Is it too late to stop climate change?

Campaigners protest during a climate change action day on September 20, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images
Campaigners protest during a climate change action day on September 20, 2019 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

This is one of the most common questions asked of Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and one of the country’s leading climate science communicators.

“The answer is yes and no, and the analogy I use is this: It’s as if we’ve been smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for years and even decades, so some lung damage is already here today,” she said. “But we don’t have emphysema, we don’t have lung cancer and we’re not dead. So that means that it’s not too late to avoid the worst impacts. And when is the best time to stop smoking? As soon as possible, as much as possible.”

Hayhoe said the question has its roots in both a misunderstanding of climate science and, perhaps more importantly, in human psychology. In regards to the science, the concept of thresholds—1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) as a limit to global warming, for example—has unfortunately led some people to think that acting isn’t worth it if the goal can’t be reached.

In fact, while some level of dangerous warming is already baked into the climate system, efforts to limit emissions can still prevent those changes from becoming much worse. She pointed to a major report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018. Many people misinterpreted one of its findings and concluded that the world had only 12 years to cut emissions by 45 percent.

“What the IPCC report actually said,” she said, was that “every action matters, every choice matters, every year matters. That’s the key result of that report. Somehow that got changed into: ‘We have 12 years.’”

But Hayhoe said many people who believe that it’s “too late” are driven less by misunderstanding the science than by despair.

“I think a lot of the doomerism comes from people who have been burned out, who feel like they’ve been worried and anxious for so long and nothing has changed, so that means nothing ever will,” she said. “And that breaks my heart.”

Hayhoe said this anxiety-fueled desperation can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people become locked into inaction, thereby making change impossible. Yet if people can will themselves into action, she said, they may begin to feel more hope. A similar logic applies to voting, she said. People sometimes opt out of elections because they think their vote doesn’t make a difference. Yet the simple act of voting, she said, can make people feel more empowered.

“Scientifically speaking, it is absolutely not too late to avoid the worst of the impacts,” Hayhoe said. “But if we decide that it is, then it will be.”

— Nicholas Kusnetz

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