Reading the summary of findings from a worldwide panel of scientists about the impact of climate change and the looming threat that manmade greenhouse gases pose to the planet is pretty disturbing. Oceans rising, coral reefs dying, ice caps melting, heavy rains and Biblical floods, the world’s food supply threatened. The existential danger posed by climate change is so overwhelming that most people shake their head in dismay and then go back to what they were doing.
It scares people to understand the scope of the problem, and they fear that any solution would be so draconian and out of reach that it is best not to think about it. The inability of the environmental and scientific community to rally the country toward action by warning of all the dire consequences of inaction is implicit in the report issued Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of international scientists under the auspices of the United Nations.
“What’s unique about this report is that it focuses so much on adaptation,” says Peter Ogden with the liberal Center for American Progress. Previously, the emphasis was on mitigation and persuading governments to curb their output of greenhouse gases, which has yielded mixed results at best. The scientific community and environmentalists downplayed discussion of adaptation on the theory that it would let politicians off the hook in making the tough decisions to reduce emissions. “This is actually a very clear-eyed willingness by the scientific community to acknowledge that while intent on doing what they can to mitigate climate change we’re already experiencing it. We’re already living in a world that is fundamentally changed,” says Ogden.
The panel’s last major report, issued seven years ago, catalogued the risks of global warming and shocked the world’s conscience, awarding the group, along with Al Gore, the Nobel peace prize. It’s not clear if this report will have the same kind of impact. Conservatives like Ben Zycher at the American Enterprise Institute is unmoved by the panel’s findings. “Temperatures have been warming in fits and starts since the end of the little ice age, and no one really knows the extent to which that long term trend is caused by man. Policies designed to reduce emissions would have very little impact this century. Even if the U.S. cut its emissions in half, which is impossible, the effect on temperature in the year 2100 would be almost immeasurable.”
Addressing the skeptics head on at a news conference Monday in Yokohama, Japan, Rajendra Pachauri, the panel’s chairman said, “Why should the world pay attention to this report? We have assessed impacts as they are happening, impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and oceans…I’d like to emphasize that in view of these impacts and those projected in the future, nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.”
The report doesn’t suggest there’s a world where we can say, don’t worry, just adapt, but it does point to governments and businesses around the world that are taking steps to brace themselves for what appears inevitable. The rebuilding occurring in New York City after Hurricane Sandy is a prime example of the kind of adaptation going on everywhere with policymakers readying themselves for similar events, and not treating Sandy as a freak occasional storm but a new normal.
“Not that we’re at some technological point where we say OK we will live with greenhouse gases into the foreseeable future,” says Ogden. “There’s no suggestion we’re capable of adapting to that world, or that it would be desirable.” The erosion of food security because of crop changes due to climate change cited in the report offers a glimpse into a Malthusian future with the world’s poorest people paying the highest price for a problem they had little to do with causing.
The timing of the report coincides with the Obama administration’s stepped up efforts to address climate change through executive orders and regulatory standards. This June, on the president’s authority, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), will issue the first ever greenhouse gas standards on existing power plants, “a politically fraught but absolutely critical step,” says Ogden, who worked in the administration on energy policy from 2009 until last year.
He hopes the IPCC report will shore up public understanding of why Obama is taking regulatory action to curb greenhouse gases, and help the administration make the fight that lies ahead.