Elizabeth Kolbert is one of the journalist stalwarts of the environmental movement. In her incisive book, The Sixth Extinction, she shows how human beings have altered life on Earth in ways that no other species has done before. She argues that a massive extinction of higher planetary life forms is likely to be mankind’s legacy. A dozen years ago, in Field Notes from a Catastrophe, she attempted to bring attention to the causes and effects of global climate change. Her account provides little cause for optimism, nor does her 2017 piece in the New Yorker on the intransigence of human judgment in the face of evidence and logical thought. The increasing flow of warning signals from climatologists, oceanographers, and soil scientists, to name just a few of the many scientific disciplines involved, gives us strong reasons to believe that the global climate is changing and that the space we have for responsive action is shrinking. But how substantial is this evidence?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2018. Scientists from all over the world contribute to the work of the IPCC, lending their expertise to the many working groups studying one or another aspect of climate change. Individual groups of scientists also publish the results of their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The result is a staggering amount of information that must be correlated and brought into coherence to form a model as reliable as possible of how the global climate is changing, particularly in response to anthropogenic influences—man-made effects. Many of the findings published by the IPCC, inherently conservative because of the need to accommodate different perspectives, point to a dire future unless steps are taken to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the next couple of decades.
So we have on the one hand a chorus of voices calling for changes in the ways human society lives, in all locations, and at all levels of wealth, to cooperatively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, the developed world is so heavily invested in carbon-based fuels as sources of energy, and the design of the energy economy, that a massive shift into renewable sources seems out of reach. It seems that at best, we can anticipate a gradual increase in the use of renewables, a less than forceful research agenda aimed at new ways to store renewable energy, and weak policies addressing energy efficiency.
If we keep on as we have, nature will eventually have its way. For starters, sea levels will rise to drown most of the Solomon Islands, coastal regions all over the globe will suffer frequent disastrous flooding, hurricanes will be more frequent and nastier than ever, heat waves and drought will become regular summer visitors to formerly more verdant and livable lands. If human society waits to take remedial action when all that has come to pass—well, good luck! The damage will already have been done. Ocean levels will be several feet higher than at present and continuing to rise. High levels of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will persist for many decades—we won’t be able to just suck it all back and bury it underground. I say “we”, but I don’t mean you and me, dear reader. We will have departed and left our progeny with the challenges of coping with a much smaller and poorer world.
Maybe the source of the vexing lack of public interest in global warming, aside from propaganda from the fossil fuel industries, lies in our moral torpor: it’s not going to be our problem, at least not to a great extent. Someone else will have to deal with it. Heck, we don’t even know those great-great grandchildren! They’ll figure something out. But we can do much better than that. In my next blog I want to return to a topic I mentioned earlier and bring us up to date on Project Drawdown; a movement of great promise that we can all get behind.