Five years



(Come friend Aunt Ruthie on Facebook and let’s hang out.)

Sometimes a statement comes at you with an obituarylike brevity and the force of a cop’s baton: You have two months to live. We can’t find your son. There’s been an accident. Statements that make you suck in your breath and pause as your mind tries to wrap around the thing of it.

So how’s this: “The chance of avoiding dangerous climate change will ‘be lost forever’ unless the world changes course by 2017.” This quote, from the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, which was published November 9. “Without further action, by 2017 all CO2 emissions permitted in the 450 Scenario will be ‘locked-in’ by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc.” Locked in. As in locked and loaded.

Every day, we build more stuff that sucks up fossil fuel. We’ve been doing this, hyperdrive style, since the end of World War II, when we began building farflung suburbs linked by huge freeways, all built on the presupposition of plentiful, cheap fossil fuel. By 2017, we will have built enough power plants, freeways, SUVs and jet skis that this “infrastructure” alone will push us past the greenhouse-gas concentration of 450 parts per million. A 450 ppm would limit the Earth’s warming to 2 degrees Celsius hotter by 2099 than it was before the Industrial Revolution, or so go the predictions. (James Hansen, Bill McKibben and others are calling for 350 ppm, in contrast.)

By 2017, the created infrastructure locks us in to 450 ppm. Will we magically stop building fossil fuel-sucking infrastructure five years from now? Unlikely.

Grist’s Michael Levi tries to counter the sky-is-falling implications of the WEO by noting that 450 ppm is simply a threshold (and the impact of that is a probability to assess, not a certainty on which you should make a run on your bank and move to a cave on a hill in Indiana). Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute, echoes in The New York Times: “The best guesses are not carved in stone. … There well may be surprises, pleasant or unpleasant.”

Let’s keep an eye on this one, comrades. It may be later than we thought.