Why Two Degrees Is So Important—Fossil Fuel Companies Can No Longer Ignore the Need to Act

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, , UCS | February 12, 2016, 10:02 am EDT
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“Who knows the perfect temperature for humans on this planet? I wouldn’t mind if it were warmer,” argued one businessman at a roundtable on climate change I was hosting at a conservative Christian college. With a foot of snow on the ground that morning, there were nods all around the circle; who wouldn’t want warmer weather?

Given the wild weather swings we’ve all experienced, two degrees seems like a small, even potentially negligible temperature rise. When we talk about two degrees, though, we have to realize we’re not talking about weather: we’re talking about the average temperature of the planet. And, over the course of human civilization, the planet’s temperature has been almost as stable as that of the human body.

What happens if our own temperature—or that of our child—suddenly spikes up by two degrees Celsius, three and a half degrees Fahrenheit? Most of us would call the doctor, or (if we were a new parent) maybe even head to the emergency room. We know that even with an average temperature of 98oF, an increase of 3.5oF means something’s seriously wrong; and that’s exactly what’s happening to our planet.

What will a warmer world look like?

I study the impacts of climate change. My research, and that of my colleagues, puts the numbers on how it’s affecting our water resources, our food and crop yields, the economy, and even our health. I take those numbers and I parse them out: what will the world look like, if it warms by 1oC? 2oC? Or 3oC?

In a two degree world, record-breaking hot, dry summers could become the norm across the central United States; around the world, corn and wheat yields could drop by an average of 10 to 30%; and faster evaporation and shifting rainfall patterns could decrease runoff across much of the central and western U.S. by 10 to 30%. The intensity and strength of hurricanes scales with global temperature, as does the duration of heat waves, the risk of wildfire, and even the growth of phytoplankton in the ocean, the base of the food web on which hundreds of millions of people depend.

Is this dangerous? That’s up to us to decide. To make that decision, we need science—and we need more. We need both our hearts and our heads. What’s the right thing to do when confronted with a global challenge that is already—at less than 1oC of warming—increasing the risk of suffering and even death for the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged around the world?

The ethics of climate change

People of faith understand injustice, and understand the right thing to do when we see it. That’s why the roundtable at the conservative Christian college on that snowy day wasn’t about the science of climate change: it was about the ethics of climate change. And that’s why, when I went to the climate negotiations in Paris (COP21), I didn’t just go as a scientist. I went as a human, concerned for the welfare of my fellow citizens around the world; and I went as a Christian, believing that God has given us responsibility to care for every living thing on this planet, which includes loving others as God loves us.

In Paris, I met many other humans—mayors of cities around the world, determined to make the right choice for the people for whom they are responsible; faith leaders, speaking out with unmistakable authority on the moral imperative for action; business and technology leaders, committing their resources to a better planet; concerned citizens, making the trek on their own dime (some, on their own feet or wheels) to raise their voice in support of what’s right; and most importantly of all, representatives from the Philippines, the Maldives, and many other nations already struggling with poverty, hunger, lack of access to clean water, basic education, and security who were there to bear witness to the real, the serious, and the profoundly dangerous impacts climate change is already having on their homes, their families, and their people.

The door is closing fast

Because all humans share these central concerns—because 195 nations around the world who have collectively realized that doing nothing about climate change will be far more expensive, both in dollars and in human lives, than acting now—the final text of the Paris agreement set a goal of limiting the rise in global temperatures to below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Are these goals physically possible? Yes—but that door is closing fast. Achieving a 2°C target will require serious commitments from everyone: from cities and states, countries and regions, and perhaps most of all, from the companies involved in extracting and producing the fossil fuels that are the main reason we’re in this situation to begin with. Unfortunately, though, many of those companies are not stepping up to the plate.

ExxonMobil is trying to block shareholders from voting on the issue

Take ExxonMobil, for example. Last month, it challenged a climate justice proposal put forth by a cross-section of faith-based investors, health systems, socially responsible asset management firms, and indigenous and community groups.

ExxonMobil not only refuses to acknowledge the moral imperative to limit global average temperature increases to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, it is actually attempting to prevent its shareholders from voting on the issue, claiming the request is “vague” and that it has already been “substantially implemented” anyways. But faith-based investors are not giving up. They are appealing to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to allow this resolution to appear on the ballot for ExxonMobil’s annual meeting this spring.

Achieving a 2oC target seems like a daunting task. But any emissions reductions we achieve will lead us in the right direction, towards a better world: for ourselves, for our families, for our country, and most of all for our brothers and sisters around the world. It’s clear that this is the right thing to do.

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  • Tom

    Great writing Katharine! Don’t let the ‘paid shills’ get you down, for why else would someone argue so vehemently about the right to destroy their own environment unless they got paid a tidy sum to do so? There are some of us that ARE trying: solar panels, electric car, LED lighting, efficiency measures, etc. … and have succeeded in bringing down a family’s carbon footprint by 2/3 in one year. The best is — it’s been done at a savings of over $3,000 per year, a fact the fossil fuel companies are terrified of others catching on. While the first 2/3 reduction in footprint was pretty low hanging fruit, there’s the remaining 1/3 that will be troublesome for the future, especially knowing we must be carbon neutral/negative by 2050 for the future to have any semblance of environmental balance. Still, the trek of 1,000 miles begins with a single step … keep marching on!

  • Moneyandworktime

    This is the right things to do. We need to scale up high efficiency, high insulation, modern renewables, electric vehicles and cradle to cradle certified new circular industries. Then we can reverse industrial carbon emissions through making gigantic quantities of biochar or reverse coal for geologic burial and soil regeneration. We have a great amount of work to do. But then again we have 7 billion eager workers!

  • dannyR

    Rather than lecturing to the unconverted and then painting them as intransigent flat-earthers, it might be better for Dr. Hayhoe to publish a video conversation with Dr. Freeman Dyson, who holds:

    The earth is getting greener, and will continue to get greener in the future. Freeman Dyson –Conversations that Matter

    It is not science to proffer projections of temperature change, and then second-order projections of doom and despair, especially over a two degree change.

    Furthermore, let’s make a comparison. It was settled for a long time that El Niño was economically bad. This wasn’t based on projections, but real data, historical data. Then a comprehensive study was made, and found that the net economic impact of E.N. (1997) was ~10 billion (with a ‘B’) dollars. That 10 gigabucks in the black. Again we are talking real output, and real workup from that output.

    Climatologists have shown a poor track record, and it is denialism at its worst to say otherwise. We have a ~18 year global atmospheric T/time slope reduction that approaches zero. There are, bless their souls, a few climatologists who are actually trying to grapple with this unexpected turn of thermal events. Some pin it on ENSO anomalies, some on basic high-school physics (the high specific heat of water), some claim it is normal stochastic variation (but they at least don’t deny the actual graph.

    They are putting forth hypotheses. To explain real data. This is good. I find it surpassing strange that concerned scientists are more concerned with what they consider humanitarian projections on projected data—given the failure of previous T/time projections outlined above—than spending more time with the media telling the public about where climatology has fundamentally gotten something wrong.

    • Tom

      Ya, I hate those ‘unexpected turn of thermal events’, like, say … Superstorm Sandy … cost the US a tidy sum of +$60 gigabucks… yup, that’s IN THE RED, too!!! A cost past on to every American to support a bunch of people living too close to a rising ocean that’s heating up which, does what now? Oh right, more heat = bigger storms. Hopefully that 10 gigabucks that was in the black was invested and helped pay for all that damage that happened over the course of an entire 3 days. Too bad there wasn’t a climatologist that could’ve predicted something like Sandy… oh, wait…

  • Remollino

    Why would corn and other crop production drop by anything at all? I fail to understand the logic completely. Sure large areas of now fertile land would no longer be able to support food production but isn’t it also true to say that large areas of land presently unable to do this would become productive? Wasn’t the Arctic once a tropical jungle?

    • dannyR

      Wheat, rice, and maize outputs have steadily risen over the past decades, with a slight acceleration in rise since ~2000. Check out graphs on Google images.

  • GuyinVietnam

    Two degrees is making a mountain out of a molehill. This nonsense demonstrates the folly of man.

  • Dave Shirlaw

    Does anyone still blieve this garbage? Get a real job and contribute to society.

    • Tom

      Yes, there are. And some of them even work in the great outdoors where they can see firsthand the changes that are happening!

      If you believe it’s garbage, then get a REAL job and conduct your own research to provide evidence of such.

  • Pausing to discuss climate change is time that should be spent on a more serious issue. This June it was discovered that phytoplankton is ingesting marine micro plastic. As marine plastic decomposes it absorbs PCB’s spelling the demise of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton has declined by 40% and was supplying over half the worlds oxygen, but since the decline both ocean oxygen and atmospheric oxygen levels are dropping. 2 or 3 percentage points will end all life on the planet. It is irreversible and happening rapidly as evidenced by world wide beachings of toxic suffocating ocean life forms. Every estuary, river, and stream is now inundated with storm drains which drain all the filth, plastic, medical waste, oil, toxins into our oceans quite legally. This practice must be stopped TODAY, BUT government bought and paid for by CEO’s block all attempts to correct this, potentially the most serious issue facing mankind today.

    • dannyR

      Satellite data shows a net increase over the planet in chlorophyl, the fundamental engine of CO₂ to O₂ conversion.

      • Every study I have looked at states just the opposite. Can you post what satellite data you are referring to. Logically if phytoplankton is in a 40% decline and produces over half the worlds oxygen and all studies prove ocean levels and atmospheric levels are dropping then I would assume they are. Add to that the vast clear cutting of forests for animal production and the carbon dioxin levels and I would say the satellites are out of tune.

  • Chrisx5x5

    Katharine: The shareholder proposal on climate change is on the ballot for their annual meeting, which means they lost their argument with the SEC that they should be allowed to exclude it. Good job, SEC. You can see the proposal and their statement against it here: http://1.usa.gov/1TXe3Tz Scroll down to the bottom of page 70.