Kerry's claim that 'we have nine years left' to avert the climate crisis

www.washingtonpost.com
7 min read
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The former secretary of state is citing a date for action that climate scientists say is frequently misunderstood.
Several readers asked us about the accuracy of this statement by the former secretary of state.

Kerry is using a figure that is frequently cited but often misused. It's a good example of how scientists may write a long and complex report, and then it's interpreted by the news media, pundits and politicians in ways that make the scientists frustrated that their nuanced conclusions have been twisted into a talking point.

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If anything, scientists say, Kerry's phrasing understates the problem facing the planet.

The Facts

The question of whether humans have contributed to climate change may still be a subject of debate in the political sphere, but it has been a settled issue among climate scientists for years. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, issued a report that said the planet — which has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels (approximately 1850 to 1890) — would warm 1.5 degrees (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) between 2030 and 2052 unless significant steps were taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

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Recall that a goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which the Biden administration officially rejoined on Friday, is to keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5 degrees. So the report said, with "high confidence," that global carbon dioxide emissions would need to drop significantly "well before 2030" to meet that goal by mid-century. The report said that "the lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5°C after 2030 with no or limited overshoot."

All these references to 2030 led to the shorthand use of "12 years away" in media reports. But the key date was 2050, when the gain in emissions needs to be halted — "net zero" — to prevent the planet from continuing on a path of exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. The report's key finding was that action needed to be taken immediately — not in 12 years.

But somehow, 2030 was…
Glenn Kessler
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