The primary goal of the global warming deniers and their disciples is to waste time and delay action, which is why I prefer to call them delayers.

(This post is inspired by the surprising finding that only 27 percent of conservatives say the earth is warming because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels.)

The delayers’ paradox

The deniers and delayers are those who argue that failing to embrace strict reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions will not lead to serious or catastrophic impacts. The delayers’ paradox is this: If we all actually were persuaded by the deniers and delayers, it would lead to levels of atmospheric GHG concentrations that ensure the most catastrophic impacts imaginable, proving them (fatally) wrong.

The science makes clear that if we stay on our current emissions path, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would rise beyond 1,000 parts per million. That would inevitably lead to global temperature rise of 6 degrees C or more (at least 15 degrees F over most of the inland in the states United States), along with widespread desertification, global water and food shortages, 80 to 250 feet of sea level rise (at a rate of up to six inches a decade by 2100), and mass extinction.

Avoiding this catastrophe requires accepting the scientific understanding of climate change, which is embodied, however imperfectly, in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I can’t see anyway around that simple fact.

Either you believe the analysis that says warming the planet significantly more than 1 degree C above current levels (added to the 0.8 degree C we’ve already warmed from preindustrial levels) is self-destructive for the human race — which depends on model-based projections of what will happen decades from now — or you don’t.

By “imperfectly,” readers of this blog know I mean that the IPCC reports almost by design underestimate the scale and speed of climate impacts. The IPCC text gets watered down in the search for unanimity, the models systematically underestimate the carbon cycle feedbacks, and, perhaps most important, the IPCC models a broad range of future scenarios for carbon dioxide stabilization. That broad range of input scenarios creates a broad range of climate impact outcomes, which in turn creates the appearance that the IPCC science is filled with uncertainty and doubt about the outcome.

“Uncertainty and doubt” is the jewel of denial in all areas of the conservative war on science (see, for instance, the new book Doubt is Their Product). But therein lies the paradox. The deniers and delayers preach continuing the world’s decades-long climate policy of doing nothing significant to stop the growth of GHG emissions. And that delay eliminates all of the seeming uncertainty in the IPCC.

The primrose path to 1,000 ppm

We are currently emitting more than 8 billion tons of carbon a year (8 GtC/yr) and rising 3 percent per year — faster than the most pessimistic IPCC model. There is a little-reported bombshell buried in the footnote of the first IPCC report released last year:

Based on current understanding of climate carbon cycle feedback, model studies suggest that … to stabilise at 1000 ppm this feedback could require that cumulative emissions be reduced from a model average of approximately 1415 [1340 to 1490] GtC to approximately 1100 [980 to 1250] GtC.

On our current emissions pace, we will be at 11 GtC/yr around 2020 and still rising! That means, if the deniers and delayers win — or even if they just partially win (by limiting government actions to ones that lead to average emissions of 11 GtC/yr for the century) — then the planet’s carbon dioxide concentrations are headed to 1,000 ppm! (Note: That conclusion does incorporate some carbon cycle feedbacks, but not the one that is probably the most important, the melting tundra.)

That is not the worst-case; that isn’t even business as usual if the disinformers win — stabilizing at 1,000 ppm still requires a lot of government-led effort that conservatives almost universally disdain.

If we delay acting even a decade and then act aggressively starting in 2020, we would still need 11 classic stabilization wedges just to have a shot at keeping concentrations a bit below 1,000 ppm. Here is the most delayer-friendly list I can imagine (but please do not quote me as saying that I agree with these — I personally doubt nukes and CCS combined will make more than about one wedge):

  • Two wedges of nuclear power — 1400 to 1700 GW (almost a nuke a week) plus 20 Yucca mountains for storage (total probable cost some $10 trillion).
  • Two wedges of coal with carbon capture and storage — 1600 GW of coal with CCS — a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to twice the current flow of oil out of the ground, requiring the world to re-create the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure and the natural gas delivery infrastructure too (total probable cost some $10 trillion).
  • One wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
  • One of wind for power — one million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines
  • One of wind for vehicles — another 2000 GW wind. Most cars must be plug-in hybrids or pure electric vehicles.
  • One of concentrated solar thermal — about 1600 GW peak.
  • One of efficiency and cogeneration.
  • One of cellulosic biofuels — using one-sixth of the world’s cropland (or less land, if yields significantly increase or algae-to-biofuels proves commercial at large scale).
  • One of forestry — end all tropical deforestation.

Needless to say, even this can’t happen unless, by 2020, most deniers and delayers and their representatives in Congress come to embrace the painful reality of climate change and the dire necessity for government-led solutions.

So calling deniers by the term “deniers” or calling delayers by the term “delayer-1000s” is quite mild. A far more accurate term is “climate destroyers.” Or maybe “extinctionists.”

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.