Edited by The Nation (with a coda edited by Sam Thielman)
IN APRIL 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the sort of warning that would galvanize a sane society into historic action. Unless greenhouse gas emissions cease rising by 2025, the IPCC found, humanity will not be able to limit the warming of the planet to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the temperature at which the worst ravages of climate change might still be avoided—though not all of them, just the most catastrophic. The choice implied by the IPCC was between a globe-spanning initiative to halve emissions by 2030, thereby giving us a chance of remaining within the 1.5˚C threshold, or a 21st century defined by an increasingly uninhabitable world.
Drastic as that choice is, the IPCC made clear that a path out of civilizational disaster is doable. The emissions reductions necessary to stay within a 1.5˚C rise would “shave 1-2 percent” off the projected global growth of GDP through 2050, according to a summary from Damien Carrington, the environment editor at The Guardian. But the IPCC’s ultimate point was that the timeline is unforgiving: some “30 months,” Carrington wrote, before the future promises to be unlivable for an unthinkable proportion of humanity.
Seventeen months have passed since the IPCC’s warning. Summer 2023 featured both the hottest July ever recorded and an understandable focus on wet-bulb temperatures, which helps measure the point at which external heat and humidity overwhelm the body’s ability to cool itself and survive extended exposure. Lahaina, Hawaii, once a paradise, lies in ruins from the worst US wildfire in over a century, with at least 115 people dead as of this writing. As horrific as the blackened ruins of Maui are, it’s a prologue of what nature has in store for our communities if nothing changes.