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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Rock Around The Sun

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 26, 2018

It's that time of year for looking back and peering ahead. But what would a theoretical physicist who specializes in quantum mechanics say about this predilection to see what's happening in terms of the passage of time, the before and after, the yesterday and tomorrow? The physicist might say "Bah, humbug!" More professionally, a citation could be made to entropy — commonly defined as "heat death" or an irreversible flow of heat from warmer objects to colder ones — as the only aspect of physics where before and after — or time as we non-physicists think of it — makes any sense.

I owe this startling downgrade of time to Carlo Rovelli's book The Order of Time. Still, it's impossible to live in an era, on a planet facing a different kind of "heat death" by way of human-induced climate disruptions and not care deeply about a future we are careening toward and are beginning to already collide with head-on. Put bluntly, time is not on our side. A 2018 Special Report by the International Panel on Climate Change finds that we're nearly locked in to global mean temperatures rising 1.5, which entails real disruptions to life on Earth, but the risk of the global mean temperature rising 2 will mean disruption, damage and destruction that is much more profound. In the dry, quiet language of the Special Report, the clock ticks loudly.

In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). For limiting global warming to below 2 CO2 emissions are projected to decline by about 25% by 2030 in most pathways (10–30% interquartile range) and reach net zero around 2070 (2065–2080 interquartile range).

It insists the world must ratchet down its human-source CO2 emissions 25% by 2030 and get down to "net zero" by around 2070 to avoid profound disruption and lays out four "model pathways" for getting where we need to get to go. To keep global temperature increases no higher than 1.5

Would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems. These system transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed and imply a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling on investment in those options. (emphasis added)

Tick, tick, tick…

As a practical matter, does this mean we're doomed or will we survive climate change? According to a recent New York Times headline when it comes to survival the answer is, "Possibly." As renowned climate scientist Jim Hansen comments, "I find the people who think we are doomed to be very tiring and unhelpful."

JPL NASA Photo of the Sun
Photo: Solar Dynamics Observatory, NASA, JPL

So, are there any reasons to think something other than doom? Possibly. Before Earth completes its 2018 revolution around the Sun, the New York City Council will hold public hearings on a new bill that would require steep cuts in buildings' climate-warming emissions resulting from the way they are heated, cooled and electrified. Grassroots, affordable housing activist Pete Sikora was jubilant about the bill authored by Council member Costa Constantinides,

I gotta hand it to him: It's awesome… noting that the legislation matches the urgency set out by last month's United Nations report warning that world governments must halve emissions in the next 12 years to avoid catastrophic global warming.

While legislative hearings don't rubberstamp final legislative outcomes, this isn't the only climate-positive news for the year. Shortly after the 2018 election, when the Democrats retook the House of Representatives by a surprising margin, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, with the participation of newly-elected Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, held a demonstration in the Capitol that made national headlines. This new generation of climate activists demanded that likely-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi create a Select Committee on the Climate with the goal of creating a Green New Deal.

Ocasio-Cortez says she'll be introducing a draft resolution to set parameters for such a Select Committee. One of the best climate beat reporters in the country, Dave Roberts, tweeted about Democratic climate strategy in a polarized era and the "three basic prongs of a unilateral left strategy," one of which is "defining a long-term, comprehensive federal climate action agenda for when/if Democrats regain the power to implement one." For Roberts, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats are doing just this by laying down an early marker to set the bar high, even as he notes, "I admit, I have trouble envisioning the resolution passing in anything like its current form."

But it's certainly a place to start, something that's been beyond absent in Washington and inching forward way too slowly, even in liberal, climate action-promising cities like New York. Here's hoping that 2019 will be the beginning of the Anti-Entropy Era when we'll muster the political heat and the means to keep global temperature rises below 1.5. If we can, then we can breathe a sigh of relief as we rock on around the sun.

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