An overly sensational title precedes a flawed analysis by Roger Pielke, a University of Colorado professor, just published by Forbes.com of the IPCC‘s (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ) role in stoking today’s near-universal concern over climate change. He ascribes a change in the IPCC’s 5th assessment (2013) from its 4th in 2007 as the spark that lit the bonfire of media’s apocalyptic reporting and the worldwide youth protests over political inaction to ensure their future. He largely ignores the role of real world events and trends in awakening the public to worsening climatic conditions and to the likelihood of even worse effects to come.
A lot has happened since 2007, and even since 2013. The climate has gotten worse. Hurricanes have devastated New Orleans, Houston, and Puerto Rico, among others. Floods have swept through the SouthWest. Rainfall has deluged the MidWest, preventing crops from being planted or harvested. Fires partly attributable to changes in the climate have ravaged California with increasing severity from year to year. Rising sea levels recently inundated Venice worse than ever, put many US military bases at risk, including the Navy’s main base in Norfolk, Virginia, and brought sunny day flooding at new and full moons to towns and cities all along the Atlantic coast. Over the same time period, climate science has advanced in its understanding of the complex interactions among the climate’s many subsystems due to additional field research and the rapid development of computer processing speed and data storage capacity on the cloud. The media, which largely ignored the climate issue as recently as the 2016 presidential election, has belatedly discovered the issue and now gives it occasional coverage. Republican politicians continue to echo President Trump’s denial that the climate is changing at all, much less there’s a climate crisis that requires their attention. Democratic politicians, on the other hand, have embraced the issue almost without exception. Nearly all the many Democratic candidates for President have developed ambitious plans to address climate change; one, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington State, who has since bowed out of the race, made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign. A first-term Democratic representative to Congress, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (AOC) gained much publicity and some notoriety for her proposal of a Green New Deal, which has a climate focus but also ambitious social, economic, and justice planks. That Inslee failed to gain traction while AOC did can’t be taken as an indication of the salience of the climate issue. It clearly has entered the consciousness of the American people. Seven in ten Americans now agree that the climate is changing, and a majority acknowledge that humans are mainly responsible for the changes. They want Washington to address the issue. As usual, their focus is mostly short-term — make things better or at least stop them from getting any worse. Only the young have a longer-term outlook — what will things be like when I’m an adult and having children of my own? Neither the old nor the young care much about the apocalypse. The year 2100 is too far away to contemplate. Even 2050 or 2030 are beyond most people’s comprehension. There’s too much going on, too much uncertainty, to grasp what things will be like if carbon emissions are not drastically curtailed over the next decade or two or three. One can’t blame the people for their shortsightedness — humans aren’t genetically programmed to be more concerned about distant events than close ones. You can’t blame the scientists, who’ve become increasingly more certain that their projections of future climates are accurate, nor can the IPCC be blamed for reporting the best consensus of the state of scientific knowledge at the time each of its reports is prepared. (It bears stating that each draft report is vetted by representatives from all the 195 parties (countries) in the UN Conference.)
To blame are the fossil fuel companies who for decades have known the damage the combustion of its products cause to the climate, the environment, and to humans. Yet they have spent millions to lobby the government to delay or prevent regulations that would threaten their profits. They also mounted multimillion dollar campaigns of misinformation both to convince the public that their products were essential to a happy and successful life (“See the USA in a Chevrolet – a 1949 commercial jingle for Chevrolet) and to undercut belief in science by lavishly paying hired scientists to counter or challenge the findings of legitimate climate scientists. Also to blame are the world’s politicians, who have shown little inclination to upset the vested interests of the fossil fuel companies operating in their countries. These firms may employ thousands of workers and they all pay taxes. They even pay some politicians.
Blame must also be assigned to the Koch brothers, David and Charles, who have distributed millions in support of conservative causes, especially those that obstructed regulation that might impinge on their oil profits. They also donated lavishly to US politicians at both the Federal and State levels who in return impeded any effort to tax or regulate carbon emissions. Finally, much blame must accrue to the investment banks, pension funds, hedge funds, sovereign funds, and the international lending institutions For getting fat for years by lending the fossil fuel industry billions of dollars and holding millions of their shares. Only recently have a few of these financial institutions begun to restrict their loans to the industry and to divest their shares in the companies.
Pielke is correct that the tenor of recent scientific reports has indeed been apocalyptic. And rightly so. While one can quibble about how bad things have to get to qualify as an apocalypse, a consensus exists that if carbon emissions are not curbed in half by 2030 and totally by 2050, life will get harder for most humans and deadly for the poor and challenged living in the tropics.
–Climate refugees will number in the millions: where will they go? who will take them in? what unrest will they cause?
–Coastal cities worldwide will flood, forcing many to become domestic migrants — the same questions apply to them.
–Crops will fail from droughts or floods or too much, too little, or untimely rainfall. Hunger will be common, famines likely.
–Political strife will become even more common as governments fail to provide their increasingly desperate citizens with the means to subsist.
–Extreme weather events will become commonplace: droughts, floods, heatwaves, torrential rains, and monster storms.
–Air pollution, already a public health hazard in traffic-clogged megacities and in countries whose rainforests are being torched to clear land for planting soy for cattle feed or palm trees to produce the palm oil used in half the products of a modern supermarket will cause millions of early deaths.
–Fires will grow in frequency, extent, range, and severity.
–Temperatures will rise, uncomfortably for many, deadly for those who lack air conditioning or have to work outside.
No matter what label one uses to describe these conditions, people should know what to expect if concerted effective action isn’t taken very soon to curtail the emissions that are creating a maleficent climate and a dismal future