When I first started thinking and writing about anthropogenic climate change in the early nineties, I would have said things not dissimilar from what Tom Fuller said today at Watts’:
The IPCC’s AR4, published in 2007, painted a future with global warming as a serious, multinational problem that we should face together. You may agree or disagree with their findings–I agree with most of it, not all.
But nowhere does the work of thousands of scientists in peer-reviewed literature say that we are doomed, that civilization is at risk, that there is no future for us.
Sea levels are not going to rise by 20 feet. Or 10. Or five. There is not going to be a climatic tipping point that pushes our planet into a spiral of ever-increasing temperatures. Global warming is not going to cause the extinction of half the species on this planet, or even 1%.
And it is long past time that respected members of the scientific community publicly acknowledge those facts and helped bring this debate back within the realm of reality.
I would have thought such a claim was reasonable then. After all, the problems are and were well within our technical capacity to solve, and surely now that the problems were demonstrated, with substantially accurate predictions and few misses, one might presume people would take vigorous action to avoid consequences of the type Fuller describes as “not going to” occur.
But fifteen years later, the matter looks very different. While the runaway greenhouse spiral still doesn’t appear to be in the cards, sea level looks much more delicate than it did. Anthropogenic climate change is certainly already contributing to an extinction crisis. Severe events are increasing the extent of crop failures and human dislocation. How bad this gets depends primarily on whether and when we take the problem seriously. If we fail to take the problem seriously, there is no real ceiling on how bad it will get.
Now, I would have said that 15 years ago as well. Perhaps Fuller doesn’t understand that there is no ceiling, no worst case. I would have thought people would not be as foolish as they have been of late. Maybe in fifteen more years Fuller will come around.
Oddly, in a way I hope he doesn’t. I hope things really are not as bad as they look, but failing that, I hope we get a grip soon enough that the evidence remains, to the less expert, somewhat equivocal.
The best way to prove that a cataclysm is possible is to have one.
I’d rather not risk that sort of vindication.
Of course it’s true that “nowhere does the work of thousands of scientists in peer-reviewed literature say that we are doomed, that civilization is at risk, that there is no future for us” and that nothing like that is explicitly in the IPCC. What journal would publish such a claim?
But when you look at the world with a 5 C different mean surface temperature in the past record, you see changes far more dramatic than those that have brought down civilizations and biomes in the past. Indeed, the shift is far greater than historical humanity has ever seen, except perhaps at a few exceptional isolated locations, which generally did not fare well in the process.
Oh, yeah, and five feet of sea level in this century looks like a not unreasonable bet; twenty feet in 400 years is something I’d give odds on if there were some way to collect. Again, I’d rather lose, though.
In any case, the important thing to understand is this:
We are not predicting what will happen.
We are deciding what will happen.
What is or isn’t in the cards depends on what we decide to do or not to do, and on nothing else. It’s not a scientific question, so IPCC can’t take a position on it. The fact that they don’t doesn’t mean we are off the hook. It’s a decision.
Do you want to risk the entire future rather than taking a small hit on your present comfort?
Apparently most people do. Or else they don’t understand the situation very well.