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The IPCC Report: The New World War Two

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body on global warming and climate change, released its latest scientific synthesis report over the weekend.  It came as the firmest statement yet that the climate crisis is now upon us and immediate action to dramatically reduce the fossil fuel pollution causing global warming is crucial.

“Warming of the climate system is now unequivocal,” the scientists report.  New heat records continue to be made, sea level rise is accelerating and tropical storms are intensifying.  If humanity does not quickly gain control of its global warming emissions, a quarter of more of the Earth’s species are threatened with extinction.  Our own species is threatened with water stress and accompanying disruptions in food supplies.  This Washington Post article presents a good summary of the findings.

It appears global warming and its effects are accelerating faster than expected, and even the harsh new IPCC report might be too optimistic. This Der Spiegel commentary notes details that did not make it into the synthesis:
• Since 2000 carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have been growing over twice as fast as the average in the 1990s.
• The Arctic ice pack surface reached a record low in 2007, 23 percent below the previous record in 2007.  These images reveals the extent of ice loss.
• While Earth’s oceans and plants have been absorbing half of human CO2 emissions, it appears their capacity to do so is declining. 

The goal now is to hold temperature increases below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, beyond which loss of rainforests and polar ice becomes virtually inevitable.  And when rainforests release their massive carbon stores into the atmosphere, while sunlight-reflecting icecaps turn into solar energy-absorbing blue oceans, climate change begins to feed on itself.  Ultimately, these natural feedbacks could easily dwarf the effects of human global warming emissions, creating an utterly horrifying reality for our children’s generation and those that come after.  

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, addressing the IPCC meeting in Spain where the findings were announced, said,  “These things are as frightening as science-fiction movies. But they are even more terrifying, because they are real.”

It is clear that we humans have already committed our planet to a level of climate damage.  Even if we stay below the 3.6 degree threshold, the Post article notes, “… the seas will continue to swell for centuries from thermal expansion and meltwater from ice caps and glaciers; the oceans will turn more acidic; most coral reefs will become lifeless expanses; floods and storms will increase; and millions of people will be short of the water they need, the report said.”

As a climate activist now going into my tenth year working on this issue, I have often pondered why it is so hard for people to wrap their heads around it.  My conclusion is that it is so large and encompassing it is out of scale with virtually anything else we can comprehend.  Nuclear war or an asteroid strike are comparable, but neither of those are everyday affairs.  Global warming is happening all around us, as a result of the most mundane of our activities – driving a car, turning on the lights, buying stuff made and transported with fossil energy.  It’s hard for us to see what’s happening because we are so enmeshed in it. 

This sets up a great deal of cognitive dissonance. We go about our everyday business, head to work, take care of the kids, do the shopping, while all the time our world plunges towards catastrophe.  In some ways we seem like a global RMS Titanic, where the passengers danced to the band while the captain ordered the boilers stoked with more coal, trying to set a new trans-Atlantic speed record – All the time, headed toward the iceberg. 

Rather than playing out the voyage of those unfortunate souls, let us be inspired by another historic parallel, World War II and the people who won it.  Faced with deadly peril they rose to the challenge with full commitment and dedication.  Individually they planted victory gardens.  Together they built the ships and planes, and fought the fights needed to win.  In just the same way, we now must do all we can personally to reduce our own emissions, while we join together to make fundamental changes in our energy and economic systems. 

Those broader changes will require a combination of private sector innovation and public policy leadership.  Most crucially we need to set firm legal limits on our global warming emissions with targets and timetables to progressively reduce levels. They must achieve or even better exceed the targets laid out by the IPCC scientists. We can no longer treat the atmosphere as a free dumping ground.

The changes required to meet the climate challenge are truly as large as anything we have undertaken since World War II.  The scale can seem overwhelming without taking into account a hugely important and hope-inspiring fact – Since the challenge originates from everywhere, we can take significant actions to address the challenge anywhere.  Today, led by Seattle, U.S. cities representing a quarter of the American population have committed to try to reach Kyoto climate treaty goals.  States representing half the U.S. population are at some stage of setting limits on their own global warming emissions, including economic giants such as California, New York and Illinois. 

Northwest states in the U.S., including Washington and Oregon, are engaged in this process, with some significant gains already booked.  Arguably, Northwest states and cities are several years ahead of the American curve as a result, already beginning to level off global warming pollution. Each state has made moves such as adopting standards for auto tailpipe emissions, appliance and building efficiency, and use of renewable electricity and fuels.   Now the challenge will be to continue leading by enacting legal limits on pollution that push the pollution curve downwards.  A Climate Action bill to advance this process will reach the Washington Legislature in 2008.

The people of our parents’ and grandparents’ “greatest generation” who won World War II, when presented with a clear threat, rose in response with an unprecedented devotion of resources, as well as courage and commitment.  As the climate threat becomes just as clear, it is time for us to rise to our generation’s great challenge, reduce global warming pollution, build clean, prosperous economies, and leave a legacy to our children and theirs of a habitable world in which they too can prosper and thrive.  It’s up to us to lay claim to our own generation’s greatness.  The time is absolutely now. 

Patrick Mazza works at Climate Solutions, and blogs here.

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Bravo! More people need to take your mindset, roll up the sleeves and get working on "our generation's greatest challenge," lest our children's greatest challenge be food, water and shelter.

Posted by: shayn on 20 Nov 07

What would we do if a clever scientist came up with a workable solution for removing (and storing) CO2 directly from the atmosphere?

Would we continue with the low carbon WWII approach or retreat with tails between legs and continue burning oil?

The call for a WWII approach will only gain traction in the wider world if there really is an obvious need to do something *now*.

Posted by: John Kazer on 21 Nov 07

Agree this needs to be an obvious need, and that is the point and the difficulty. This crisis is not so obvious to people because we are enmeshed in it, as I wrote. So this is as much a crisis of vision as anything.

David Keith of U. Calgary worked up a CO2 soaker, but very expensive. Eprida has a pilot system which gasifies biomass down to hydrogen and sequesters the carbon in the soil. Even more potential as a soaker. If these develop and are practical, we should use them. But I suspect the magnitude of the problem will still be so great that reducing fossil fuel emissions will continue to be crucial.

Another potential off-ramp is geoengineering, anything from seeding the oceans with iron so they'll grow more plankton to putting "sunglasses" in space at the lagrange point betweeen Earth and Sun. Things might get bad enough that we will attempt some of this stuff, but the effects could be unpredictable and have uninentended consequences.

Posted by: Patrick Mazza on 21 Nov 07



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