Reading the latest report of the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) you are unlikely to say “Damn! We are screwed.” That does not mean “Great! We are not screwed.” In so much as it means living in an inherently unstable system that is Earth is forever hazardous, we always face that danger.
Within the parameters of scientific sobriety, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, has been quoted as saying, “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change.” For a panel known to grade every contingent scenario with exciting expressions such as “medium evidence, high confidence” or “robust evidence, high agreement”, however, is pretty clear that damaging climate shifts are no longer some future possibility but very much well and truly upon us. The only question is how seriously we as humanity take it and what we do about it.
More than 300 scientists have spent over three years to look a diversity of climate trends to tell us that what they have found should “jolt us into action” as Dr. Pachauri has said.
I substantially read through the summary to the 2600-page report. Since the report is essentially scientific in nature, one is unlikely to find doomsaying to the ever rising beat of drums but taken together there is enough to make us all think what we need to do to arrest a possible slide into self-destruction. Unfortunately, for us the timelines of these shifts are longer term than what we as individuals can really appreciate. It is true that scientists cannot employ alarmist language just for the sake of it to draw attention to these significant changes but there has to be a way to interpret their findings in a manner that grab attention without undermining the quality of the science behind it.
Take this passage for instance: “In recent decades, changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans. Evidence of climate-change impacts is strongest and
most comprehensive for natural systems. Some impacts on human systems have also been attributed to climate change, with a major or minor contribution of climate change distinguishable from other influences.” Or this: “In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence). Glaciers continue to shrink almost worldwide due to climate change (high confidence), affecting runoff and water resources downstream (medium confidence). Climate change is causing permafrost warming and thawing in high-latitude regions and in high-elevation regions (high confidence).”
Reading those you are unlikely to go into paranoid pirouettes but they have a direct bearing on your individual life that you will feel much to your chagrin in a daily and personal sense. From heat waves in Europe to massive floods in Pakistan and from wildfires in Australia to severe drought in the United States climate is terribly pervasive if deceptively slow. But make no mistakes it will get under your collar in some form.
Perhaps the seemingly long timelines for destruction are nature’s way of lulling us into complacency before swatting us down as a species. So it is just as well that there are those among us, like the IPCC, that make us aware of the impending problems.