Surely the facts are no in dispute.
On Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on the impacts of global warming, for which it says the world is ill prepared. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about a leaked draft of the report in this piece, originally published on November 5, 2013.
Late last week, a Web site that claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming published a leaked draft report on the impacts of global warming. The leak was apparently intended to embarrass the authors of the report, which is the latest installment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, it seems mostly to have had the opposite effect: what the leaked document shows is just how dire the impacts are likely to be. The report was the lead story on the front page of Saturday’s Times, under the two-column headline “Climate Change Seen Posing Risk to Food Supplies.”
“Many of the ills of the modern world—starvation, poverty, flooding, heat waves, droughts, war and disease—are likely to worsen as the world warms from man-made climate change,” the Associated Press observed in its analysis of the report.
Rather embarrassing for vaunted gay Wiz Kid Nate Silver
who despite his alleged smarts has hired a Climate Change Denier for his new independent venture
Technically, what got leaked was a summary of the second part of the I.P.C.C.’s Fifth Assessment Report. (Part one, released in Stockholm in September, focussed on the geophysics of climate change and asserted with virtual certainty that human activity “has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”) The I.P.C.C. doesn’t conduct any research of its own—its conclusions are based entirely on already-published scientific papers—so it could be argued that there was no real news in the latest document. The force of the report comes simply from assembling all the data in one place; the summary reads like a laundry list of the apocalypse—flood, drought, disease, starvation. Climate change, the group noted, will reduce yields of major crops by up to two per cent each decade for the remainder of this century. (One of the reasons for this is that heat waves, which will become more common as the world warms, depress the yields of staple crops like corn.)
Since the global population is projected to grow throughout the century—to eight billion by 2025, nine billion by 2050, and almost eleven billion by 2100—this is obviously rather bad news. At the same time, the incidence of flooding, drought, and general weather-related mayhem will increase, and already-vulnerable populations will be pushed closer to the edge, or, quite possibly, over it. Conflict is bound to ensue. Climate change “will increasingly shape national security policies,” the report warns.
It already has shaped national politics for some time.
Meanwhile, as bad as things look for humans, the prognosis for non-humans is, in many ways, worse. Under all the scenarios that the I.P.C.C. panel considered, including an implausible one in which the world imposes drastic limits on carbon emissions right now, a “large fraction” of terrestrial and freshwater species face elevated extinction risks. Under the most likely scenarios, many species “will not be able to move fast enough during the 21st century to track suitable climates”, and there is a chance that some ecosystems, including the Arctic tundra and the Amazon rainforest, will undergo “abrupt and irreversible change.” Forests are already dying back in some parts of the world because of warming-related stress, and more forests are likely to follow suit as temperatures continue to rise. As Grist put it in a summary of the findings, “Animal Planet will get really boring.”
As it happens, the very same day the I.P.C.C. report was leaked, President Obama issued an executive order titled “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” Among other things, it established a new Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, to be co-chaired by the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and—suggestively enough—the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
All to be ritually attacked by the Republicans of course.
Promoting “preparedness” is doubtless a good idea. As the executive order notes, climate impacts—which include, but are not limited to, heat waves, heavier downpours, and an increase in the number and intensity of wildfires—are “already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health across the Nation.” However, one of the dangers of this enterprise is that it tends to presuppose, in a Boy Scout-ish sort of way, that “preparedness” is possible.
As we merrily roll along, radically altering the planet, we are, as the leaked I.P.C.C. report makes clear, increasingly in danger of committing ourselves to outcomes that will simply overwhelm societies’ ability to adapt. Certainly they will overwhelm the abilities of frogs and trees and birds to adapt. Thus, any genuine “preparedness” strategy must include averting those eventualities for which preparation is impossible. This is not something that the President can do by executive order, but it’s something he ought to be pursuing with every other tool. As Obama himself put it in a speech this past spring, “Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.”
A wonderful old closet queen named Thornton Wilder
dealt with this very issue in my favorite of his plays
What Wilder demonstrates in this Joyce-inspired jape is that disaster is both feared and desire. And never more so than today.