Some part of me almost feels as though I ought to apologize to readers for writing yet again on the subject of climate change. After all, how many times have I, or my blog-partner, Kevin, written on this topic? Ad nauseam, no doubt. But still, given the stakes at hand, I feel as though I cannot remain silent.
What brings the topic to the fore this time is the latest U. N. report, issued just a few days ago by a group with the bureaucratic, if official sounding, name of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This is an organization made up of hundreds of the world’s top climate scientists, and so what they have to say is not mere hearsay. It’s not the just opinion of the guy in the chair next to you at the barbershop, or of your strange uncle, Charlie, who fancies himself an expert because he has an interest in things weather related. These are recognized experts from many countries, who have impeccable academic and real-world credentials, and who have been studying global weather patterns for decades. They have no overt political agenda, but they do know what they are talking about. And the news they have to share is not good.
Not that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past couple of decades should expect it to be otherwise. But scientists are people who deal in numbers, and the latest figures are sobering indeed. These experts have proposed something called a “carbon budget,” which it behooves all of us to pay attention to. What it refers to is an upper limit on the amount of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide specifically, in the earth’s atmosphere. That upper limit is one trillion metric tons, if planetary warming is to be limited to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). Once that trillion ton number is exceeded, then the most dangerous effects known to be associated with global warming begin to occur. One such probable consequence would be the dramatic rising of sea levels which, if we continue burning fossil fuels the way we have been, will increase by at least 3 feet, and possibly by as much as 5 feet, by the end of this century.
Scientists, by and large, are uncomfortable making exact predictions. That is because there are so many variables in any natural system, making it difficult to say specifically that such and such will definitely happen by this date or that. Instead, they tend to give ranges of possibilities. But even given this tendency toward caution and circumspection, the range they now give related to planetary warming is beginning to look astounding. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere double to the 1 trillion ton level, which they are predicted to do by 2040 – and let us remember that another 3 trillion tons of carbon are still left in the ground, as yet unused – the new range of probable planetary warming will be between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees. These numbers are extremely troubling, especially if we eventually reach the upper limits of the probable range. Can any of us really imagine what will happen to us, to this planet, and to life on it, if overall temperatures were to increase by as much as 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit? And here we are not talking just about rising sea levels. We’re also looking at the loss of most, if not all, of the ice in the arctic regions, at extreme desertification in some areas, and hitherto unknown intensity of storms and levels of flooding in others. And what will all this do to global food production? How will we feed ourselves? Where will we get clean drinking water from? Where will millions of people go who currently live near these rising oceans? And who will be fighting whom, given out-of-control population growth and dramatically shrinking resources? These are not the wild predictions of a science fiction writer whose imagination has run amok. They are, instead, what our future, and that of our children and our grandchildren, could very well look like, if something is not done now to prevent it.
And anyone who still holds to the old bromide that all this dramatic warming of the planet has nothing to do with human activity is sadly kidding himself. The IPCC has actually come out and said in its report that “it is EXTREMELY LIKELY (the capitals are mine) that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.” And remember what we said earlier about how conservative scientists tend to be when it comes to making predictions and sweeping generalizations. So, for this prestigious group to use an expression like “extremely likely” is as if the rest of us were to say that there can absolutely no longer be any doubt in anyone’s mind. Indeed, they have put numbers to this likelihood: the report finds a 95 to 100 percent chance that global warming is human caused.
And yet, what are we doing about it? Amazingly, some even still continue to deny the reality of what is happening. The conservative Heartland Institute, for example, came out just last week with a statement to the effect that additional global warming would likely be limited to a few tenths of a degree, and that this would not “constitute a crisis.” The good news, on the other hand, is that the numbers of Americans who say they “believe in global warming” are on the rise. According to a poll taken last December, 62 percent said they thought the Earth is getting warmer, up from 55 percent a year earlier. Of course, opinions are still politically driven. The breakdown of the number of believers in global warming is as follows: 78 percent Democrats, 55 percent Independents, but only 47 percent of Republicans. Still, another heartening bit of news is that 3 out of 4 Americans now say that they “trust climate scientists as a source of information about global warming.” Why it has taken this long for us to begin to believe in science is perhaps a topic for another essay.
California, I am happy to say, is taking the lead nationwide in listening to people and in taking the threat seriously. The most populous state in the Union has set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Even so, it is perhaps a sad indication of how slowly we are moving that even the leader in the country in terms of greenhouse gas remission is giving itself 37 years into the future to bring numbers back to more sustainable levels.
There is no doubt that there are things we can all do to help. Each of us can do his or her part when it comes to recycling, overall conservation of energy, gas and electricity in particular, smarter usage of water, patronage of mass transportation, locally grown foods etc. And these are all good. The California Climate Change website (www.climatechange.ca.gov/) has other ideas when it comes not only to conservation, but to adaptation as well. As it somberly notes: “no matter how quickly we cut our climate polluting emissions, climate impacts will still occur.”
Which leads to the last, and perhaps most important question: where is the federal government in all this? The answer appears to be that they are dithering. We are talking after all about the wellbeing of the planet, and of those who inhabit it, namely, all of us. And what do we see in Washington these last few days? Concern about our future? No! We witness instead a complete paralysis of action on something as seemingly simple as providing decent levels of healthcare for everyone in the country.
If we cannot even get this right, how will we tackle the much larger and more complex question of what to do to prevent the world from warming to the point where life itself may be threatened? That is a good question. Unfortunately, so far there seems to be no good answer. Let us hope, and if you believe in prayer, let us pray, and at very least let us badger our representatives, so that at some point politicians in our federal capital – and let us be honest, Republicans in particular — will stop their dithering, and make the right choices for the most important healthcare system of all, namely, the long-term health and wholeness of the planet we call home.