Last week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth and final report on climate change. The report contained no big surprises, since it essentially summarized the findings of the three reports issued over the past year. But the panel, having reviewed all the data, was now in a position to take a broad view of the issue.
Said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side.”
The panel has been reviewing the issue since 1988. All told, they have reviewed some 30,000 scientific studies, which led to the conclusion that most of the warming that has occurred since 1950 was due to emissions generated by human activity. They reached this conclusion with 95 percent confidence. What they found is that we have set in motion a process that has disrupted the natural balance of our climate. And we have done it with all of the carbon-based fuels that we collectively burn every day. If you want to get a sense of how much carbon that is, you should take a look here.
Despite the fact that the National Climate Assessment showed that climate change is already impacting every American, the American public is lagging far behind the science on this issue. A Pew Research poll taken last year shows that while 69 percent of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, only 40 percent see it as a threat. A similar poll, taken in 39 countries around the world, found that Americans have the lowest level of concern about the issue, despite the fact that we have emitted more cumulative CO2 than any other country in the world.
Why are Americans so blasé about this? Well, first all of all, the world doesn’t seem that much different yet. Yes, there are unusual rainfall patterns, the droughts and floods, the melting ice, the release of methane from Arctic permafrost, the unusually severe storms, the fact that plants are blooming earlier, birds and insects arriving sooner from migration or winter dormancy, the arrival of tropical diseases into temperate zones, and so on. But most people don’t notice these things because most of them are invisible most of the time.
Three or four degrees don’t seem like such a big deal when the temperature changes more than that during the course of a typical day. Also, Americans, despite our prosperity and our widespread use of technology, are not particularly savvy when it comes to science. In fact, in an international comparison of science education, American students ranked 27th out of 35 countries, well below most Asian and European countries. That’s something we need to fix.
Climate science is, in fact, quite complex. It is much more like rocket science than you might think. It involves turbulent flow, heat and mass transfer, and radiation. How many of you have used triple integration to compute the radiative shape factor of an emitting body? (That was the only test I flunked in engineering school, and I was an A student). Most people, even those that love to debate it, aren’t fully qualified to assess, for example, the viability of the computer models. The physics is difficult and complex, and sometimes even the experts get it wrong. There is a learning curve involved.
So, for many, perhaps most, it becomes a matter of faith. Who do we believe? Is it the soft-spoken geeky guy with the lab coat and beard, or the excitable guy on talk radio who sounds more like one of us? Each of us has our own proclivities and leanings (and social circles) that might predetermine our view of the matter, regardless of what the science says.
To be fair, the scientists are not getting enough credit. They are using the sophisticated tools, and instruments, sometimes inventing new ones to detect these rather small changes in sea level, atmospheric carbon concentration and overall global temperature. But those small amounts could be the difference between our survival as a species and the alternative. Think about the early detection of cancer, when there are only a few irregular cells that are just beginning to form a tumor. The chance of successfully treating that cancer will be far better than if it wasn’t discovered until months later when the symptoms became obvious.
If your doctor told you that you had early-stage cancer, even though you felt fine, would you have a hard time believing him? Of course you would. And if a different doctor told you he was wrong, which doctor would you want to believe?
There is a lot at stake here. Fossil fuels are what took us to this dance. There is no question about that. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those hard-working people who, in some cases, risk their lives every day to get that oil out of the ground so we can drive our cars and heat our homes. Yes, they make billions, but only because billions of us can’t live without what they are selling. Big changes are being proposed, and big change always means there will be winners and losers.
Some of today’s winners don’t want to become losers — which is why we have a very active, well-funded and vociferous denial movement that will show up at every opportunity (no doubt they’ll be accumulating at the bottom of this page soon enough) to proclaim with complete confidence that all of this is just a bunch of hokum. The U.S. is, after all, home to a number of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, and, as they have learned from the tobacco companies before them, creating an atmosphere of doubt around an issue like this can forestall meaningful action, which would cost them money if not delayed.
Most oil companies are now publicly acknowledging climate change and taking action to reduce emissions. Some are even distancing themselves publicly from the most flagrant deniers like the Koch brothers and ALEC. Many of these companies are also facing shareholder resolutions that question how they intend to deal with the excess coal and oil that will likely be left underground in a low-carbon future.
Clearly, to those in these long-dominant industries that have been such a force in the development of this country as a super power, these are, as Al Gore said, “inconvenient truths.”
But as the IPCC report clearly shows, here they are.
- Humans truly are responsible for altering the climate.
- It’s already happening.
- It’s going to get far worse.
- Much of the warming, so far, has been in the ocean.
- The ocean is getting more acidic.
- Developing nations will be hit the hardest, but everyone will be affected.
- Plants and animals are more vulnerable than we are.
- We need to switch to renewables by 2050 and eliminate fossil fuels by 2100.
- We already have the technology we need to tackle this.
- Most of the things that “might also happen” will make it worse.
For me, personally, I believe the scientists, which is why I spend almost every day trying to find new ways to explain to people why action is needed urgently on this issue. When all is said and done, if I’m wrong and we took action unnecessarily, that means we end up with a clean energy economy and some people will lose money on their oil stocks.
On the other hand, if the deniers prevail and we do nothing, and they turn out to be wrong, the consequences could be devastating beyond our ability to imagine, which is what the vast majority of scientists are saying.
That might already be the case. But we still have the opportunity to take action to minimize the impact to whatever level we can. As Naomi Klein says, it’s already too late to stop climate change, but it’s not too late to save our civilization. It’s certainly not too late to try.
Image credit: Neil White, CSIRO : Wikimedia
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.
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