By The Herald Editorial Board
Skydivers call it “ground rush,” the seemingly exponential increase in perceived speed as a skydiver in free-fall nears the ground before releasing her parachute. At higher altitudes, conversely, a skydiver’s distance from the ground can give the illusion of floating above it all, making it difficult to sense one’s descent.
Humanity may be still somewhere between those two perceptions when it comes to climate change, but the latest report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last week, brings renewed urgency to its past warnings that time is running short for a safe landing.
“Climate change impacts in North America have been occurring faster and will become more severe much sooner than we had previously thought,” Sherilee Harper, one of the report’s lead authors, said during a news briefing last week.
The report’s latest update warns that climate change’s effects are gathering speed and could soon overwhelm the ability of humanity and nature’s own resilience to adapt to those changes, unless the production of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming — carbon dioxide and methane, among others — are reduced in the next two to three decades to avoid more than a 1.5 degree Celsius increase in warming.
Reaching that safe landing speed of 1.5 degrees will require a net-zero elimination of fossil fuel emissions by 2050, the goal set by nations at the Paris climate accords. Meeting that goal won’t reverse the climate impacts we are already seeing — and even if that goal is met the world will still suffer the loss of about 8 percent of its farmland — but it can slow the accumulation of impacts.
Yet nations are not on track to meet net-zero by 2050. The report finds that nations are not doing enough on two tracks; reducing greenhouse gases themselves and preparing to adapt to climate change’s inescapable effects, including droughts, polar and glacial ice melt, rising seas, loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, water scarcity and an increasing pace of weather disasters, including heat waves, flooding, storms, wildfires, disease and more.
With nations already spending billions of dollars picking up after one disaster and attempting to prepare for the next, the world is having to consider trillions in spending to mitigate future threats and secure freshwater supplies, adapt buildings, homes and transportation networks, provide food, generate energy and protect natural habitats.
The report further warns that we are nearing — and in some cases have already exceeded — the limits of adaptation for humans and ecosystems.
And the damage only intensifies every fraction of a degree beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, the report warns.
At 2 degrees, between 800 million and 3 billion people could face chronic water scarcity because of drought, as well as a significant decline in crop yields.
At 3 degrees, the incidence of climate disasters could increase in frequency by five-fold by the end of the century.
Now, where is that ripcord?
It wasn’t much in evidence during President Biden’s State of the Union address last week. Biden can’t be faulted for a focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on the covid-19 pandemic or on inflation, but his administration’s plans to address climate change — a pillar of the Build Back Better plan — got only brief mention during the one-hour speech, just days after release of the IPCC report.
While an uphill battle remains for at least some climate provisions of the plan, talks have continued with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., seen as a key vote for at least majority agreement among Democrats and passage in the Senate.
Climate change does appear to be a priority among our state lawmakers, at least.
Building on past accomplishments, including last year’s Climate Commitment Act — which sets a cap-and-invest program to offset greenhouse gas emissions that takes effect near year — and a pledge to reduce emissions 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2035, the Legislature’s session has concentrated on companion legislation to implement the act and make good on the state’s climate goals.
A big part of that is found in the $16.8 billion transportation budget — Move Ahead Washington — which has been adopted in both chambers and as of Friday was in conference among House and Senate leaders. Along with significant investment in hybrid electric ferries, the package also continues to refocus attention on green infrastructure, including transit and its electrification and pedestrian and bicycle projects, making more than $300 million in investments in bike and pedestrian safety projects and programs across the state and another $284 million for public transit. The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield wrote Friday that conference discussions on the bill are centering on securing funding for those investments.
And in the days leading up to the session’s end March 10, both chambers have passed or were nearing passage on legislation that would:
- Add environmental resilience standards to counties’ and cities’ comprehensive plans under the Growth Management Act;
- Establish goals and requirements to manage organic materials and control methane at landfills;
- Require cities and counties to enforce the state energy efficiency code for residential construction; and
- Establish a state committee to streamline and advance the siting of clean energy generation plants, separating the process from the state Utilities and Transportation Commission.
Some of that might seem to be minor accomplishments in the face of the daunting task to reach net-zero emissions worldwide in less than 30 years. Much more will be needed to encourage and prepare for a predominately electric transportation system as well as the full removal of fossil fuels from electricity generation. But, like the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, all efforts to limit climate change add up.
The year 2050 might still seem far enough away — as 14,000 to 18,000 feet in altitude would seem to a skydiver to allow the feeling of floating above it all — but the memory of last summer’s wildfire smoke and 100-degree, multiple-day heat wave and the black-and-white message of the IPCC report should alert us to the speed at which the ground is rushing up to meet us.