And here the runaway nature of marine ice-cliff instability really kicks in. If you start rapid carbon removal anytime after 2070, they find, West Antarctica’s largest glaciers have already slipped into a feedback loop of doom. The problem becomes unfixable. If you begin carbon removal by 2060, on the other hand, then you can preserve much more of the ice sheet.
Ten years, in other words, makes a world of difference. That tight timeline is one reason that I think it’s important to spend public funds on direct carbon-removal technology today. I read once that it takes about as long to develop a new technology as it does to raise a child. We need to start the clock on carbon removal now so it will be ready when we need it.
It’s worth remembering how quickly American progressives’ positions on the timing of climate policy have shifted; a few years ago, the leftmost senators endorsed the 100 by ’50 Act. This bill aimed to phase out fossil fuels on the power grid by 2050; President Joe Biden’s target for the same goal is now 15 years earlier. (He shares the bill’s larger goal of reaching a net-zero economy by 2050.)
The U.S. target has moved forward for many reasons, among them that the public now better understands the dangers of overshooting 1.5 degrees Celsius. But these closer targets, I have come to think, are not just better for the planet’s long-term geologic stability. They are easier to think with too; they bring climate change within our mental horizons. I entered the full-time labor force in 2013, and the software that runs my 401(k) account assumes that I will retire sometime between 2055 and 2065. By then, under the Biden plan, the U.S. should be ironing out the final kinks in its decarbonization, and developing countries should be near to joining it. I say should; nothing is certain—a technological leap, a political upheaval, or, God forbid, world war could derail the timing. But aiming to settle climate change within the U.S. by 2050 is clarifying nonetheless. It puts decarbonization on the same timeline as questions about how to spend a life—where to work and live, whether to start a family, and the rest.
The 2050 timeline means that decarbonizing will be the work of a lifetime: my lifetime. You could say our lifetime, if you were born between 1980 and 2005. We will see the task through. For people much older, the journey will end with miles left to travel; for younger people, decarbonizing will—or, at least, should—be something like a solved problem. A child born today won’t enter the professional workforce until 2043; under the current timeline, decarbonization will be just about licked by the time they turn 30. Their job will be to live with climate change: They will see Antarctica’s crucial 2050s in the prime of their career. Today’s babies are the scientists, engineers, and policy staff who will deal with marine ice-cliff instability.
James Hansen turned 80 earlier this year. In 1988, when he presented his climate models to the Senate, he was 47. The year 2100 was a long time away—far outside any plausible policy-making range. But 2100’s Social Security beneficiaries are today’s toddlers. Their children will see the 22nd century.