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Our Climate Is Headed Toward 'Extremely Dangerous' or 'Catastrophic:' Here's Our Best Off Plan For Staving Off Total Disaster

Alex Steffen's new book "Carbon Zero" offers solutions on how to pull us back from the brink of disaster.

The following excerpt is from the introduction to Alex Steffen's new book, Carbon Zero. The rest of the book is available as chapters on Grist and in ebook form on Amazon. You can learn more about Steffen at his website  AlexSteffen.com or follow him on twitter @AlexSteffen.


On Monday the 29th of October, 2012, a tidal surge 13.9 feet high (the highest ever recorded) washed up and over the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, pushed forward by the superstorm Sandy. That same week, the storm destroyed large swathes of coastline from the New Jersey shore to Fire Island, while driving torrential rains, heavy snows, and powerful winds inland across the eastern U.S. and Canada. By the time the storm blew out, it had killed more than 100 Americans, made thousands homeless, left millions without power, and caused at least $50 billion in damage. Sandy was, by any reckoning, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.

Maybe, though, the word “natural” belongs in quotes. Because what was surprising about Sandy wasn’t that it happened (indeed, many had predicted that rising sea levels and storms intensified by warmer oceans would make something like Sandy inevitable), but that it was seen so clearly, and so immediately, for what it was: a forewarning of what a planet in climate chaos has in store for us.

Sandy was far from the first sign that climate change is here — scientists have been warning for decades of the dangers of a heating planet, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen a flurry of unprecedented storms, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, and wildfires, as well as record-breaking heat waves following one after another. Sandy, though, knocked down walls of denial and inattention that have kept us from admitting what’s happening to our world.

What’s happening is that we’re losing the climate fight. Climate change is here, it’s worsening quickly, its effects are more dire than many thought they would be, and — if we continue with business as usual — we’re on a track to unleash an almost unimaginable catastrophe on ourselves, our children, and our descendants.

“Part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” He added later, ”Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

Our choice: “extremely dangerous” or “catastrophic”

To not warm the planet at all no longer remains an option. The Earth is already dangerously hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution.

We used to think that warming up to 2 degrees C fell within a sort of “safe zone,” where we could expect change but not crisis. But in a world we’ve warmed only by about 1 degree C above the historical baseline, we’re already seeing massive climate impacts across the planet. These unexpected impacts, along with new projections from ever-improving climate models, tell us that the climate is not nearly as forgiving as we’d like it to be. As the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research’s Kevin Anderson puts it, “1 degree is the new 2 degrees.” Two degrees, meanwhile, now appears not just dangerous, but extremely dangerous.

That means the menu of choices in front of us no longer includes a completely safe and stable climate. Instead, our choices come down to two options: a world in which climate change becomes extremely dangerous, or one in which it becomes totally catastrophic.