On Monday, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the fourth annual MLK Now event in New York City. During a conversation that encompassed the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the current political climate, the freshman member of Congress brought up a huge problem that she’s previously described as the “civil rights movement of our generation”: climate change.
Ocasio-Cortez told Coates:
“Millennials and people, you know, Gen Z and all these folks that will come after us, are looking up, and we’re like: ‘The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?”
It’s a reasonable take if you’re aware of the 12-year mark outlined in the 2018 UN “Special Report on Global warming of 1.5ºC,” released in October. It mentions the year 2030 — 12 years from now — as the point of no return, if we keep on our current path. It’s mentioned 35 times in the report in varying applications.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we only have a time frame of a dozen years to keep global warming at a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels.
Limiting global warming to 1.5 compared with 2 will reduce the impacts we’re likely to see on ecosystems and human health. According to the UN:
“The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5ºC would require ‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide, would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.”
If the planet warms beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, we are exacerbating future risks of droughts, floods, extreme heat, and poverty — the sort of results that the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment asserts are currently affecting people now in the form of crop failures in the Midwest and record wildfires in California.
Depending on how you live your life, those failures can be extremely, literally world-ending. A whole town burning down can feel world-ending; a loss of your livelihood can feel world-ending. Ocasio-Cortez is speaking to the urgency of the situation, and the potential for loss. It’s hard to imagine that she literally thinks the world is going to end, Armageddon style — even if that’s how the story has been framed by her critics.
Fox News took the moment to comment that her 12-year quote was linked to the UN study, but chose to connect it to a “reputation for making bold, at-times factually incomplete statements.”
Scientists might say that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t being bold enough
In turn, scientists might say that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t being bold enough with the 12-year prediction. While the working group behind the UN report stated that 2030 served as a “line in the sand,” a dozen years may be optimistic.
A study published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that “even if the Paris Accord target of a 1.5 °C to 2.0 °C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.”
“With the current circumstances, with the abdication of responsibility that we’ve seen from so many powerful people, even people who abdicate that responsibility by calling themselves liberal or a Democrat, or whatever it is, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire,” Ocasio-Cortez told Coates.
While the planet isn’t going to explode when the clocks strikes midnight for 2030, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be living in hell.