Most people are now aware that the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) has heated up the planet, leading to an array of devastating impacts that are now playing out in real time.
What they may not know, is that this isn’t just the conclusion of the world’s climate scientists. The world’s largest publicly traded fossil fuel company’s own scientists predicted this 40 years ago, even as the industry engaged in a public campaign to deny the science and stave off policy action.
A secret 1982 report by Exxon scientists made remarkably accurate predictions of both the rise we would see in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and the planetary warming that would result given business-as-usual extraction and burning of fossil fuels. They even used the word “catastrophic” to describe the potential impacts of that warming.
Trillions of dollars in Big Oil profits later, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is examining fossil fuel companies’ current climate pledges in a hearing Tuesday. Congress must understand not only did fossil fuel companies know the science, but that their denial and delay tactics continue to cost us dearly to this day.
We are now paying the extreme opportunity cost of that delay in the form of coastal inundation, withering heatwaves, more destructive tornado outbreaks and other extreme weather events that have been exacerbated by climate change. From the apocalyptic wildfires that once again ravaged California and the west this summer, to the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest and the devastating floods and monster storms that have afflicted the states we each live in. It is clear from the onslaught of extreme weather events that have played out across our nation that devastating climate disruption is upon us. These events are costing the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars a year and the toll in dollars and human lives will continue to increase in the absence of concerted action.
Much of that damage could have been avoided had we acted decades ago when the scientific community — and indeed fossil fuel industry’s own scientists — recognized we had a problem.
Because of the delay that resulted from the public disinformation campaign funded by fossil fuel interests, we now have a far greater challenge on our hands if we are to limit global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (roughly 3 degrees Fahrenheit), a level beyond which we will see the worst, potentially irreversible impacts of climate change. We must cut carbon emissions in half this decade and to zero by 2050.
Nonetheless, there is some positive news when it comes to the feasibility of limiting warming to internationally agreed targets. The increasingly comprehensive climate modeling done over the past decade has demonstrated that surface warming is likely to stabilize within a few years once net carbon emissions reach zero. This means we will see a direct and immediate response to our efforts to avert catastrophe.
We must recognize that some impacts, such as ice sheet collapse and sea-level rise may continue to worsen even after emissions go to zero and surface warming stops, owing to long timescale responses of ice sheets and tipping points being crossed. But we must also acknowledge that while the best time to act boldly to prevent climate catastrophe was decades ago, the second-best time is now.
As former presidential science adviser John Holdren has said, there are three things we will have to do in response to climate disruption: mitigate, adapt and suffer. That is, we must prevent further damage by reining in future warming, increase our resilience to those impacts we can’t avoid, and, to the extent that we fail to adequately do these first two things, we will suffer. He points out that the sizes of the three pieces of this pie are adjustable, based on our choices.
If we are to meet this monumental challenge, we will need to use all the arrows in the quiver. We must hold fossil fuel interests accountable for the damage they have caused. There are lawsuits working their way through the courts to initiate this process. We must prevent the coal, oil and gas industry from doing further damage. Even now, they continue to expand their exploitation, even as they’re on track to produce twice the fossil fuels in 2030 consistent with holding warming to internationally agreed levels. We must incentivize the energy industry to move aggressively toward clean, renewable energy. Congress has a central role to play, as does the financial industry that funds energy development. There is no time left to waste, and failure is not an option.
Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author of the recently released book, “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.” Mann will be among the witnesses testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Susan Joy Hassol is the director of the non-profit Climate Communication and winner of the American Geophysical Union’s 2021 Ambassador Award. She publishes Quick Facts on the links between newsworthy events and climate change.