Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

It’s an Emergency!

2050 Is Not Soon Enough For a Fix

Shishmaref, Alaska, is falling into the sea. Photo: Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development.

George Harvey

Some among us could look at the fact that the United Kingdom adopted a law mandating that it be 100% carbon free by 2050 as good news (See CleanTechnica, And CNN has told us New York City has set its climate goal, as well ( There was a time when I would have rejoiced. But that time has passed.

It is clear to me that net-zero carbon by 2050 is too little, too late. This is because, while we denied, dithered, or indulged in NIMBYism, things have changed. The evidence is mounting that climate change is now completely out of control, and we have to start actively removing carbon dioxide from our environment, as quickly as we can.

When I say things are out of control, I am not talking about a worst-case scenario. It is becoming increasingly clear that we have gone beyond what most people would consider a worst case. Trying for 100% carbon-free by 2050 is just so much hot air in a world warming much too fast.

This year’s record-breaking heat wave in France was not just record-breaking. According to BBC News, it broke the previous record, set only a few years ago, by 3.25°F ( This not just breaking a record, it is smashing it utterly, making it irrelevant. This happened because the jet stream got stuck, pushing Saharan air into Europe, which has happened before and will happen again. The problem is that it is hotter than ever before, but we can bet it will almost certainly happen again, because what is normal is changing.

Chennai, a modern city with 4.5 million people, is entirely out of water. Photo: Pratik Gupte, CC-BY-SA 1.0, Wikimedia Commons.

The record heat in Europe is happening at the same time that a long drought plaguing India has turned for the worse. According to CNN, the city of Chennai is out of water, because the monsoon, which brings rain every year, failed ( The reservoirs are bone-dry, so there is no tap water. Chennai has four and a half million people, and all of them have to get their water from tank trucks that bring it into the city. People stand in line for hours to get a pot filled. That drought is now threatening to cut off water altogether for over 100 million people, with hundreds of millions more somewhat less vulnerable.

The list of problems of similar magnitude goes on and on. And while it is nothing new to have problems, the severity and frequency of problems that we are now seeing are new. And all people, everywhere, are vulnerable. And I am sorry to sound discouraging, but that includes here. If we are not having bad weather, it is because we are lucky, and luck will not hold out forever.

I have long told people that the only thing absolutely predictable about weather is that it will be weird. No more. Now I have to add that one other thing is predictable: It is getting more extreme.

In the past, there was the Year Without a Summer, 1816, in which New England farmers lost even their hay crops because every month had killing frosts. There was Northeast Blizzard of 1888, and the heat wave that came to the Northeast only six years later. There was even the medieval “Little Ice Age.” But all these events have one thing in common: they were caused by natural events. Nearly all scientists agree that what we have now is at least partly caused by us.
Weather is weather. Climate is a pattern of weather, a very different thing. When the overall pattern gets warmer, that does not mean that there are not still cold days. And in fact, because the weather is getting more severe with climate change, we could even set an occasional cold weather record. But overall, the temperatures are rising.

The reason I say 100% by 2050 is too little too late, is that climate change appears to be happening far faster than it was foreseen in even the worst-case scenarios. According to an article at CNN, satellite data shows that ocean water temperatures off northern Alaska are 10°F above normal ( We are talking about ocean water here, something that stays around for a while, not some breeze blown in from the south for a few days. And Greenland has lost as much as two billion tons of ice per day, melting into the ocean. Earlier this spring, temperatures in parts of Greenland were 40°F above normal. These things are part of an overall pattern called climate change.

One really discouraging thing is that the permafrost is melting, as Al Gore warned us it might, releasing methane into the atmosphere. This is a tipping point, after which recovery of our climate becomes far more difficult. At the time Al Gore warned us, we might have hoped to avoid that. We cannot hope to avoid it now.

The permafrost is not just melting, it is melting at a rate that seems to be beyond what just about anyone envisioned. Scientists have said we are at a point they did not expect to see for another 70 years. We might say that in this respect, 2050 is much too late, because we are already 39 years past that, at 2089.

Another really bad thing is that the oceans appear not to be taking up CO₂ the way they did in the past, according to an article in Science Times ( This means that more of our emissions are staying in the atmosphere, making things worse faster.

We have clearly passed tipping points. I can only admit that denial and NIMBYism have won the first rounds. And the result of this is that large numbers of people will suffer. They may include hundreds of millions in India and hundreds of millions more in Africa and Asia. They may even include hundreds of millions in Europe.

Will this hit us in the Northeast? Yes. We are in a part of the world that is blessed with moderate weather, but it will not last forever. Our luck will run out as well. And it looks increasingly like it is not just our grandchildren and children who will suffer, but we ourselves. And what we have might be worse than Hurricane Sandy or an ice storm. Severe heat, like that in Europe, hurricanes, tornados, and even ice storms and blizzards can be made worse by global warming.

They can, and quite probably will, fall upon us.

There was a time, not long ago, when I told people that we will get through climate change, because we have to and we have all the technology we need to stop it. Today, I can only say that we will, because we have to. I am not sure that we have the technology to stop it anymore, because we have already waited too long. We have to stop waiting.

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