The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got second billing to Al Gore when it was announced they would share the Nobel Peace Prize. Now it has issued its most alarming report yet, but is anyone listening?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change got second billing to Al Gore when it was announced they would share the Nobel Peace Prize for several reasons. First, it's easier to use the picture of a single guy everyone knows to illustrate a news story than identify the 2,500 scientists who, along with delegates from 130 countries, were responsible for the IPCC's work.
Besides, Gore won an Oscar, and a lot of people pay more attention to what happens in Hollywood than, say, the retreating glaciers of the Himalayas. And the IPCC isn't potentially running for president. Big-time news honchos are much more interested in the campaign horse-race than the threat of mass species extinctions.
The IPCC announced its most important conclusions last weekend, but it was in Valencia, Spain, not Hollywood, and Gore wasn't there. So the panel's conclusion that humanity has just seven years to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions didn't attract much notice here in the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases.
Gore has served as an invaluable megaphone for the IPCC, bringing the scientists' findings to the public. Some who don't like the message have tried to use the IPCC to foil Gore. One of the most striking moments in Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," is when he speculates that, if the West Antarctic ice shelf breaks apart or Greenland's ice cap slips into the sea, waters could rise as much as 20 feet around the world, submerging huge low-lying regions and swamping major cities.
At that point, the IPCC hadn't signed off on that scenario, and some of Gore's critics used that disagreement to undermine Gore's thesis. But in the IPCC report released last week, the panel visits the issue - and backs up Gore. Polar ice is melting much more quickly than when the IPCC began studying it five years ago, they concluded. Seas will rise by meters, not inches, they now predict, and it will happen over centuries, not millenia.
The IPCC's tones are as scrupulously measured as its data. It talks of probabilities and certainty with great care in the thousands of pages that make up the four reports it has produced in the last five years.
The panel points out that there are some benefits to global warming, especially in the short term, like longer growing seasons in northern climes. Those are offset, especially in the long term, by problems closer to the equator. Without dramatic action, for instance, crop yields in Africa will be reduced by 50 percent. What happens when the world's hungriest continent loses half its food?
Climate change is already happening, the IPCC's charts and graphs demonstrate, and cannot be stopped. Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, warming would continue. Sea levels will rise, if only because warmer water takes up more room.
That means the nations of the world must invest in adapting to the warming that cannot be stopped. And they must start reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately or face mass species extinctions, more extreme weather events, wars over dwindling resources like fresh water and an economic disaster the IPCC's economists estimate at a 5 percent decline in global gross domestic product.
The best-case scenario calls for keeping the warming since 2000 from going higher than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. To do that requires stopping the increase of greenhouse gases by 2015 and reducing the emissions by 50 to 85 percent by 2050. That's a tall order.
"If there's no action by 2012, that's too late," said Rajendra Pachauri, the scientist and economist who chairs the IPCC. "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
So where are our leaders in this defining moment? Mostly, it seems, in denial. Delegates from the U.S., China and Saudi Arabia spent the days before the report's release lobbying to water down its conclusions. In releasing the report, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon chided the U.S. and China, saying the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases had to get a more constructive attitude for the world to have a chance of reaching its goals.
At this "defining moment," a presidential campaign is under way, with climate change nowhere near the political agenda. Should it rise in the public consciousness, we can expect to hear more noise from the status quo crowd about how some scientists doubt the situation is as dire as the IPCC says and question whether human activity really is the cause. This "it's still under dispute" argument and the economic interests behind much of it have paralyzed Washington on climate change for the last 15 years.
People who buy into this are fact-averse. They haven't read the data and the conclusions 2,500 of the world's top climate scientists have written into the IPCC's work.
Think of it this way: If nine out of 10 of your doctors concluded you had a terrible, life-threatening disease, but the tenth thought it might not be as bad as the others think or it might have a different cause, what would you do? Would you wait for the tenth doctor to change his mind, or would you start treating the disease as aggressively as possible?
Well over nine out of 10 scientists now see climate change as an immediate threat, and they have grown stronger in their convictions with each new reading from the front lines of global warming.
On Dec. 10, Gore and the IPCC will be presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Four days later, ministers from 191 countries will begin meeting in Bali to come up with a global strategy on climate change to follow the Kyoto accord, which expires in 2012.
The defining moment is upon us, the world's top scientists are screaming. Is anyone listening, or are we too busy worrying about campaign polls and Oscar nominations?
Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.