The 1.5-degree climate goal is out of reach. Here’s what to do now.
For those who like clutching at straws, its still technically possible to believe civilization can prevent the Earths temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the average of the preindustrial era the strong recommendation of climate scientists. But most people can surmise that the world is missing this goal. Last week, the European climate monitor Copernicus reported that the globes average temperature hit 14.98 degrees Celsius last year, 1.48 degrees above that of the second half of the 19th century. Two U.S. agencies, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , followed suit, putting warming since then at 1.4 and 1.35 degrees, respectively. The synthesis by the World Meteorological Organization landed on 1.45 degrees above the preindustrial average, with an uncertainty band of plus or minus 0.12 degrees. The numbers might strike some as harbingers of doom. But they should not change peoples understanding of the task at hand. Rather, they should be heeded as a warning: If civilization wants to contain the damage from climate change, it must be willing to put more tools on the table. The data underscores just how wishful the thinking was back in 2015, when countries gathered at the U.N. climate summit in Paris agreed that preventing severe droughts, downpours, heat waves and other climate impacts required them to try to keep warming to the 1.5-degree target. It should also serve as an omen that the other, more consequential Paris promise to make sure the rise in the worlds average temperature would remain well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels could also be overcome by reality. The researchers at Copernicus pointed out that warming exceeded the 1.5-degree target nearly half the time last year. In December, it exceeded the preindustrial average by 1.78 degrees. For the first time ever, the worlds temperature exceeded the 2-degree limit during two days in November. Though the ocean temperature fluctuation of an El Nino contributed to the record-beating numbers, it will stick around, peaking this year. Moreover, greenhouse gas emissions have rebounded sharply from the covid-induced decline in 2020. The 1.5-degree goal relied on global emissions in 2030 being 45 percent lower than in 2010. If countries stick to their plans so far, they are expected to be 9 percent greater instead. The evidence that global efforts have not met global ambitions does not change the nature of the task, though. Even if the world is, in fact, careening toward some catastrophic scenario , it remains true that each ton of carbon dioxide removed from the worlds energy matrix, and each ton of methane and nitrous oxide removed from the livestock and agriculture industries, will help limit climate change and its associated damage. If anything, evidence of the globes warming so far should spur world leaders to consider every tool at their disposal; to develop every technology to curtail emissions; to explore every option to remove greenhouse gases from the environment; even to study, cautiously, available techniques to reduce the global temperature directly, approaches collectively called geoengineering. Too many technologies and mechanisms have been left by the wayside. Nuclear energy is still assailed by some environmentalists invoking misleading images of a nuclear apocalypse that is vanishingly improbable. Technologies to capture carbon from the air and sea are rejected as enablers of the continued use of fossil fuels, sapping the worlds urgency to end the carbon-based economy. Carbon markets and carbon taxes have been resisted by everybody from the pope to activists who hope to use the battle against climate change to end capitalism . And solar radiation management to reflect heat-carrying rays directly back into space has been rejected as potentially worse than climate change itself. Fortunately, the evidence of blown targets does seem to be stirring some sense of urgency among world leaders. Last year, the Biden administration produced a report mandated by Congress that outlined options for research into radiation management to block sunlight from reaching the Earth, one outside-the-box idea that deserves at least a look. Germany closed its last nuclear reactor last year, making its carbon-reduction plans harder to achieve. But California bucked environmentalists opposition to keep open the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant through 2030. And the federal government has delivered incentives to maintain existing nuclear reactors and invest in new reactor technologies. In hindsight, it might seem foolish to have pinned the battle against climate change to an improbable number. Blasting past the vaunted warming ceiling could discourage countries from investing in a costly energy transition that might seem to have already failed. And yet, if failure spurs the world to double down on its climate goals, it might provide the needed incentive to take the challenge as seriously as it deserves. Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through discussion among members of the Editorial Board , based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom. Members of the Editorial Board: Opinion Editor David Shipley , Deputy Opinion Editor Charles Lane and Deputy Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg , as well as writers Mary Duenwald, Shadi Hamid , David E. Hoffman , James Hohmann , Heather Long , Mili Mitra , Eduardo Porter , Keith B. Richburg and Molly Roberts .