What we knew in 1983…where are we now? With Laudato Si’s charge to “transition off fossil fuels without delay”, what is necessary to do in the next 3 years?

April 28, 2017

This post gives a quick review of some of what we knew in 1983, for us to consider in relation to where we are now.  Also, with Laudato Si’s charge to “transition off fossil fuels without delay”, what is necessary in the next 3 years?

Christiana Figueres tells us we need to think about what is necessary to do the job — getting off of fossil fuels and changing direction in the next couple years.  This is more straightforward than the moonshot in the 1960s, but we need equivalent focus (not just some action around climate change) to help accomplish the task.  Some possibilities:

  • No more purchase (and manufacture of) fossil fueled vehicles.  Manufacture of parts only, for those who want to keep driving fossil-fueled vehicles for their foreseeable future.
  • Transition of auto manufacturing to electric vehicles.
  • Timeline for rapid shift off of coal and transition of all fossil fuel powered electricity.
  • All cities and states planning for and have announced goals of 100% renewable energy (including utility notification of expectations, values, goals) — parishes and parishioners can make a big difference at this level!

These are some of the top, most urgent priorities.  Then (or along the way), we can and should also be changing what we teach, or updating the education that occurs in our schools and sacramental preparation or faith formation programs to reflect our values, the seriousness with which we take the sacredness and dignity of all life, including the unborn and future generations. We have no right to sacrifice anyone’s life, anywhere, and we are charged to care for “our Sister/Mother Earth”, the voiceless and most defenseless, as well as our common home.

By Robert SanGeorge, “EPA report predicts catastrophic global warming”, United Press Reports, 18 October 1983

WASHINGTON — The ‘greenhouse effect’ that warms Earth’s atmosphere will cause catastrophic climate changes that could begin by the next decade…The massive report, ‘Can We Delay a Greenhouse Warming?’ is the government’s first warning of dire consequences from a global temperature rise caused by the burning of fossil fuels an increase in carbon dioxide levels.

By the year 2000, the frequency of hotter days will be greater. It will be greater in Maine, it will be greater in Florida,’ John Hoffman, director of strategic studies for the EPA, said at a briefing.  The study predicts changes in world weather patterns eventually will cause enormous disruption, including a rise in ocean levels and flooding of coastal cities.

Even a small rise in sea levels ‘could flood or cause storm damage to many of the major ports of the world, disrupt transportation networks, alter aquatic ecosystems and cause major shifts in land development patterns,’ it said.  ‘Farming, transportation, coastal habitation, and the provision of water supplies are the most obvious…said the study by EPA employee Stephen Seidel and consultant Dale Keyes.

Keyes said in an interview planning for the global warming ‘should be on the research agenda now’ because the projected increase in temperatures is ‘geometric, tremendously fast.’  The report, finished last month, said current estimates suggest a 3.6-degree Fahrenheit rise could occur by 2040 and a 9-degree rise by 2100.

Previous global temperature changes ‘have occurred over tens of thousands of years,’ the report noted. But the projected warming induced by increases in carbon dioxide ‘could equal historical changes in climate in a matter of only 120 years.’

John Hoffman, head of strategic studies for the EPA, told the New York Times, ‘Major changes will be here by the years 1990 to 2000, and we have to learn how to live with them.’  ‘New York City could have a climate like Daytona Beach, Fla., by 2100,’ he added.

The greenhouse or warming effect comes from increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It lets the sunlight that heats Earth enter the atmosphere but inhibits the escape of heat radiation into space. The carbon dioxide comes mainly from the burning of fossil fuels.

The report strongly recommends that planning begin now to deal with the changes global warming will produce. It said policy changes such as massive taxes on fossil fuels would only slightly delay temperature rises.

Even a total ban on coal burning by the year 2000 could delay major temperature increases by only about 15 years, said the report.

‘Changes by the end of the 21st century could be catastrophic, taken in the context of today’s world,’ it said. A soberness and sense of urgency should underlie our response to a greenhouse warning.’

The report said sea levels could rise as much as 12 feet because of melting polar ice caps.

Also 21 October 1983, New York Times

Pres. Reagan’s lead science advisor said:  William A. Nierenberg, chairman of the academy’s carbon dioxide assessment committee, which prepared a report by the National Academy of Sciences, said in an interview: ”We feel we have 20 years to examine options before we have to make drastic plans. In that 20 years we can close critical gaps in our knowledge.’…

Mr. Nierenberg, a scientist with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., said that while more was known about the greenhouse effect than about acid rain, it was necessary to cope with the acid rain problem immediately because its effects are already severe.

”In our judgment,” the report says, ”the knowledge we can gain in coming years should be more beneficial than a lack of action will be damaging. A program of action without a program for learning could be costly and ineffective.”

…Roger R. Revelle, a member of the assessment panel, said in an interview that the long-term warming effect could produce a melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet

In the United States, the effect may be felt on agriculture starting around the year 2000, the report said. With warming of about 1 degree centigrade by then, the growing season in the northern part of the country would be about 10 days longer. In the southerly farm belt, where most of the country’s wheat, corn and soybeans are grown, drier conditions could decrease crop yields between 5 and 10 percent…

A 2 degree warming and decreased precipitation could ”severely affect” the Texas Gulf, Rio Grande, upper and lower Colorado River regions, California and and other Western regions, the report warned. One of its projections shows a possible reduction in water supply in this area of nearly 50 percent when the full effect is felt.  Much irrigated farmland in these areas ”might have to be abandoned unless water could be imported from other regions with more abundant supplies.”  Paul E. Waggoner, a member of the assessment committee, said in an interview that ”people in California will be drinking their water,” instead of using it for irrigated farming.

The rise in sea levels, meanwhile, may necessitate ”a gradual retreat to higher ground” in some coastal areas, the report warned.

**  34 years later ** Carbon Emissions have continued to increase though the curve is flattening ** we haven’t made it a priority to turn around yet, but we should…

It’s time to “turn the tide on the devastating impacts of carbon emissions” says Christiana Figueres, former head of the UNFCCC.  2020: The Climate Turning Point is a report created in a collaboration between Yale University, Carbon Tracker, Climate Action Tracker and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research. The report explains why 2020 is significant and explores how goals can realistically be achieved. The report states that in the next three years, businesses, investors and policy makers need to take bold, but achievable steps.

The new report cites 2020 as a critical milestone for stemming the effects of climate change. To stay on track we will need to reach peak emissions by 2020 and total decarbonisation by 2050.   Figueres is calling for a collective focus to “bend the curve” of emissions in the next few years. 


The report shows how renewable energy is beating fossil fuels as new sources of electricity around the world. The goal is to have 30 percent of global energy being produced by renewables by 2020. This is entirely possible as we are almost there with current global renewable energy production hovering around 20 percent.


The report says that we need to see zero emission transport as the preferred form of all new mobility in the world’s major cities and transport routes.  We are far from where we need to be. We must see emissions reduction in all transport sectors (land, maritime and aviation). Even the high emissions aviation sector is moving in the direction of electrification. According to Siemens we will see fully electric aviation in a decade with planes capable of traveling at least 1000 kms. 


Land is currently much more of a source of emissions rather than a sink. We must reverse this trend so that land can be a sink rather than a source of emissions. The report says that large-scale deforestation must be replaced by large-scale land restoration and agriculture shifts to earth friendly practices.


We need to see a trillion dollars invested in clean technologies each year. We are still a long way away from this goal so these investments will need to be ramped up. According to Figueres what directs the flow of investment is cost and we have seen tremendous cost declines in renewable energy. The report says that all financial institutions must have a disclosed transition strategy.


Decarbonizing the economy makes fundamental economic sense. Ideally Government provides incentives and policies and the private sector uses these incentives to make the transformation and investments needed. Countries’ collaboration between governments and the private sector will decarbonize more quickly. There are other countries where these policies are not forthcoming. However, even in these countries the private sector is moving forward because it is good for their bottom line.


The report indicates that cities and states must have established plans and are implementing policies and regulations with the aim to fully decarbonise infrastructure by 2050.

In the following video ELN Chief Reporter Priyanka Shrestha speaks to Figueres the person who ushered in the Paris Agreement. Figueres talks about the actions that need to be taken in the next three years so major milestones are reached by 2020.


All sectors of the economy have a role to play to achieve the 2020 goals. Figueres points to the fact that we keep seeing growth in the low carbon economy in the US and around the world. Although she says that she does not expect much from business. She reiterates that the private sector continues to move forward because it is good for their bottom line, and she adds, “they are not doing this to save the planet”. Investments in clean technologies are safer and less risky, therefore such investment are good business and as such they will keep growing. The report states that industry, including heavy industry (iron & steel, cement, chemicals, and oil & gas) all need to commit to being Paris compliant.

Not impossible

In the following video Figueres is interviewed by Nick Breeze and she says despite substantial headwinds the goals of Mission 2020 are not impossible. Despite an unstable situation in Europe post Brexit and the election of Trump in the US, Figueres is hopeful. She explains that emissions have flattened for the third year in a row while GDPs keep growing. This decoupling of growth and emissions continues and the goal of Mission 2020 is to accelerate this process.