What this means is that keeping average global warming within 2C – the goal of the Paris Agreement to which Australia and almost 200 other parties are signatories – will not be possible without stronger emissions reductions than under existing commitments. We already knew that failure to meet this goal was an unacceptable risk under status-quo policies. Now it is a near-
certainty. If the higher projections we couldn’t rule out come true, the world could blow way past 2C without substantial efforts to decarbonise more quickly.
On the brighter side, our study also finds the most alarming projections of a few new climate
models are quite unlikely. But these predictions would have produced nightmare scenarios. Ruling
them out is not a cause for complacency; it just means there’s hope that the worst can be avoided.
Watching the COVID response around the world has brought a sense of deja vu to those of us
who study and communicate about the climate problem. Both problems are invisible new threats about which the average person has no intuition. False claims about hoaxes, supposed cures or that the problem is overblown, or will go away, are all too familiar.
These invisible problems require mathematics, analysis and specialist knowledge to characterise
and predict. They seem small at first, tempting us to dismiss them. It’s only a few COVID cases in
some other neighbourhood, or a few extreme weather events, right? But the mathematics of exponential growth and delayed emergence of symptoms rolls on: if you only act when the problem is really obvious, it’s too late.
Some further climate warming is inevitable, but fortunately the problem is not yet out of hand.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing at a vastly slower rate than viruses do and there is time
to bend the carbon curve. Importantly, fighting climate change does not require shutting down or
restricting the economy. It requires steering the economy away from fossil fuels.
This will present challenges but can create many new jobs and could help economies around the world recover from their COVID-induced slump.
This green transition will cost jobs in sectors that can’t become green, such as coal, but another lesson from the COVID response is that we are willing and able to lend a helping hand to those who fall victim to changing circumstances. The cost of aiding communities affected by the green transition would be tiny compared with what the national government is now spending to help, well, everyone.
COVID and our response to it, as well as the new research, have stripped away the remaining excuses not to make this transition as rapidly as possible to flatten, and eventually squash, the
Professor Steven Sherwood is Australian Research Council laureate fellow at the Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, UNSW.