Damned. Lost. Done.
President Joe Biden keeps saying the world as we know it will be gone if global temperatures rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.
His comments are raising concern among scientists who say the president risks adding to public confusion about the dangers of surpassing the 1.5 C threshold, an event that is expected to occur in about a decade.
Biden has been ratcheting up his warnings about breaching that benchmark in recent speeches, claiming that future generations would be damned and that “we lose it all” if the world overshoots that target.
But those assertions go beyond what many climate scientists say would happen. Surpassing 1.5 C is dangerous, they say, but it’s not a point of no return.
Biden’s rhetoric is “misleading and unhelpful,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. The best way to view what lies beyond 1.5 C is as a continuum of worsening climate impacts, he said, rather than as a climate cliff.
“It indeed feeds doomerism since there’s a very real possibility that we will fail to limit warming below 1.5 C,” Mann said of Biden’s remarks. “If we miss that exit ramp, we don’t continue headlong down the fossil fuel highway. We get off at the earliest possible exit.”
Biden is not alone in using severe language to describe the possibility of bypassing the 1.5 C threshold, the most ambitious goal in the Paris Agreement. Scientists have said each tenth of a degree will lead to more permafrost thawing, higher sea levels and intensifying drought.
Similar rhetoric has been used by other officials.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has said “global temperatures must not increase more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrialized levels in order to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has said humanity is on “a fast track to climate disaster.” Activist groups have also made the same claim, including the Sunrise Movement, which called it a “critical threshold.”
But Biden’s comments stand out to scientists for their finality and because the president can reach people worldwide. They also come as scientists warn more clearly than ever that the 1.5 C threshold will likely be surpassed soon. It could occur in the lifetime of the 80-year-old president.
Biden has repeatedly told his audience — on television, at ribbon-cutting events and at fundraisers — that the world could soon be irrevocably altered.
“If we don’t keep the temperature from going above 1.5 degrees Celsius, then we’re in real trouble,” Biden said in an interview on “The Daily Show” last month. “That whole generation is damned. I mean, that’s not hyperbole, really, truly in trouble.”
In July, Biden stood at the site of a former coal-burning power plant in Massachusetts that was being converted into a manufacturing facility for transmission cables used in the offshore wind industry and said that the world was perilously close to a climate endgame.
“If we don’t keep it below 1.5 degrees centigrade, we lose it all,” he said. “We don’t get to turn it around.”
Last month, Biden went a step further by claiming that there was no way to reset the planet if warming topped 1.5 C.
“Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are either going to have lives that are decent and honorable and good, or they’re going to be in real trouble,” Biden said at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in California. “If we go to about 1.5 centigrade degrees above where we are now, we’re done. There’s no way to turn it around, according to the scientists that tell us.”
Centigrade and Celsius essentially mean the same thing, but centigrade is considered old-fashioned and rarely used by scientists to describe global warming.
When asked for comment, a White House spokesperson pointed out that Biden also sounds notes of optimism about working together to limit warming in the same speeches where he raises an alarm.
The world has already warmed by 1.1 C over the last 150 years. It is on track to hit 1.5 C within the next decade, according to a U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in March. Chances to avoid that level of warming are highly unlikely, even with expected emissions cuts, the report found (Climatewire, March 21).
Biden has taken more action to address climate change than any other American president, through a series of executive actions and regulations and by signing the Inflation Reduction Act into law. The climate law, with $370 billion in climate and energy spending and incentives, has helped put the country on track to cut emissions roughly in half by 2030.
Yet even as Biden warns of potential existential effects of rising temperatures, his administration muddied that message by approving a large offshore oil project in Alaska last month. The Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve is estimated to release 277 million tons of carbon emissions over the next 30 years, accounting for about 4 percent of U.S. annual emissions, according to the Carnegie Endowment.
Some climate scientists said Willow would erase some of the projected gains from the Inflation Reduction Act and push the planet closer to 1.5 C of warming.
Yet even then, the world is not expected by scientists to reach the point of no return. Many experts anticipate that global temperatures will go over 1.5 C before international efforts to reduce emissions, such as removing carbon dioxide from the air with fans, pumps and plants, bring temperatures back down.
The likelihood is that “we are going to overshoot it and come back down,” said Robert Kopp, a climate scientist at Rutgers University and contributing author to the latest IPCC report.
The risk of focusing on a particular threshold, such as 1.5 C, can encourage fatalism if efforts to meet the target fail, Kopp said.
“The danger of focusing on any threshold, particularly one there is a good chance we’re going to cross in the next 15 years, is giving people the mistaken impression that if you don’t manage to stay under that threshold, you might as well give up,” he said. “You certainly have seen people who have gone from ‘let’s not act’ to ‘well, it’s too late to act.’”
Eclipsing 1.5 C does carry dangerous consequences. It would intensify heat waves, downpours, drought and rising seas.
“Overshooting [1.5 C] poses large risks for natural and human systems, especially if the temperature at peak warming is high, because some risks may be long-lasting and irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems,” the IPCC said in its special report on the 1.5 C target in 2021.
Many scientists say those effects are all but certain to occur, because avoiding them requires radical shifts in energy use, industrial manufacturing and transportation virtually overnight.
In that way, there is “nothing magical” about the 1.5 C threshold, said Kevin Trenberth, an atmospheric scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who said it is not a tipping point.
Yet he agrees with Biden that the world is on an arc of disruption that will get worse as temperatures climb 1.5 C. The consequences could lead to environmental refugees and regional conflicts.
“In the meantime, huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane get emitted from thawing permafrost and Greenland and glaciers melt, and all those sorts of things are not reversible, and some magnify the climate change,” Trenberth said. “So there are major repercussions that would indeed be ‘damning.’”