It has been a bad week for the environment. On Monday, a United Nations conference unanimously approved a report confirming that the threat of global warming is both real and intensifying. It identified human activity as the chief culprit. If we needed more proof that we are poor stewards of the environment, while the conference was studying the study, a freighter ran aground off the coast of Ecuador, leaking oil that threatened the famous Galapagos Islands with irreparable damage. If we need an image to understand the price of our carelessness — if the formulas of the U.N. report are too abstract — the listing, rusting hull of the Jessica serves all too well.
The report approved by the U.N. conference was prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a nonpartisan group of hundreds of scientists and experts. The report, the most comprehensive study ever conducted on global warming, was three years in the making and each line was scrutinized by delegates from 100 governments at the U.N. meeting in Shanghai. While it draws on two previous reports, the conclusions of this study — refined by sophisticated computer analysis — are frightening.
According to the report, the Earth’s average temperature could rise by as much as 5.5 C over the next 100 years — the most rapid change in 10,000 years. Rising temperatures will melt polar ice caps, which would raise sea levels by as much as 85 cm. Islands and low-lying areas would be flooded. Tens of millions of people would have to move as countries like Bangladesh and Egypt were inundated. Weather phenomena like El Nino would become more common. Temperate zones would shift; farmlands would be hit by drought and new fertile areas would be created. But during the intervening period, hunger is likely to increase worldwide. Diseases would spread.
What is especially alarming is the deterioration in the predictions in a few short years. In its first report, in 1995, the IPCC could find only a “discernible human influence” on global warming. The group then predicted a temperature rise of no more than 3 degrees by 2100. The most recent report says that global warming is “undoubtedly real” and appears to have accelerated in recent decades; it now believes that temperatures will increase by almost 6 degrees by the turn of this century.
The IPCC’s conclusions are not uncontested. Some denounce the findings as “a political statement,” and the accuracy of the computer simulations can be questioned. But a growing number of experts accept the validity of the global warming hypothesis, even if exact levels of change are uncertain.
The questions provide a convenient shield for politicians too cautious to move against the threat. Measures to control global warming will not be painless. The proof is plain: Despite the growing volume of scientific evidence, the world has made little or no progress since the Kyoto conference on climate control that was held three years ago. Last year’s attempt to fill in the Kyoto framework at The Hague collapsed. There is little reason to expect success without U.S. leadership — since the United States is the leading producer of greenhouse gases — and that appears increasingly unlikely given the new administration’s leanings. The U.S. has already asked that the next round of climate talks, scheduled for May, be delayed two months.
Inaction is unacceptable. Some scientists will argue over statistical precision, while others will claim that the ecosystem’s adaptive capacity is beyond our comprehension. But on a daily basis we are eliminating whatever margin of error might exist.
The most recent example is the Jessica. About 704,600 liters of fuel have spilled, threatening some of the world’s rarest species. The Galapagos Islands, the site of research conducted by evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin, are home to hundreds of rare species. The impact is potentially catastrophic: Dead fish and other sea creatures have already washed up on the islands’ beaches. The long-term effects of the spill will not be evident for years, after it has worked its way into the food chain.
Of course, the Jessica is “just another accident.” Unfortunately, there is always another accident. In January 1997, it was the Russian tanker Nakhodka, which fouled the Japan Sea coast with 19,000 liters of oil; the effects of that disaster are still being felt. A little over a year ago, the tanker Erika spilled 28,000 tons of oil when it broke up off the coast of France.
Accidents will happen — too often, it seems. That is one thought to remember as another shipment of reprocessed nuclear fuel makes its way from France to Japan. It should also guide our thinking about environmental protection more generally. Our margin of error is slim and shrinking.
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