We have only ten years to act on climate! Four years ago we only had ten years to act! Ten years ago we only had ten years to act! Twenty years ago, the same!
This is very poor messaging, even though in a sense it is true.
Let me try to explain how this could be true in some sense. Then maybe we can consider how to say this better.
Different processes have different time constants. Suppose you are driving on an isolated mountain road and find yourself low on gas. This is an urgent concern. If you don’t come across some fuel in the next hour or so you will be stranded. Then you go round a bend and see a truck barreling down toward you straddling the center line. This is an urgent concern, and you have three seconds to figure out what to do about it. See how the urgency is related to the problem?
The earth is a much larger system than those of our mundane concerns. Larger systems tend to have longer time constants associated with them. Remember how LONG it took for the World Trade Towers to actually fall? That’s mostly because they are much larger than things we ordinarily see falling. To the earth, ten years is an instant. Much less than ten years doesn’t really allow for a significant change in greenhouse gas concentrations. The climate, at least in its ordinary state, usually takes about thirty years to wander through its ordinary configurations. By ten years, in geophysical sense, we essentially mean “really really fast” though in political contexts it seems like eons.
In 1992, the world agreed that it was necessary to start getting a handle on CO2 emissions soon, such that they did not rise much over 1992 levels and returned to those levels by 2010. Had we achieved that, there would be substantially less carbon in the atmosphere now, and substantially less draconian cuts needed. 1992 was pretty much the last minute to deal with the problem cheaply and at modest risk.
Each decade that passes has increased the risk and the steepness of how fast the risk rises over time, especially given that our actual performance has been so far off what we agreed we needed to do. So we are now to the point that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (especially CO2 and methane) as quickly as is feasible. Here feasibility is set by the sunk costs in existing infrastructure. As quickly as is feasible amounts to abandoning carbon emitting infrastructure in favor of other infrastructure whenever possible, and adding no new capacity.
Drill noplace, drill never!
It’s incredibly counterintuitive to say this in Texas. It really is seen as close to insane. I understand this. I have friends and acquaintances for whom the spigot just turned on. I have a hard time wishing their good fortune to end.
And I understand that we still have all that automotive infrastructure to feed at the least, and the existing supplies won’t last forty years, so, well, so it’s hard to say exactly what activities to stop when. This is why we need to think quantitatively and collectively. And nobody with any stake in the fossil fuels will welcome such collective wisdom, I promise you that!
So we’re stuck where we are, in a great hurry and caught like deer in headlights, if you’ll pardon the cliche, motionless, paralyzed.
Yet we only have ten years to act. Ten years until what? That’s the question.
Until the costs get substantially higher and the risks get substantially worse. It’s always ten years. And that’s longer than an election cycle. And so nothing gets done.
“We only have ten years to act” will remain true until we act, or until our inaction does us in, whichever comes first. But it sounds bogus and incoherent and inconsistent, just the same. We need another way of putting this.