Climate Change Is Finally on the Agenda for 2020. But Is It Too Late for Debating? | Opinion

Climate change got a brief moment in the spotlight—25 minutes worth of long-overdue conversation on a national political stage at the Democratic debates last week in Detriot.

Yours truly was busy live-tweeting the affair for the better part of six hours.

For longtime climate watchers, this was a notable and welcome development: After all, climate change was all but ignored during the last few elections, and there wasn't a single climate change-themed question during the 2016 general election debates.

There's good reason the issue is finally starting to get some of the attention it's due. The more Americans can see the impacts of a changing climate for themselves, the more they have begun to demand their elected officials do something to stop it before it's too late. Climate change has risen to the top tier of issues voters say matter to their votes—CNN's viewers told the broadcaster that climate change was the issue they most wanted to hear the candidates asked about during the Democratic primary debates in Detroit. In turn, candidates are under increasing pressure to show that they understand this challenge and are ready to face it with aggressive action.

Did these latest debates truly convey a sense of urgency commensurate with what climate science is telling us however? That's, well, debatable. The conversation was limited to broad strokes. Moderators gave candidates a brief 60 seconds to answer questions and cut off responses in as little as 15 seconds. There just wasn't enough time for candidates to explain the science that underpins their ideas. The climate discussion didn't occur until late in the 2nd hour of either debate. And only a handful (6 out of 20) of candidates even mentioned climate change or the fossil fuel industry in their closing statements, their best opportunity to communicate their priorities.

We were nonetheless afforded glimpses of what a vibrant and robust climate-themed debate could look like. The various candidates proposed a range of actions, including a price on carbon, clean energy, green manufacturing, electric vehicles, and regenerative agriculture. There is no one silver bullet in tackling climate change, and it was encouraging to watch a spirited, if all too brief, debate about not whether we have a problem but what we're going to solve it.

Jay Inslee, as expected, shined when it came to climate change, framing it as an over-arching threat that colors every challenge and crisis we face as Americans. He devoted his entire closing statement to the climate crisis. It is Cory Booker, however, who gave us the climate moment of the debates when he questioned ("That is kindergarten!") the ostensible centerpiece of Joe Biden's climate plan—staying in the Paris agreement.

Make no mistake, the Paris agreement was a critical development that helps get us on the path to decarbonization. And former President Barack Obama—and by extension his Vice President (Biden) deserve quite a bit of credit for their role in laying the groundwork for this historic agreement.

But that was nearly 3 years ago, and many countries—including the U.S. under Donald Trump—have failed to live up to their Paris commitments. Moreover, simply meeting those commitments gets us less than half of the emissions cuts necessary to avert dangerous 2C planetary warming. And furthermore, there is increasing recognition—particularly when it comes to the most vulnerable nations and regions—that an even smaller amount of planetary warming, 1.5C, might constitute a better definition of dangerous planetary warming. Beyond that much warming, things start to look quite bad on planet Earth. We bid goodbye to the world's coral reefs, see massive inundation of many of our most populated coastal cities displacing millions, and must withstand ever more extreme and damaging superstorms, floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires.

So, well every single Democratic candidate is qualitatively better on the climate issue than our denialist President, a rift was nonetheless evident within the coterie of Democratic hopefuls. Biden, on the one hand, seemed to argue for an incremental approach (something for which this author has previously criticized him) while Inslee, pressed the need for far more aggressive action, including a rapid decarbonization of our economy.

The latter approach is almost certainly necessary if we are to avert 1.5C warming of the planet. The most recent special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) demonstrates that most plausible scenarios for doing this require reductions of global emissions by 50% by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. As the report was published in 2018, the required 2030 target defines a 12 year period during which emissions have to drop by roughly 50%, leading to the widespread (though often misunderstood or misrepresented) talking point that we have "12 years to act" (arguably, it might better be characterized as "11 years to act" given that there has been no drop in emissions in the intervening year since the report was published).

The "12 years to act" dictum was cited repeatedly during the two nights of debate. Voters who are just tuning in might reasonably wonder if the candidates were just being a little dramatic to score points. Climate contrarians, after all, are quick to dismiss the "twelve year" meme, and even mainstream scientists (owing perhaps to the psychological phenomenon of "seepage") have dismissed it, criticizing "slogan-writers" for evoking the spectre of "climate dragons" that lie beyond the 1.5C warming limit.

Those of us who actively work both on the science of climate change and the communication thereof, however, know that it isn't hyperbole to point out that we have barely more than a decade to pull off a major overhaul in our energy economy if we are to avert dangerous (more than 1.5C) planetary warming.

That having been said, we don't go off a "climate cliff" at 1.5C warming. It's more like an ever-more dangerous highway that we're going down. We might miss the 1.5C exit despite concerted action. We would still be far better off getting off at the next (say, 2.0C) exit, than continuing headlong down the dangerous carbon highway.

In fact, we're already getting a real taste of this dangerous potential future. Consider the record-breaking heat waves that have scorched huge swaths of the U.S. and Europe this summer. The heat dome that cooked Northern Europe last week shifted north, setting off unprecedented wildfires across the Arctic and record melting in Greenland. In July alone – which now appears to be the hottest month ever recorded on this planet – 197 gigatonnes of the Greenland ice sheet melted into the ocean, enough to raise sea levels 0.5 millimeter, or 0.02 inches.

The IPCC report calls for "rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities." Even if we all agreed to do what is necessary as quickly as possible, it will still take years to implement those changes and halt warming. We don't have a moment to lose.

That's why, despite the uptick in time devoted to discussing climate at the debates, it's still not enough. I'm nonetheless encouraged that two forums in September – one to be aired by CNN and the other by MSNBC – will be dedicated solely to climate change. I'll be watching to see which candidates are really serious about their plans, and able to articulate to the public why this is the most urgent issue we face.

We still have a chance to act and preserve a livable planet for the next generation. But we can do better than the example set at least week's debates in Detroit, where we saw too little, too late—a metaphor, indeed, for where we currently stand in the larger effort to avert catastrophic climate change.

Michael E. Mann is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University. His most recent book, with Tom Toles, is The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​