For 60 years, the “Doomsday Clock” has measured mankind’s proximity to its own annihilation. The closest it ever came was two minutes to doomsday — registered in 1953 at the beginning of the thermonuclear age. At the end of the Cold War, the timekeepers moved the minute hand back in recognition of the diminished threat as the superpower confrontation ended. Earlier this year, the minute hand was brought forward again by two minutes and we are now just five minutes from midnight.
The change was triggered by two sets of developments. The first was acknowledgment that the world is “at the brink of a second nuclear age.” The North Korean nuclear test, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S. emphasis on the military utility of such weapons, the failure to secure nuclear materials and the continued presence of tens of thousands of weapons “are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.”
The timekeepers highlighted a second set of problems: “The dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons.” That view was hammered home last week with the release of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that human activity was “very likely” the cause of global warning and the trends will continue for centuries. As one scientist explained, “we are creating a different planet.”
It has been fashionable to argue that climate change is mere theory and speculation, and use the uncertainty as an excuse for inaction. No longer. The IPCC was created by the United Nations in 1988. It is made up of hundreds of scientists who have been nominated by governments and scientific organizations to make and review its own earlier assessments. That analysis is conservative. It is based on peer-reviewed science; no crackpot or fringe scientists are involved. A small team of 30 government officials then writes a final report that is based on the research. IPCC assessments are released every five or six years.
As can be imagined, such a cumbersome process yields a very democratic result. Yet even with that extraordinary diversity of views, this year’s report leaves virtually no wiggle room. While previous reports argued that climate change was likely to have been the result of human activity, this year’s analysis concludes with at least 90 percent certainty that human-generated greenhouse gases account for most of the global rise in temperatures over the last 50 years.
The outlook is grim. We should expect “increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level.” That means fewer cold days, hotter nights, heat waves, floods and heavy rains, droughts and stronger storms. And the outlook is only going to get worse. The IPCC predicts temperature rises in a likely range of 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Sea levels will go up 17.78 cm to 58.42 cm over the same time; if polar ice sheets continue to melt — some scientists predict an ice-free Arctic — sea levels will rise another 9.9 to 19.81 cm.
These changes will alter climates worldwide. Temperate zones will become scorchingly hot and low-lying areas will be flooded; some countries are likely to disappear. Colder regions may become milder, but as a result, snow will disappear and glaciers will recede. This means that water supplies and agricultural production will be altered, which will generate secondary effects. Rising carbon dioxide levels will have a dramatic impact on oceans, potentially killing off coral and plankton, and unleashing a chain reaction throughout the ocean food chain.
At this point, there is the danger that politicians and the public will give up, arguing that the damage is done — a very plausible reading of the IPCC. Of course, that interpretation is shameless and hypocritical since many of those same individuals were arguing against taking any action, saying that the science was unreliable. Only slightly more appealing is the argument that the cost of action will be exorbitant and the efficacy of any counter-measures uncertain. But adapting to this changing world will costs billions of dollars as well.
The world devised one solution to climate change when the Kyoto Protocol was passed over a decade ago. That effort has been stymied by political indifference and opportunism. Kyoto is flawed but the best response to those critics is fixing the agreement, not discarding it. As the IPCC makes clear, the costs of inaction are rising and the consequences are spreading. While some countries may have contributed more to global warming, we all feel its impact. Even worse, the real burden will be borne by future generations. As midnight approaches, there is no longer time to delay.
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