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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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GHG Emissions: 2C Pathways Are A Fantasy

A new commentary piece in Nature Climate Change continues to make significant errors and propagates a mistaken core assumption too many in the climate community make: that with enough [insert: political will or technological breakthroughs], 2C warming is still an achievable goal.

I have disagreed with this assumption and therefore its conclusion for six years – ever since establishment Democrats decided to waste valuable political capital on a right-wing insurance bill with a vague promise that climate legislation would come someday.  That decision essentially assured that, absent a global economic collapse or catastrophic geologic events, our species would easily push the planet past 2C warming.

The following graphic shows global historical emissions in solid black.  The green curve represents the fantasy projection of an emissions pathway that leads to <2C global warming.  As you can see, emissions have to start declining this year in the assumed scenario.  The yellow curve represents what is likely to happen if climate action is delayed for 8 years and this year’s emissions remain constant during those 8 years.  It gets increasingly difficult to achieve the same long-term warming cap because of that 8 year delay.

The red curve builds on the yellow curve projection by keeping the next 8 year’s emissions constant but reducing federal money to research decarbonization technology.  This is the linchpin to any emissions pathway that could potentially put us on a pathway to a less warm climate.  Decarbonization technology has to not only be fully researched but fully deployed on a planetary scale for the 2C pathway to happen.  It’s hard to see on this graph, but global emissions have to go net negative for us to achieve <2C warming.  While the yellow curve has a harder time achieving that than the green curve, the red curve doesn’t get there one century from now.  But the red curve isn’t the most likely pathway – it wasn’t in 2010 and it isn’t today.

The most likely pathway is the solid black curve out to 2125.  It assumes the same things as the red curve and adds an important component of reality: emissions are likely to increase in the near-term due to continued increased fossil fuel use.  Natural gas and coal plants continue to be built – any assumption otherwise might be interesting academically but has no place in the real world.  By assuming otherwise, scientists make themselves a target of future policy makers because the latter won’t pay attention to the nuanced arguments the scientists will make once it’s clear we’re hurtling past 2C.  Once we burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels during the next 8 years (as we did the 8 years before that and so on), it is harder still to cut emissions fast enough to try to keep global warming <2C.  The reasons should be obvious: the emitted GHGs will radiatively warm the planet so long as they’re in the atmosphere and it will take even more technological breakthroughs to achieve the level of carbon removal necessary to keep warming below some level.


The authors recognize this challenge:

[…]to remain within a carbon budget for 2 °C in the baseline scenario considered, peak reduction rates of CO2 emissions around 2.4% per year are needed starting mitigation now. A global delay of mitigation action of eight years increases that to 4.2% per year (black dashed in Fig. 1a) — extremely challenging both economically and technically. The only alternative would be an overshoot in temperature and negative emissions thereafter. Research in negative emissions should therefore be a priority, but near term policy should work under the assumption that such technology would not be available at large scale and low cost soon.

I disagree with the author’s conclusion:

Society is at a crossroad, and the decisions made in the US and elsewhere over the next 4–8 years may well determine if it is possible to limit climate change to levels agreed in Paris.

We passed the crossroad already.  It really doesn’t matter when, the fact is we passed it.  I think it is a waste of time to examine low-end emission scenarios for policy purposes.  They serve some scientific use.  Policy makers need relevant scientific advice and 2C scenarios don’t do that.  They perpetuate a myth and therefore pose a real danger to society.  The so-called reality-based community needs to critically self-examine what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.  We’re headed for >3C warming and we need to come to terms with what that means.

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Wildfire – Policy and climate change

I read a wildfire article today that was breathless about the scope of total acreage burned across the drought-stricken northwest US and of course included a climate change angle.  This is the first wildfire article I’ve read that did not include some mention of decades of ill-conceived fire policies in the intermountain West.

Let’s not mince words: a lot of fires are burning on a lot of acres this year primarily because of those man-made policies.  Millions of overcrowded acres of forest because people put tiny fires out for decades and allowed trees (fuel) to grow and grow.  Fire is a natural process that we purposefully interrupted.  Prior years with extensive fires also generated media and environmentalist attention.  As I stated above, the difference between then and now is climate activists politicized the science.  An EcoWatch article now contains no mention of historical decisions because it is more important to satisfy the environmentalist base by claiming nature is pure without humans and impure with us.

This is disappointing but not surprising.  For now, I am glad there are more responsible media outlets that continue to acknowledge the very real and dominant influence people have on forests (forest management), the very real and strong influence nature has on forests (drought), as well as the growing influence that people will have on forests in the future (climate change).

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Water efficiency

I saw a tweet last night that I found interesting.

“The only thing that can.”  I hope Peter means water-use efficiency for all users.  The graphic he includes with this tweet suggests he’s focused on household toilet usage in California.  I’ll round the numbers used in the graphic: 1980 usage was 800,000 acre-feet per year; current use (no efficiency) is 1,200,000 acre-feet per year.  Current savings from efficiency improvements: 640,000 acre-feet per year.  Additional potential savings: 290,000 acre-feet per year.

The 640,000 AFY is laudable.  That’s a lot of water that Californians don’t have to use and thankfully aren’t.  That is a real accomplishment.  An additional 290,000 AFY is a good goal to work on – why waste a resource when you don’t have to.

But toilet water usage isn’t the primary usage of California water – and it’s that small point that troubled me when I saw the tweet.  Total water usage in California is 40,00,000 AFY.  That 640,000 efficiency represents just 1.6% of the total usage.  It also represents >50% reduction from what water usage could be without any efficiency measures.  What I want to know is what efficiencies water-thirsty California agriculture implements.  Agriculture is by far the dominant user of water – if we achieved just 1% sector efficiency, how much more water could California save because of the scale of industry usage compared to residential usage?

Agriculture is a sizable part of the California economy – $43 billion industry that generates $100 billion in overall economic activity.  Because of that, agriculture wields political clout in Sacramento.  This means that while physical scientists can inform policymakers on the ongoing drought, we need the social sciences to inform policymakers how to deal with it.  I would also like to see quantitative results of efficiency gains by sector.

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U.S. Energy Information Administration: Reference Projection

EIA released its 2015 reference case for electricity generation between 2000 and 2040.  The upshot: while they expect natural gas and renewables to continue their growth in the U.S.’s overall energy portfolio, coal is still very much in the mix in 2040.  From a climate perspective, if their reference projection becomes reality, we easily pass 2C warming by 2100.

Their reference projection “reflects current laws and regulations—but not pending rules, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan“.  So it is no surprise that current laws and regulations result in passing the 2C threshold (or the GHG emissions which would actually lead to passing the 2C threshold).  The EPA’s Clean Power Plan isn’t in effect yet – and it will take time to analyze changes to actual generation once its final form does take effect.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 1_zpsuiinhtg0.png

Figure 1. EIA’s Reference Case analysis and projection of U.S. electricity generation (2000-2040).

The good news is renewables’ share grows during the next 25 years.  Again, there’s no surprise there.  Nor is it surprising to see natural gas’ share also grow.  If you look at the left y-axis, the absolute share of renewables exceeds that of natural gas.  The bad news (from a 20th-century climate perspective) is that coal remains 34% of the electricity generation in this scenario.  That news is tempered by the fact that in both absolute and percentage terms, coal use is lower during the next 25 years than the last 15 years.  The absolute numbers are most frustrating from a climate perspective.  In 2040, this scenario projects >1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of coal generation.  Absent additional policy measures, that value remains largely unchanged during the next 25 years.  How do we address that?  Well, beating people over the head with scientific consensus claims hasn’t worked (and won’t in the future either): the American public know what causes global warming, once you get past self-identity question framing.  Once you interact with Americans on familiar terms, they’re much more willing to support global warming-related policies than many climate activists want you to believe.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 2_zpsxotnkmbd.png

Figure 2. EIA’s renewable generation by type.

The EIA projects wind penetration to continue as it has for the last decade – almost doubling in absolute terms in the next 25 years.  We need that deployment and more to make a serious dent in GHG emissions.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 3_zpsvigp121n.png

Figure 3. EIA’s six cases in their 2015 annual report.

You can see how different assumptions impacts EIA’s 2040 projections of electricity generation in 2040 compared to the 2013 historical case.  Don’t hope for high oil prices: renewables constitute more than 1 trillion kilowatt hours in that case, but coal also grows to nearly 2 trillion kWh!  Putting dreams aside, I don’t think those coal plants will all be running highly efficient carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

We still need RD&D for multiple technologies.  To do that, we need policies that prioritize innovative – and yes, risky – programs and projects.  The government is the only institution that can reliably assume that level of risk.  If we want to avoid 4C or 6C, we can; we need innovative policies and technologies today to stay below those thresholds.

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Some Short Notes on the US-China Climate Deal

The US-China climate deal announced in December 2014 generated big news.  It was yet another diplomatic success for the Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department.  Nothing I say below takes away from that success.  In terms of climate action success, the deal ranks pretty low to me.  I’ll quickly summarize what I understand of the deal and then share why I think it isn’t a significant climate deal.

The Deal

Here is a quick summary (emphasis mine):

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged in the far-reaching agreement to cap its rapidly growing carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible. It also set an ambitious goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2030.

Obama announced a target to cut U.S. emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – eight years after he leaves office — the first time the president has set a goal beyond the existing 17 percent target by 2020.

The bolded portions highlight the agreement’s big news.  China agreed to a carbon emissions cap and the U.S. pushed its emissions reduction target out 5 years and increased the target by ~11% below 2005 levels.

Those are good goals.  Are they sufficient goals?  It depends on what you consider sufficient.  I consider goals that will actually achieve the stated climate target of <2C warming by 2100 as sufficient.  These goals won’t achieve that target.  But then, as I’ve written for some time now, I don’t think we can set goals that achieve the <2C by 2100 target.  There are technical and political hurdles that we chose not to surmount during the past 30+ years.  Why won’t this agreement achieve that target?  Let’s take a quick look from the same International Business Times article:

China completes a new coal plant every eight to 10 days, and while its economic growth has slowed, it is still expanding at a brisk rate exceeding 7 percent.

The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generation capacity in the United States.

And to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.

Who out there truly believes that China can deploy 800 GW of zero-emission generation capacity in less than 15 years?  Remember before you answer in the affirmative that China’s deployment of coal-fired plants exceeded anything in history and that coal remains an extremely cheap energy resource.  All the other technologies currently cost more in terms of deployment.  What incentives does China, as a developing nation, have to spend more money for intermittent power sources?  They’re more interested in growing their economy, as the U.S. is.  Speaking of the U.S. – I emphasized part of that quote quite purposefully to highlight the scale of the issue.  China must, in 15 years, deploy as much generation infrastructure as exists in the entire U.S. today.  Our infrastructure took decades and decades to build out.  China needs to do the same thing, with more expensive infrastructure, in 15 short years!?  I will be among the first to congratulate China if they accomplish this daunting task and I don’t think China should shy away from working towards it.  I just don’t think they have a realistic chance of actually accomplishing it.

What about the U.S.?  We need to more than double the decarbonization rate of our economy to achieve our emissions goals.  Remember that most of the decarbonization achieved since 2005 was due first to the Great Recession and second to the natural gas boom.  The Great Recession is finally behind us, though effects linger.  The natural gas boom?  It’s currently experiencing strong headwinds as OPEC pushes the cost of oil down to the $50 range from the $100-110 range last year.  It’s economically unfeasible to frack for natural gas with $50 per barrel of oil.  While the natural gas industry won’t collapse (at least I hope it doesn’t), it won’t support additional decarbonization for the foreseeable future either.

I believe we are well on our way toward 3-4C warming by 2100 and must plan and act accordingly.  This deal, while diplomatically ambitious, is not climate ambitious enough to drive us away from those thresholds.

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2 °C Warming Goal: Zombie Myths Continues

Fresh on the heels of my last post on whether 2 °C should be the exclusive threshold in international diplomacy negotiations, a link to a Grist article written yesterday caught my eye: “What you need to know about the next big climate report“.  What did I find in the 4th paragraph but this appeal to scientific expertise (emphasis mine):

The panel intends for this assessment report to guide international negotiators as they work, in the run-up to the big Paris climate summit in December 2015, to hammer out an agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. The U.N. hopes nations will find a way to squeeze through the ever-shrinking window of opportunity and cut a deal to keep the planet from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius of warming — the goal scientists have set to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — before we blow right past that target.

It is worth reminding yourself that everything you encounter in any media is biased somehow.  We’re all human and we all have our own biases.  Nothing is unbiased or objective because the act of putting words to concepts is derived from brains with preferred neural pathways.  There is nothing inherently bad with the bolded language above.  It comes from Grist, which many in the climate activist community view as a legitimate source of information (unlike say, Fox News).  However, the 2 °C threshold was not originally scientific.  That was one of the fundamental take home messages of my last post.

Negotiators in the early 1990s for the IPCC asked for some type of threshold that they might use in negotiations because, not being scientists, they didn’t know what threshold might be useful or appropriate.  A German scientist offered up the 2 °C threshold as part of the UNFCCC process and because nobody else came up with a different threshold or challenged the temperature threshold, negotiators moved it through their process until politicians from countries around the world agreed to insert the language in a formal report.  As is usually the case with these type of things, it has remained as the public threshold ever since.  Climate scientists started using the threshold as part of their work in an attempt to maintain legitimacy in the funding process because politicians control research purse strings.  Finally, as I wrote in my last post, the status quo is very hard to change.  Witness the personalized (not science-based!) attacks on the authors of the Nature Comment that initiated the most recent version of the threshold discussion.

The language Grist uses plays into skeptics hands.  “The goal scientists have set.”  That implies that scientists have political power and have already exercised it at the expense of every other person.  Unsurprisingly, most people aren’t fans of yielding power without a chance at involvement.  Hence one very good reason to subvert those scientists.  Grist is helping perpetrate the meme that there is a conspiracy against non-scientists – a meme that many climate scientist activists further inflame when they claim exclusive providence over anything climate related.  If activists don’t view someone as a perfect example of their tribe, they attack the “other” without hesitation because they’re using the climate issue as a proxy for arguments they should have instead.

Politicians and diplomats set the 2 °C threshold.  They were the only ones that had the power to do so.  Scientists don’t approve the IPCC’s language.  They write their own papers and contribute to the IPCC process, but politicians are responsible for approving every last word in IPCC reports.  Grist writers and editors should know this.  They’re all too willing to allow zombie myths to keep roaming the discussion space, it appears.


What About That 2 °C Warming Goal?

David G. Victor and Charles F. Kennel, who are researchers in International Relations and Oceanography, respectively, wrote a Comment article for Nature at the beginning of October.  In it, they argued that climate and policy folks should stop using 2 °C as the exclusive goal in international climate policy discussions.  I agree with them on principle, but after reading their paper and numerous rebuttals to it, I also agree with their reasoning.

I’ll start with what they actually said because surprise, surprise, tribal and proxy arguments against their commentary focused on very narrow interpretations.

Bold simplicity must now face reality. Politically and scientifically, the 2 °C goal is wrong-headed. Politically, it has allowed some governments to pretend that they are taking serious action to mitigate global warming, when in reality they have achieved almost nothing. Scientifically, there are better ways to measure the stress that humans are placing on the climate system than the growth of average global surface temperature — which has stalled since 1998 and is poorly coupled to entities that governments and companies can control directly.

I agree with their political analysis.  What have governments – including the US – done to achieve the 2 °C goal?  Germany for instance largely switched to biomass to reduce GHG emissions while claiming that renewables (read: solar and wind) are replacing fossil fuels.  The US established more robust vehicle emissions and efficiency requirements, but the majority of US emission reductions in recent years result from cheap natural gas and the Great Recession.  No country will meet its Kyoto Protocol emissions goal – hence the hand-wringing in advance of the Paris 2015 climate conference.  And by the way, even if countries were meeting Kyoto goals, the goals would not lead to < 2 °C warming.

More from the authors:

There was little scientific basis for the 2 °C figure that was adopted, but it offered a simple focal point and was familiar from earlier discussions, including those by the IPCC, EU and Group of 8 (G8) industrial countries. At the time, the 2 °C goal sounded bold and perhaps feasible.

To be sure, models show that it is just possible to make deep planet-wide cuts in emissions to meet the goal. But those simulations make heroic assumptions — such as almost immediate global cooperation and widespread availability of technologies such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage methods that do not exist even in scale demonstration.

We will not achieve either of the last two requirements.  So we will very likely not achieve <2 °C warming, a politically, not scientifically, established goal.

A single index of climate-change risk would be wonderful. Such a thing, however, cannot exist. Instead, a set of indicators is needed to gauge the varied stresses that humans are placing on the climate system and their possible impacts. Doctors call their basket of health indices vital signs. The same approach is needed for the climate.

Policy-makers should also track ocean heat content and high-latitude temperature. […]

What is ultimately needed is a volatility index that measures the evolving risk from extreme events — so that global vital signs can be coupled to local information on what people care most about. A good start would be to track the total area during the year in which conditions stray by three standard deviations from the local and seasonal mean.

So the authors propose tracking a set of indicators including GHG concentrations, ocean heat content, and high-latitude temperature.  What is most needed? An index that measures evolving risk from extreme events.  That’s pretty cut and dry reading to me.

Of course, climate scientist activists took umbrage that somebody left their tribe and tried to argue for something other than a political goal that they didn’t have any input on that, by the way, we won’t meet anyway.

RealClimate (RC) starts by attacking the authors personally for not describing why the recent surface global warming pause isn’t really a pause – which is a tangential discussion.  RC also writes that “the best estimate of the annual cost of limiting warming to 2 °C is 0.06 % of global GDP”.  Really?  The “best” according to whom and under what set of assumptions?  These aren’t details RC shares, of course.  Cost estimates are increasing in number and accuracy, but this claim also misses the fundamental point the authors made: “technologies such as bioenergy carbon capture and storage methods that do not exist even in scale demonstration”.  RC confuses theoretical calculations of economic cost with the real-world deployment of new technologies.   To achieve the 2 °C goal requires net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.  That means we need to deploy technologies that can remove more CO2 than the entire globe emits every year.  Those technologies do not exist today.  Period.  IF they were available, they would cost a fraction of global annual GDP.  It’s the IF in that sentence that too many critics willfully ignore.

RC then takes the predictable step toward a more stringent goal: 1.5 °C.  Wow.  Please see the previous paragraph to realize why this won’t happen.

RC also dismisses the authors’ claim that the 2 °C guardrail was “uncritically adopted”.  RC counters this wildness by claiming a group came up with the goal in 1995 before being adopted by Germany and the EU in 2005 and the IPCC in 2009.  Um, what critical arguments happened in between those dates?  RC provides no evidence for its own claim.  Was the threshold debated?  If so, when, where, and how?  What happened during the debates?  What were the alternative thresholds and why were they not accepted?  What was it about the 2 °C threshold that other thresholds could not or did not achieve in debates?  We know it wasn’t the technological and political features that demanded we choose 2 °C.  Diplomats and politicians don’t know the scientific details between IPCC emission scenarios or why 2 °C is noteworthy other than a couple of generic statements that a couple of climate-related feedbacks might start near 2 °C.  Absent that scientific expertise, politicians were happy to accept a number from the scientific community and 2 °C was one of the few numbers available to use.  Once chosen, other goals have to pass a higher hurdle than the status quo choice, which faced no similar scrutiny.

RC then rebuts the authors’ proposed long-term goal for a robust extreme events index, claiming that such an index would be more volatile than global temperature.  The basis for such an index, like any, is its utility.  People don’t pay much attention to annual global temperatures because it’s a remote metric.  Who experienced an annual mean global temperature?  Nobody.  We all experienced local temperature variability and psychological research details how those experiences feed directly into a person’s perception of the threat of climate change.  Nothing will change those psychological effects.  So the proposed index, at least in my mind, seeks to leverage them instead of dismissing them.  Will people in Miami experience different climate-related threats at a different magnitude than mid-Westerners or Pacific Islanders?  Of course they will.  2 °C is insufficient because the effects of that threshold will impact different areas differently.  It’s about a useful a threshold as the poverty level or median wage.  Those levels mean very different things in rural areas compared to urban areas due to a long list of factors.  That’s where scientific research can step in and actually help develop a robust index, something that RC dismissed at first read – a very uncritical, knee-jerk response.

Also unsurprisingly, ClimateProgress (CP) immediately attacks the authors’ legitimacy.  It’s telling that the same people who decry such tactics from the right-wing so often employ them in their own discourse with people who are trying to achieve similar goals.  CP also spends time hand waving about theoretical economic analyses while ignoring the basic simple real-world fact that technologies don’t exist today that do what the IPCC assumes they will do starting tomorrow on a global scale.  It’s an inherent and incorrect assumption which invalidates any results based on it.  I can cite lots of theoretical economic analyses in any number of discussions, but the theory has to be implemented in the real world to have any practical meaning.  I want carbon capture technologies deployed globally tomorrow too because I know how risky climate change is.  Wishing doesn’t make it so.  It’s why I’ve been critical of the Obama administration for putting all of their political capital into a plan to drive millions of US consumers into for-profit insurance markets instead of addressing the multitude of problems facing the country, including the desperate need to perform research and development on technologies to help alleviate future climate change.

The authors responded to RC and CP in a DotEarth piece.  I agree with this statement:

The reality is that MOST of the debate about goals should centrally involve the social sciences—more on that below.

What I find interesting about this statement is that if we were to follow RC’s and CP’s heavy-handed criticism, they shouldn’t have a seat at the climate goal-setting table because they don’t have the requisite expertise to participate.  What social science credibility do physical scientists have?  Too many activists like those at RC and CP don’t want anyone else to have a seat at the table, but have they staked out a legitimate claim why they get one while nobody else does?  They continue a little later on:

This is where a little bit of political science is helpful. I can’t think of any complex regulatory function that is performed according to single indicators. Central bankers don’t behave this way when they set (unilaterally and in coordination) interest rates and make other interventions in the economy. Trade policy isn’t organized this way. In our article we use the example of the Millennium Development Goals because that example is perhaps closest to what the UN-oriented policy communities know—again, multiple goals, many indicators. That’s exactly what’s needed on climate.

They also note that different perspectives leads to different types of goals – which directly contradicts the climate community’s acceptance of 2 °C as the only goal to pursue.  They push back against their critics’ denouncement for not including enough about how people set the 2 °C threshold:

The reason it is important to get this story right is not so that the right community gets “credit” for focusing on 2 degrees but so that we can understand how the scientific community has allowed itself to get lulled into thinking that it is contributing to serious goal-setting when, in fact, we have actually not done our jobs properly.

They identify what I think is the real critical issue which people bury with the proxy battles I present above:

That means that for nearly everyone, the question of goals is deeply intertwined with ultimate impacts, adaptability and costs.  Very quickly we can see that matter of goal-setting isn’t some abstract number that is a guardrail but it is bound up in our assessments of risk and of willingness to pay for abatement as well as bear risk.

The point here is perhaps most salient: the 2 °C threshold is but one value in a very large set.  Different people have different goals for different reasons – based on their value system.  As well they should.  The 2 °C threshold is treated as a sacred cow by too many in the climate community.  What happens when, as I now believe will happen, the globe warms more than 2 °C?  Will folks finally stop cherry picking statistics and brow-beating other folks who are really their allies in this effort?  Will folks set aside tribalism and accept expertise from other researchers, you know, acceptance of other sciences?

There are many more pieces written about this Nature Comment that I didn’t get into here.  They all serve as interesting exhibits in the ongoing effort to get our heads around the wicked problem of climate change and design efficient policies to change our emissions habits.  This unfortunately won’t be the final example of such exhibits.