's atmosphere and how they have affected climate.

What the IPCC has put together is, even in its summary form, an extensive data set. It was looked at by hundreds of scientists and subject to repeated reviews. Although there's a lot of complexity to what the report lays out, its clear and overriding conclusion is that greenhouse gas emissions have reached a level both of concentration in the atmosphere and of sustained damage where the best-case scenario in terms of reductions will still lead to a likely 3.2-degree (1.8 Celsius) temperature increase—even with hugely dramatic lowering of emissions. 

In that scenario, called SSP 1.9 in the report, temperatures will still be significantly higher until at least 2100.  By "significantly higher," the report highlights that will be the longest sustained change of that scale for at least 6,500 years. However, because lowering emissions means that a large proportion of them could be processed and absorbed by land and sea sinks (forests, sea grasses, etc.) then it becomes, ultimately, manageable. 

And the report makes no attempt to ignore the role cars and other forms of "land transport" have had on this climate shift. "The present-day global land-based transport pulse emissions cause a net global warming on all
22 time scales... and are detrimental to air quality," it says. This, even as it admits that motor vehicle emissions in North America and Europe have "sharply decreased" in recent decades. In other words, the progress seen from cleaning up auto emissions has not been enough.

SSP1-1.9 could happen if emissions cross from their current level to a negative by around 2055. From then on, we should be removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere in order to limit the damage only until 2100. In SSP 2.6 we get to around 2075 to be in the negative numbers and there will still be a meaningful limitation on how much the earth's temperature rises, up to 4.3 degrees (2.4C). 

Those are the best-case scenarios. There are three more where we straight up just cook the planet. Because the earth is mostly ocean and land is warmer than the ocean, the scenario in SSP1-2.6 actually means most habitable land would experience temperature rises between 5.4-12.6 degrees (3-7C) with Arctic regions most severely affected.

The solution: reduce emissions and recover the ones we've let out. Reducing or eliminating passenger car emissions isn't the only part of this, but it is a big part. As the report says, "Achieving global net-zero CO2 emissions is a requirement for stabilizing CO2-induced global surface temperature increase, with anthropogenic CO2 emissions balanced by anthropogenic removals of CO2." Moving to zero-emission vehicles and filtering of soot (particulate matter) for diesel vehicles are measures described as short-term "win-win" policies that simultaneously improve air quality and limit climate change.

A lot of that comes down to reducing industrial and agricultural emissions. Some of it's to do with choices we can make on an individual level—some of it's not—and going out and buying a Tesla won't be a magic bullet. 

But from the perspective of writing about cars, there are some worrying trends right now: the growth of the luxury sector that's been a boon for ultra-expensive cars is real bad, given the top 1 percent of wealthiest people in the world contribute twice as much to emissions as the bottom 50 percent. Oh, and there are going to be some really bad ideas pitched in the scramble to change our world. And the adoption of EVs will also necessitate a more robust charging infrastructure, as well as a cleaner power grid to support it. 

In the face of all this, it isn't comforting to think about auto-show presentations on "e-mobility" like the stakeholder meetings that gently break down the end of the world as stock restructuring options. And there will be people who, even when faced with the facts laid very clearly and with a unanimous scientific agreement, say they'll choose to believe their own version of things.

But the science is clear, and after this report from Monday, clearer than ever. Reducing or eliminating vehicle emissions—and offering options that are actually affordable—is now a very clear matter of survival. In many ways, the damage is done. Now it's about not making things worse. 

If we actually work to fix the planet then the absolute worst thing that could happen is that we have a nicer place to live in. If we don't, then nowhere will be safe from climate extremes.

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