Regular readers of The Nation will not be surprised by much in the new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but it’s encouraging to see mainstream media outlets giving unusually high-profile, plain-spoken coverage to scientists’ latest projections of the catastrophes in store if governments continue to stick their heads in the sand. Most Americans still rank climate change near the bottom of their public concerns, according to opinion polls. One reason may be the assumption that climate change is a distant problem—a concern for polar bears, future generations and the poor of Bangladesh but not for me and my loved ones today. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2, demolishes that assumption, and thus may pierce the mass complacency that allows political and business leaders to get away with doing little about the approaching train wreck. The report makes clear that the disasters wrought by humanity’s continuing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are “not far-off in the future and…not exotic creatures,” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University. “It’s us and now.” The “breakdown of food systems,” severe shortages of drinking and irrigation water and flooding of both coasts and cities are among the most destructive impacts already taking place and projected to increase in the years ahead.
If you read only one article about the IPCC report, make it this Associated Press story by the consistently excellent Seth Borenstein. Completely devoid of jargon yet deeply informed, the piece emphasizes that global warming is already hurting people, especially the poor, today and is bound to get worse in the years ahead. It describes “twenty-first century disasters such as killer heat waves in Europe, wildfires in the United States, droughts in Australia and deadly flooding in Mozambique, Thailand and Pakistan….”
But Borenstein leads his piece with arguably the greatest risk of inaction: the prospect that global warming will continue accelerating to where it cannot be stopped, no matter what steps are ultimately taken. Quoting Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian scientist who serves as chairman of the IPCC, the AP story begins: “If the world doesn’t cut pollution of heat-trapping gases, the already noticeable harms of global warming could spiral ‘out of control.’”
What cuts are needed to prevent this cataclysmic scenario? Last September, in the first installment of the Fifth Assessment Report, the IPCC concluded that roughly two-thirds of the earth’s current reserves of fossil fuels must be left in the ground if humanity is to have a decent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the internationally agreed target. If that is true—and the decidedly non-radical International Energy Agency has reached the same conclusion—then it is scientifically suicidal to continue building infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline or the Cove Point liquid natural gas export facility, say climate activists, much less to explore for more oil and gas, as the Obama administration advocates.
The other groundbreaking aspect of the new IPCC report is its emphasis on what climate scientists call adaptation—preparing our societies to manage the harsher heat waves, deeper droughts, stronger storms and countless other impacts that past emissions have already front-loaded into our climate system. As the author of the first mass market book about the necessity of adapting to climate change (even as we work to limit it), and as the father of an eight-year-old girl who, like her entire generation, is already fated to spend the rest of her life coping with the hottest temperatures our civilization has ever faced, I’m glad to see adaptation finally getting its due. For too long, adaptation has been disparaged as a distraction (or worse) from the undeniably urgent task of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But the fact is, we must do both of these things at once.
Climate policy must embrace a dual imperative, experts say: avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable. That is, reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases enough to avoid an unmanageable amount of climate impacts—for example, by limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees C (itself not a “safe” amount but arguably the best humanity can do at this late date)—while also strengthening sea defenses, improving the efficiency of water use and other measures that will manage the impacts that are “in the pipeline.” As this new IPCC report repeatedly states, those impacts are already hitting hard today, with devastating effect on farmers (the summer of 2012 was the hottest on record in the US, slashing crop yields), coastal zones (remember how Hurricane Sandy punished New York and New Jersey?) and water supplies (California and the Southwest are facing a historic drought). These and other impacts are affecting “natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans,” the report said. There are many forms of adaptation that can be implemented; the report lists dozens of examples, and my book HOT describes many more, both in the US and abroad. The trick is to make sure adaptation is pursued in concert with addressing the underlying need to limit and reverse global warming.
Adaptation is particularly crucial for the poor, who already bear the brunt of climate change and will suffer even worse if steps are not taken to help their communities adapt. Here, the new report brought a fresh case of back-sliding on the part of rich countries that have dragged their feet so often in the past. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, the one bright spot in an otherwise dreary US posture was the announcement by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US would support a fund of $100 billion a year to help poor countries cope with climate change. The rationale was that rich countries had grown rich in large part by burning the coal, oil and gas that was fueling global warming, while poor countries were getting hit first and worst even though their emissions were next to nothing. Now, in the negotiations over the wording of the new report, the US and other rich countries demanded that all references to the $100 billion in funding be dropped, The New York Times reported.
Secretary of State John Kerry greeted the IPCC report by declaring “the costs of inaction are catastrophic.” True enough. But did he mean it?