By DAVID INTROCASO PhD
THCB readers may recall last year in early June when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord, and earlier this January when the World Economic Forum met to discuss its global risk report. The report included the chapter, “Our Planet on the Brink,” which I discussed (here and here) with respect to the health care industry’s indifference to global warming. (See also my related 3 Quarks Daily essay.) Now comes the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate and Change’s (IPCC’s ) latest report. Once again, overwhelming scientific evidence that confirms life as we know it on this planet will soon cease to exist is received with apathetic insouciance.
Created in 1988, the IPCC is considered the world’s definitive scientific body on climate change. In early October, it finalized its report “Global Warming of 1.5°C,” which was called for by the 2015 Paris climate accord. The report was prepared by nearly one hundred scientists who analyzed thousands of articles containing the most recent scientific evidence. The report’s summary was accepted by over 180 countries, including the American and Saudi Arabia delegation during the IPCC’s recent meeting in South Korea.
What is newsworthy about the IPCC report is its conclusion that keeping temperature increases below 2°C — the goal of the Paris agreement — would not avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. At 1.5°C, life on this planet would suffer serious or dire harm. Specifically, the report compared the impact between a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase in temperature with a 2°C (3.6°F) increase. (The earth has already warmed by 1°C since the pre-industrial era.) Among numerous other findings, the report found that if the temperature were to increase by 1.5°C, four percent of vertebrates (which includes us), eight percent of plants, and six percent of insects would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C, these percentages double or triple. Global crop yields will decline significantly. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs; at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss. At 1.5°C Marine fishery losses or the global annual catch loss would be 1.5 million tons; at 2°C, losses double.
Concerning our oceans, Callum Roberts’ The Ocean of Life, The Fate of Man and The Sea, which details the catastrophic consequences climate change is inflicting on our seas, explains our oceans have absorbed 30 percent of CO2 emissions to date. Ocean absorption is expected to rise 150 percent by 2050. This would be the fastest increase over the past 65 million years. The last time that oceans suffered this high a concentration of CO2 and anoxia (oxygen deficiency), effectively becoming oceanic deserts, it took five million years for them to recover. Among other calamitous results, ocean acidification is particularly problematic for phytoplankton, particularly since plant plankton produces half of the oxygen we breath. As for rising seas from ice melt, Roberts notes that if Greenland ice sheets were to thaw in their entirety, they would add 20 feet to the height of global seas. The thaw of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is presently vanishing faster than ever, would add another 10 feet. With a rise of 20 feet, most of Florida would be wiped out and a third of New York City. Keep in mind that 145 million people worldwide live three feet or less above sea level, and 10 percent of the world’s population — nearly 800 million — live less than 33 feet from present sea levels. Eleven of the 16 megacities, or cities with more than 15 million people, are built on coasts or estuaries, such as Jakarta, Los Angeles, Manila, Mumbai, Osaka, Shanghai, and Tokyo.
As for global warming’s effect on extinction rates, recent findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lend further evidence that we are already at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction. Human activities to date have eradicated 300 different mammal species. This amounts to our having lost 2.5 billion years of unique evolutionary history. Even if natural extinction rates fell back to natural levels, it would take five to seven million years for nature to recover. If current extinction rates continue for another 50 years, another 1.8 billion years of phylogenetic or evolutionary history will disappear. Studies documenting the decline in insect populations have shown up to a 45 percent decrease over the past few decades in invertebrates in several locations. Germany, for example, has experienced a 76 percent decline in flying insects. Over one-third of the world’s crops require insect pollination.
As dire as they are, the IPCC’s findings could have been substantially worse. The IPCC does not conduct research; it only summarizes or builds consensus around existing scientific evidence. Emerging scientific research or findings are not considered. For example, a growing body of evidence suggests greenhouse gas emission reductions after a certain point may become futile due to positive feedback loops. This means warming temperatures become the cause of new sources of greenhouse gas emissions. After a certain point, we will have irreversibly tipped the scales toward runaway global warming, frequently termed “the hothouse state.” For instance, warming that causes a decline in the Albedo effect, where less ice reduces reflected sunlight, causing more absorption of solar radiation among numerous other effects, can alter Gulf Stream ocean currents that in turn accelerates ice melt in the southern hemisphere.
The IPCC report concludes that if the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues, temperatures will rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2040. In order to avoid this, the IPCC found greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and completely, or by 100 percent, by 2050. Coal use, currently accounting for 40 percent of electrical production, would have to drop to nearly one percent. Renewable energy sources, currently supplying 20 percent of electrical production, would have to more than triple. The effort required to transform the world’s economy, the report stated, would be so great that “there is no documented historical precedent.”
Though the IPCC’s findings are beyond disturbing, their findings are unsurprising. In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) latest state of the climate report, published a year ago, the agency found current concentrations of atmospheric CO2 at 405 parts per million (ppm). (Our pre-industrial, or before 1750, atmospheric concentration of CO2 equaled 280 PPM.) Last year’s Congressionally mandated Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) found that CO2 at these concentrations last occurred three million years ago. As for the rate of annual greenhouse gas emissions at approximately 42 billion tons annually and still climbing, the CSSR concluded “that there is no climate analog for this century any time in at least the last 50 million years.” NOAA’s report also found atmospheric concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide, far more potent warming gasses than CO2 at their highest recorded levels. Atmospheric release of methane is particularly problematic because the gas is 86 times more powerful at trapping heat than CO2. Methane concentrations have increased by 150 percent since industrialization. The effects of this much carbon in the atmosphere are not unknown. As I noted in my 3 Quarks essay, the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology published a special issue last summer that presented evidence of what is considered to be the mother of all extinctions. Approximately 250 million years ago similar, changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, believed to be driven by large scale volcanism, killed 75 percent of terrestrial species and 90 percent of all ocean life, ending the Permian Period.
While, again, the IPCC’s report is a summary of existing science, it is useful because it is an admission that climate scientists “finally have hit the panic button,” as David Wallace Wells, author of the 2017 New York Magazine essay, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” commented. Wallace Wells accurately interpreted the report’s worst case scenario of 2°C warming as “beyond-best-case scenario” because the US among other countries have shown no genuine interest in curbing global greenhouse emissions. (The US is historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses and currently ranks second behind China.) As a result, “what has been called a genocidal level of warming, Wallace Wells writes, “is already our inevitable future.” Since we are unlikely to heed the IPCC’s warning, since carbon capture technology is currently fiction, and since we have no appetite for setting “historical precedent,” we are actually on a path toward 4°C in warming. (As an aside, current efforts at carbon capture largely amount to creating synthetic fuel by using clean energy to extract CO2 from the atmosphere and combine it with hydrogen split from water. The trick here is to do this at a cost that is less than current energy sources.) At 4°C warming, 44 percent of vertebrates lose over 50 percent of their geographic range, plants and insects over two-thirds, global grain yields fall precipitously, the world’s economy contracts by 30 percent and excess hyperthermia deaths in the US increase by over 700 percent.
This past August, the Trump administration actually admitted this warming trajectory was a foregone conclusion in a draft National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) environmental impact statement published in conjunction with Trump’s decision to freeze federal fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks built after 2020. The report admitted atmospheric concentrations of carbon will rise from 410 PPM to 789 ppm by 2100. NHTSA’s candid admission was likely informed by recent regulatory actions taken by the Trump administration. In September the EPA proposed weakening Obama era regulations requiring drilling companies to monitor and repair methane leaks. That same month the Interior Department finalized repealing regulatory restrictions on venting or flaring methane from drilling operations on federal and tribal lands. This past summer, the EPA also proposed relaxing CO2 emissions via auto tailpipes and in August proposed replacing a regulatory rule limiting CO2 emissions from coal fired power plants. These rules essentially put an end federal regulatory efforts to address global warming.
The IPCC report was met with the usual torpor by our country’s feckless leadership. Immediately after the report became public on October 9, the White House had no comment. In an October 15 CBS interview, President Trump stated with typical incoherence, “I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s man made.” “You’d have to show me,” he said, “the scientists because they have a very big political agenda.” The State Department’s comment, Orwellian, admitted acceptance of the IPCC report but said that did “not imply endorsement by the US of the specific findings or underlying contents of the report.” Congressional leaders continue their silence, though one might think a Democratic Senator not up for reelection until 2022, for example, Kamala Harris (CA), Chris Van Hollen (MD) or Ron Wyden (OR), would have at minimum exploited Yale Professor William Nordhous’s recent Nobel Prize for economics for “integrating climate change into long-run macroeconomic analysis.” The last time that Congress attempted to address global warming was nearly a decade ago, when the House passed a cap and trade bill to limit fossil fuel plant emissions. It passed by one vote, with 43 Democrats opposing, and promptly died in the Senate. Incumbents and challengers on the midterm election campaign trail have been quiet as well, though Washington State, which accounts for 2.6 percent of the nation’s GDP, has a carbon tax on its November ballot). The silence is due in part to Gallup polling data that found only two to three percent of Americans cite pollution or the environment as the most important problem facing the country today.
The health care industry’s response in aggregate remains the same: none. Consider the $700 billion Medicare program that cares for nearly 60 million seniors. For the past few years, Medicare has implemented a policy of “extreme and uncontrollable circumstances.” Essentially, if a hurricane or wildfire wipes out a practice, the agency would lessen their regulatory reporting requirements. Last year, this policy was extended to all of Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and over 100 counties in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas. With unabated global warming, effectively the entire Medicare program will someday fall under this policy (assuming the program does not first go bankrupt, which is presently estimated to occur in in eight years). Since health care is the second largest emitter of greenhouse pollution after the food industry, accounting for nearly ten percent of the US total, the Medicare program could take a far more productive approach and require health care providers to go carbon neutral by 2030 as a condition of participation. As for the industry’s trade associations, once again they have nothing to say. One might think the industry would be interested in doing no harm instead of contributing significantly to the very diseases the industry is supposedly trying to prevent. Nevertheless, when the IPCC released its report, the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Hospital Association (AHA), the American Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), among numerous others, were all silent. Health care policy research and media outlets also remained mute. Health Affairs, advertised as “dedicated to serious exploration of major domestic and international health policy issues,” has never discussed global warming, nor has Inside Health Policy, which publishes upwards of 15 to 20 health care policy articles per day. To be fair, at the recently concluded Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, 178 health care institutions from 26 countries “committed” to reducing carbon emissions by the equivalent of four coal fired power plants.
On August 5, in his 29-page New York Times article titled “Losing Earth,” Nathaniel Rich explained how nearly thirty years ago, 400 delegates from around the world met in the Netherlands to review work by the IPCC and to agree to a treaty framework that would freeze greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. The effort failed, largely due to John Sununu. President George H. W. Bush’s Chief of Staff did not believe in global warming. Sununu called NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen’s research, as Rich notes, “technical poppycock.” Efforts in Noordwijk were followed a few years later in Japan, leading to the 1997 Koyoto Treaty, which laid out legally binding reductions in greenhouse emission targets. The treaty has amounted to nothing. The two decades since produced more carbon emissions than the two decades prior. International leaders will again meet this December in Poland to review the Paris accord. Though hope springs eternal, there remains good reason to be terrified.
David Introcaso is a healthcare research and policy consultant based in Washington, D.C.