Humanity is much closer than previously thought to pushing global temperatures past what the United Nations considers dangerous global warming, according to a study published Monday.
Penn State climatologist Michael Mann and a team of researchers claim in a new study that the world is much closer to surpassing warming of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. The study is meant to underscore the urgency with which countries need to ditch fossil fuels.
“Frankly, this study does indicate that it may be more of an uphill battle than we previously thought in order to stabilize warming below the commonly defined dangerous limit of 2 degrees Celsius,” Mann told The Washington Post.
“We may have even less time to stop global warming than we thought,” WaPo reported Monday. It’s a pretty chilling headline, but read the fine print of the study before you start building a fallout shelter.
Mann is only able to move up the global warming tipping point by moving the goalposts, so to speak. His study estimates global average temperatures going all the way back to 1401, establishing an earlier baseline period than the UN uses in its climate assessments.
“For stabilization at [2 degrees Celsius], allowable emissions decrease by as much as 40% when earlier than nineteenth-century climates are considered as a baseline,” Mann’s study reads.
The Paris climate accord committed countries to work to keep future global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Anything beyond that the UN considers “exceedingly dangerous” global warming.
The UN reported in 2013 humanity could emit roughly 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide before global temperatures surpassed 2 degrees Celsius. The UN used a nineteenth century baseline from 1861 to 1880.
Mann, on the other hand, claims there’s evidence of human influence on the climate appeared as early as 1750, which added up to 0.25 degrees Celsius to global average temperature by the late 1800s. That puts humanity closer to breaching the 2 degree target.
There are some obvious problems with going back to the 18th century or earlier.
One is the lack of weather stations or other equipment to accurately measure temperature. The same can even be said for the 19th century as well.
The Central England Temperature record is the world’s oldest continuous, though imperfect, thermometer station. It began in 1659. Meteorologists didn’t get serious about global temperatures until the late 19th century.
Another problem is that, even if Mann is right that human influence goes back to before the Revolutionary War, would it actually matter?
Would it actually make hitting the 2 degree mark more dangerous? Was the climate of 1750 — smack dab in the middle of the Little Ice Age — a more ideal climate than today? For that matter, was the 19th Century climate better for society than today’s climate?
Update: This post has been updated for clarity.
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