I had several ideas that I wanted to write about for this column, and I just got back from a really relaxing vacation. I didn’t think about climate change for a whole week. I was looking forward to writing a positive, hopeful article.
But everything went kablooie when I read an article in Monday’s New York Times titled “Climate panel’s outlook ominous.” The article describes the second of three reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative scientific group working to understand climate change.
I’m tempted just to quote the entire article, essentially reprint it, and I certainly encourage everyone to read it, but a summary will have to suffice, along with some observations of my own.
The essential point of the IPCC report is that our planet is changing now. Just a few years ago, reports from this body and others would estimate potential adverse effects in the year 2100. That has changed, and this new report catalogs what is happening now. These effects may not be so discernible in our little town, but they are dramatic when viewed from a planetary perspective.
According to the article, the IPCC report concludes that: “… ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying … oceans are rising at a pace that threatens coastal communities and are becoming more acidic as they absorb carbon dioxide … organic matter frozen in Arctic soils since before civilization began is now melting … and the worst is yet to come.”
The list of adverse effects is familiar; we’ve been hearing about them for decades now. But the telescoping down from warning about the future to sounding the alarm about the present is relatively new and may have a silver lining.
It has always been a bit abstract: “Act now for the benefit of future generations!” This is still true, but perhaps knowing that climate change is here, is real, and that it will impact us in our lifetimes, will get us off our behinds to do something about it.
The information in the report may stimulate other motivations for action, including the most powerful of all motivations: the pocketbook: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow economic growth …”
If the appeal to the wallet doesn’t get us, the article also indicates that the report makes some pretty scary estimates of how human society could be affected by global warming, including: “It cites the risk of death or injury on a massive scale, probable damage to public health, displacement of people and potential mass migrations. …
“(It would) make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps … the possibility of violent conflict over land or other resources … the world’s food supply is at considerable risk — a threat that could have serious consequences for the poorest nations.”
The report is not all negative. It apparently does take into account what appear to be significant actions being taken by governments and the private sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for and adapt to the consequences of a hotter planet.
That second set of actions — “adaptation” to adverse effects — reflects a cold-eyed realism that to a certain extent the die is already cast. No matter what actions are taken to reduce emissions, the world will not be able to avoid some of the effects of a changing climate.
Ominously, however, the report indicates that just because we’ve already passed a point where we could avoid climate change we can’t throw in the towel and give up on reducing emissions. The world needs to consider how it will adapt to a hotter planet, but if emissions are not significantly reduced there is a risk that the severity of the changes will swamp any efforts to adapt.
The only thing recognition of the need to consider measures to adapt to climate change means is that we blew our chance to avoid its consequences because we failed to act when the alarm was sounded by the scientific community decades ago.
The report also indicates that although some countries, including the United States, are showing decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, these decreases are more than offset by increases in countries like China and India, both through internal growth and development in these nations as well as from the virtual outsourcing of manufacturing (and the associated greenhouse gas emissions) from the developed world.
The World Bank estimates that it would require an investment of about $100 billion a year in developing countries to make a dent in these increases in greenhouse gas emissions: money the developing (poor) countries don’t have and the developed (rich) countries are thus far unwilling to pony up.
All in all, it’s a fairly sobering report. But, the co-chair of the IPCC working group that prepared the report, a scientist from the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford, sounds an optimistic note: “I think that dealing effectively with climate change is just going to be something great nations do.”
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of every month. Send comments to [email protected]