FACT CHECK: Beto O’Rourke Fumbles Climate Change Stat
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke claimed recently that climate scientists are “absolutely unanimous” that “we have no more than 12 years to take bold action” on climate change.
O’Rourke appears to be misconstruing the findings of a 2018 U.N. report. While climate scientists believe that global warming is a serious concern, experts we spoke to say there is no 12-year deadline to avert catastrophic climate change.
O’Rourke was in Iowa on one of his first campaign stops of the 2020 presidential cycle when he took an audience question about the Green New Deal, a resolution proposed by Democrats in Congress to combat climate change and lower greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.
“The question is on the Green New Deal, and by extension, if you don’t mind, I’ll take the spirit of the question. We face catastrophe and crisis on this planet, even if we were to stop emitting carbon today, right now, at this moment,” O’Rourke began.
“This is our final chance. The scientists are absolutely unanimous on this – that we have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis,” he claimed March 14.
O’Rourke appears to be referencing a 2018 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that says global warming is likely to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052.
Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also cited the IPCC report when she warned that “the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change” in January, and several news outlets have similarly covered the report, with one headline proclaiming a 12-year deadline to avert a “climate change catastrophe.”
Neither these articles nor O’Rourke’s comments are an accurate reflection of the report’s findings, though. The report “does not state that we have 12 years left to limit/stop/counteract climate change,” Jonathan Lynn, head of communications and media relations for the IPCC, told The Daily Caller in an email.
The Paris climate accord seeks to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, which led policymakers to ask the IPCC what it would take to meet that benchmark.
The world has already experienced roughly 1 degree Celsius of global warming, according to the IPCC report, and in order to avoid surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius, it estimated that net global carbon emissions would have to decline 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by around 2050.
“The lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5ºC after 2030 with no or limited overshoot,” Lynn told the Caller.
Lynn emphasized, however, that the 1.5-degree benchmark should not be thought of as a point of no return. “One key finding could be summarized as ‘every bit of warming matters,'” he said. “So if you end up at 1.6 that would be worse than 1.5, but better than 1.7 or 2.0. It’s not as if going through one of those thresholds changes everything.”
Jason Smerdon, a climate researcher at Columbia University, described the impacts of climate change as a “sliding scale.”
“This is not a binary choice that will decide whether or not we fall off a cliff in 12 years,” he told the Caller in an email. “The formula is simple: the warmer things get the bigger the challenges and risks will be.”
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe estimates that the impacts of climate change would be generally adaptable at 1.5 degrees Celsius, challenging at 2 degrees Celsius and system altering at 3 degrees Celsius, but she cautioned that there’s no “magic number” in terms of a benchmark.
“Trying to put a number on exactly how much global temperature change is dangerous, and how much carbon we can put into the atmosphere before we hit that level, is like trying to put a number on exactly how many cigarettes we can smoke before we develop lung cancer,” she said in a PBS video last year.
Regardless, climate scientists believe that climate change does pose a serious threat.
“I would say there is strong consensus in the scientific community that limiting warming to 1.5 or 2C is important if we want to avoid dangerous levels of climate change and that avoiding those levels requires swift, immediate, and urgent action,” Smerdon told the Caller. “But the scientific community does not believe that we only have 12 years and then all is lost.”
The O’Rourke campaign did not respond to requests for comment.