Deep cuts now. Get it done.

Must see statement at COP 17 from student at College of the Atlantic.  Her science is just a bit off (I would say closer to 10 years rather than 5), but she has it basically right.

I predict that these words will go viral:  Deep Cuts Now.  Get It Done.

A clarification:  Ms Appadurai is correct when she says that the IEA has estimated that we must begin steep reductions by 2017, 5 years from now.  Here is an article in the Guardian that references the source, which is the latest world energy outlook published by the IEA.  While compelling and very possibly correct, there are several other estimates of the date at which we will be committed to irreversible, dangerous climate change.  The key concept here is the “lock-in” effect, which is the time lag built into the production of emissions.  The IEA estimate references the date at which we will have built infrastructure in the form of power plants, inefficient building and fuel guzzling automobiles that will commit us to a trajectory of increasing emissions that will move the atmosphere into this danger zone.  My own reading of the literature suggests to me that 2020 is closer to that date, but this too is really “tomorrow” and not some distant point in the future.  The concept of commitment reinforces the concept that everything that we build today has profound sustainability consequences further down the road, and this is especially true for the climate.  We can no longer capriciously build or design unsustainable infrastructure, especially fossil fuel burning power plants.

It is very important to distinguish the IEA calculation, which is based on the emissions that are built into poorly designed infrastructure, from the discussions about climate sensitivity to greenhouse gas concentrations.  The greenhouse gases emitted from unsustainable infrastructure are not included in the modeling by climate scientists.  They consider only short term feedbacks and relatively quick atmospheric forcing from the greenhouse gases that occur in the atmosphere at a given point in time.  Clearly, the lag time that we build into the climate system through unsustainable practice will progressively hijack the planet if we fail to respond now.  We should have responded 20 years ago when the science was clear.

Thus, Ms Appadurai is right.  Five years is a very reasonable estimate, and I would add, quite conservative when you consider all the factors at play.  Here is Joe Romm’s analysis of the IEA results.


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About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey is an environmental scientist dedicated to developing undergraduate and graduate programming to build society's capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Mulkey was the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 through 2015. His leadership and forward-looking vision resulted in Unity College being the first college in the U.S. to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the U.S. to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming. Mulkey believes that higher education has an ethical duty to prepare generations of graduates for the extreme sustainability and climate change challenges of this century. After taking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent over twenty years as a forest ecologist affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mulkey has served as tenured faculty at three doctoral granting universities.