Climate Change The Complete WIRED Guide

What’s Next for Climate Change

The good news is, the global community is pretty united on the risks of climate change. The science is getting good enough to link specific extreme events–anomalous hurricanes, extreme flooding events–directly to human-caused climate change, and that’s making it easier to build a case for dramatic action to stem the damage. But what should those actions be?

The most obvious solution to climate change woes is a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energies: solar, wind, geothermal, and (deep breath) nuclear. And we’re making solid progress, growing our renewable electricity generation about 2.8 percent every year worldwide.

We also must fix our fundamentally broken relationship with the land itself. In the summer of 2019, the IPCC released a report warning that by abusing land, we’re greatly exacerbating climate change. Destroying forests removes an important carbon sink–CO2 goes in and oxygen comes out. Not helping matters are the supercharged wildfires like California’s spewing all that captured carbon into the atmosphere. Skyrocketing demand for meat worldwide means more cows burping more methane: The global food system as a whole is responsible for a stunning 37 percent of emissions. Making that system more efficient would put a huge dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Still, there’s an increasing understanding that even if every country that originally signed up for the Paris agreement meets every single one of their stated goals, the Earth is still set to experience some dramatic changes. In certain ways, we’ve already passed tipping points: Even if we stopped emitting today, we’d still see dramatic effects. The greenhouse gases are already in the atmosphere, and we’re locked into a certain amount of warming. And that means we need to start preparing for a different kind of climate future–primarily, in the way we build. The floods will come, forcing us to make new rules governing building. An ever-lengthening wildfire season will discourage building along the wildland-urban interface. And people will stream in from regions made uninhabitable by drought or heat or flooding, forcing other countries to adapt their immigration policies to a new class of refugees.

All of those changes will cost money. That was one of the primary motivators for the Paris agreement: Switching away from cheap fossil fuels means that businesses and companies are going to need to take a financial hit to ensure a profitable, livable future. Which is why many of the solutions to climate change have nothing to do with climate science, per se: They have to do with economics.

By the Numbers

407.6 parts per million

The concentration of CO2 in the lowest layer of our planet’s atmosphere. Compare that to 380 ppm just a decade ago.

75 percent

The portion of humanity that could face deadly heat waves by 2100 if major cuts to CO~2~ emissions are not made. By the middle of this century, the American South could see a tripling of days per year that hit 95 degrees.

2 degrees Celsius

The goal for maximum global temperature rise from pre-Industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris agreement. Unfortunately, a study published last summer determined that the chance of hitting that goal by 2100 is a mere 5 percent. The reality is, the rise could be as much as 4.9 degrees Celsius.

1.5 degrees Fahrenheit

The rise in sea surface temperature between 1901 and 2015. Warming seas are a particular problem for coral, which release the photosynthetic algae they use to extract energy from sunlight when they’re stressed and bleach to death.

One particularly powerful method is a carbon tax. Economists roundly agree that if you want to cut emissions, you better charge emitters like utility companies a fee for all that CO2 they release. Yes, those utilities would pass those costs on to customers, but the fee the government charges would come back to households as a “carbon dividend.” As the fee increases year over year, polluters will pay more and more, and switch to renewable sources of energy to emit less and less. Countries like Canada and Sweden have already shown this kind of carbon tax to dramatically cut emissions.

Socially conscious investors, for their part, are making a difference by holding businesses to account for their impacts on the climate–and the ways in which climate change will impact their business. Last year, a collective of small-scale pension systems forced Occidental Petroleum, one of the country’s largest oil companies, to disclose climate risk in its shareholder prospectus; ExxonMobil caved to pressure in December 2017. Places with large endowments, like universities, are facing political pressure to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

These are all indirect ways of holding the fossil fuel industry accountable for the financial toll it takes on the Earth with every gigaton of greenhouse gases emitted. But there are more direct ways they can pay up, too. After reporting by Inside-Climate News revealed in 2015 that ExxonMobil has long known about the risks of climate change, the company is being investigated by attorneys general in multiple states to determine if it violated consumer or investor protection statutes. The city of San Francisco is suing the five largest publicly-held producers of fossil fuels to get them to pay for infrastructure to protect against rising sea levels. New York City followed with a similar suit.

Let’s say those suits succeed, and at-risk cities get some help making the massive infrastructure updates necessary to protect their coastline investments. After doing everything we can to reduce further carbon emissions and protect life and property from the dangers of a changing climate, it still won’t be enough to keep global temperatures from rising beyond that 2-degree-Celsius tipping point. So that’s when humanity goes into proactive mode, potentially unleashing a controversial set of experimental technologies into the atmosphere. This is geoengineering: Removing carbon dioxide and reducing heat through, let’s say, *experimental* means. Like salt-spraying ships, and supersized space mirrors.